2016 has been the kind of year that’s probably best spent with your head in a bucket. Luckily for me, that bucket had two little screens wired into it and all sorts of motion-sensing gadgetry stuck on top. I have no idea how VR works – and from a business sense, I gather that it doesn’t really work all that well at the moment. Yet, despite the fact that I couldn’t afford the hardware myself, and despite the fact that VR games aren’t going to be troubling the charts any time soon, VR’s provided me with my favourite gaming moments of this year – and probably my favourite gaming moments of the last few years.
Novelty? Sure. But novelty is actually a bit of a novelty by itself these days. People are pretty good at making games in 2016. I would argue, if I had a better grip on art history, that we’re into the classical stage. Everything’s anatomically correct and very beautifully rendered. Even the duds are generally pretty capable. But what I’ve longed for is a bit of baroque – the madness of grappling with new forms, new ideas. In games that often means new tech. (I feel like I have probably made this point before, so apologies.)
Take Chronos, the first VR game I properly played this year. Chronos is terribly straightforward if you get down to it. Video game maths suggests it’s a bit of Dark Souls added to a bit of, um, Darksiders? Nice enough puzzling and combat in a fantasy setting, with some elegant moments of spectacle that often hinge on drastic changes in perspective. With VR, though, this all felt wonderfully new. The third-person camera that gave me a view of this world was actually me. I was unarguably part of the game, framing the action as I moved my little sword-and-shield guy from one moment to the next and tracked his progress with a tilt of the head. Levels, which would have been artfully handled even if the game was a traditional affair, suddenly became proper dioramas, grottoes and caves I was sat inside. I have never looked at the rumpled edges of a rug so intently in a game as I did here. I had forgotten that feeling – I first got it when I had eye tests at primary school and would look into a little viewer to see an out-of-focus hot air balloon – of being firmly drawn into a private cinema, a world of expectant darkness in which the game itself was suddenly thrillingly bright and up-close.