We're a bunch of keen gamers here at Giz UK. When we're not tapping keys, tickling touchscreens or taming techno babble, you'll probably find us nose-to-the-screen, stuck into a video game. In this first in a new series we're calling Fireside Chat, our Editor Matt and News Editor Gerald dig into what's been keeping their thumbs twiddling recently.
Matt: So what have you been playing, then? I finished The Order, I’ve started Olli Olli 2 and Hotline Miami 2. I’m still playing Sunless Sea on and off.
Gerald: You finished The Order? That take you all of ten minutes then?
M: Wahey! #bantz Actually, because I’m a bit rubbish, it didn’t really. I reckon it took me 10 hours over the course of four sittings. It’s more like an interactive drama anyway, so it felt more like taking in a box set. It’s more Downton Abbey than League of Extraordinary Gentleman, you admire the sets, marvel at the production budget and chuckle at the accents, rather than get lost in its systems, mechanics or ideas. I did enjoy it more than I thought I would, though – I just think the premise is a really strong one, and I’d like to see them have more fun with the fiction. The whole ‘game’ side of it appears a bit of an afterthought, so it’s never better than functional. It can feel like a game that was made 10 years ago at some points – a movie tie-in probably. Walk to here, shoot gun for a minute, have conversation, watch cut scene, walk to here, push thing against wall, climb on thing, watch cut scene.
G: See, even if it is short, that’s not a problem for me anymore. The best recent experience I’ve had was a single-sitting playthrough of Gone Home, the one about a girl going...home. First person, starts off creepy, unfolds into a really lovely narrative on friendship, identity, love. All the smushy stuff. The best bit? Over in four hours. Now compare that to Dragon Age: Inquisition, my current gaming albatross...
M: “The one about a girl going…home”. I see you’ve really grasped its inner narrative. But seriously, short is not bad. I really don’t get that attitude – Dragon Age is a great example. For me, Mr Casual McCasual, I couldn’t even contemplate starting something that huge. I hear the hours you’ve racked up on it and it terrifies me. When I was at uni I could dedicate myself to studies of such length, I got lost in a Championship Manager 2 hole that I barely got out of, but now, the light at the end of the tunnel being visible from the beginning is reassuring. I tried to do Far Cry 4, I loved the start, was really beginning to enjoy the world even though it is Far Cry 3 in new trousers, but then I saw someone post on Facebook that they’d finished it in 50 hours with less than 50% completion. I literally turned it off instantly. The rambling point being, we have such a breadth of gaming options now and that’s great, ha ha. I don’t want insanely long games. However, I will choose to spend insane amounts of time on games that don’t demand it. I shudder to think how many hours I’ve spent playing Hearthstone or Woah Dave, and both of those you play in bitesized portions. It’s all perspective.
G: The percentage thing you mention is an interesting one. For me, I’ve always been into RPGs and story-led games, more so than, say, puzzlers or strategy titles. I love storytelling in all forms, movies, book, comics, whatever; that interactive element makes game stories so appealing. But when you apply a completion percentage to a story-led gaming world, it drives me crazy! I have to hit 100 per cent then -- otherwise it’s like reading a book with pages ripped out. What if the best sub-plot only comes after I find X obscure achievement? I think that’s why I’m increasingly leaning away from games like Dragon Age, however much I’m enjoying it. Something like Sunless Sea, a rogue-like that can be taken in shorter bursts and longer runs, or Skyrim which (though very story driven) allows you as much opportunity to carve out your own story, rather than follow a prescribed one. I’m giving my nefarious plans away, but Matt, sorry, I’m totally pulling a sickie when Fallout 4 comes out.
M: I think we need to make our own robot butler for Fallout 4 release week as Giz UK could be a very quiet place otherwise. I love Fallout, I’m always more interested in “realistic” future settings, that kind of grittiness. I’ve never really been down with medieval/fantasy stuff, which is bizarre considering I grew up a fully signed-up Fighting Fantasy fan, but there was a point when I switched. I really liked cyberpunk, so Blade Runner probably. It’s why Skyrim eludes me, too. So, yeah, Fallout 4… I’m not sure how realistic Super Mutants are, but in my mind, they are.
You mentioned Sunless Sea, which I’ve been absolutely lost in. As with most games, I’m terrible at it, but I don’t find this punishing in the way some can be – you really do play it at your own pace. Again, like The Order strangely, it’s more of an interactive drama, in this case a choose your own adventure book (Fighting Fantasy again). You dip in and out like you would with a swashbuckling page-turner. It’s why the simplistic graphics are a pro not a con, they’re simple visualisations of the actual adventure, which is given so much depth by the fantastic story, the writing is really strong throughout, and you imagine the rest. It leaves a lot of room for you filling in the gaps. You hear people talked about, but they’re only represented by simplistic avatars, a lot of the gravity and drama you add yourself. In my head, those sea crabs are the size of skyscrapers.
G: You want to get yourself one of them whatchamacallit virtual reality things. I hear they’re all the rage for massive-monster-things-in-your-head.
M: Oooh topical. Look at you with your news agenda. Yes, well obviously the funniest moment in the office this week was Jack Tomlin’s first taste of VR, using that Immerse plastic Cardboard-a-like that Firebox sent over.
G: I’ve got the Vine to prove it!
M: Is this the point you insert it into this post? Please say it is.
G: I think it’s on my other phone *dusts off certified tech journalist lapels* I’ll go plug it in and upload it.
M: Oh yes, you’re testing something new and now have lost everything you ever held dear for a week. The wonders of cross-platform tech reviewing.
I think the bit on the video is Jack trying the Tuscany demo on an iPhone 6, though Sharks VR was also fun. I sometimes don’t realise how used to VR I’ve become as I’ve pretty much been running round the world grabbing headsets out of people’s hands in a wild other-world addiction for the past couple of years, but it’s still amazing seeing people’s first times. It’s really transformative.
I thought John Carmack’s talk at GDC was interesting, too, and that Oculus consider the next Gear VR to be their first true consumer headset. The barriers of entry to the Rift are still too high in terms of hardware and horsepower, so it’s a really clever partnership, with Samsung’s marketing spend in the mix, too. I was more impressed by the Gear VR demos at the Oculus stand than the Crescent Bay ones.
The focus, at least publicly, for Oculus right now is much more on the cinematic, on scale, on showing how VR can be more than games, which was kind of funny at a games conference. Sony were at pains to say they were focusing on the games for that very reason – I asked the head VR guys Shuhei Yoshida and Richard Marks about their wider plans, from trying out hotels before you stay there to educational projects we know they’re working on, but while they admitted that they were talking to a lot of brands about customised experiences, they just wanted to focus on games. Meanwhile, Gear VR launched its game store, and there’s some great stuff in there. Mobile VR really does a much better job than I think some people realise.
G: Yeah, when I met with Dolby and VR-movie makers Jaunt at MWC they said pretty much the same thing. Don’t underestimate the potential of Gear VR and mobile VR seems to be the line most of them are leading with.
So, to round things up then and take in all that we’ve spoke about today -- what would be your ideal, single-sitting length VR game experience? Can be from an existing series, or a brand new concept. Choice is yours.
M: Is that it? We done? But I haven’t mentioned how great Olli Olli 2 is! It is great. Roll 7 won a gaming BAFTA last night for the first one, and the second one builds on it nicely. I’m playing it on PS4 as I did the last one on Vita, see the differences. It handles just as well, I thought it wouldn’t be as tactile. And that soundtrack… I want the soundtrack. I may have to rip it. Someone probably already has. It’s so chilled.
M: Why I oughta… Right, what was the question again? Single-sitting length VR experience? I’d love to have an official BioShock Rapture VR world. That’s really dull isn’t it? Someone’s already modded it on PC, of course. There are loads of game worlds I’d like to explore at my own pace, but not just games, real places. I think as the tech improves, and is more widely adopted, the idea of virtual tourism is really very exciting indeed. Other Places is just the best YouTube channel for that reason – it really makes you look at game worlds differently because it’s not rushing through it. I like the idea of that approach to real places. Some of the mobile experiences just on a mobile now, VRSE for example with its Vice political demos and Syrian documentaries, really hint at what that could be like. Seeing how people live, experiencing it, first-hand, it’s powerful, almost overwhelming.
So, yeah, Rapture VR please.
G: Ah, VRSE. Am I the only person who reads that as “ARSE” every time?
M: Maybe the fifth instalment in the ARSE series of films? Like, Tak3n, or Fur7ous, or Se7en. No, that still doesn’t work.