2020 Redux

2020 Redux
Filling the Immersion Gap

Tim Stevens | 11 Jul 2006 12:00
2020 Redux - RSS 2.0

If you had asked me in 1992 to guess what videogames would be like in 2006, I'd have chewed your ear for hours about all sorts of cool new stuff that was just over the horizon. Back then, I was a chubby 14-year-old kid who'd immigrated from the back woods of Vermont to the big city of Albany, NY. (It looked pretty big back then, anyway.) My eyes had been opened to the endless possibility of "modern" technology; it seemed anything was possible. Sadly, what we have today is far less impressive than what I'd expected.

If you don't remember 1992, it was the golden age of Virtual Reality. The Lawnmower Man was in theaters, and everybody who saw it wanted to have cybersex with a polygonal babe (or dude). Sega had just announced their Sega VR headset, which not only looked totally badass but seemed poised to bring affordable VR to the masses. That, combined with their amazing line of Virtua games, had me convinced the future of wholly immersive gaming was right around the corner.

I can't imagine how disappointed I would have been if I could have looked into the future and glimpsed
today's slate of pretty but predictable sequels.

Back then, Super Mario Kart was hugely popular, CD-ROM games were all the rage, Dune II defined the RTS-genre and Joseph Lieberman was getting uppity about Mortal Kombat. Today, Mario Kart is more popular than ever, most PC games still ship on CD-ROM, RTS titles look and play just like Dune II did, and Lieberman's still trying to convince parents that games are corrupting the minds of their children, even though many of those parents today were avid gamers back in 1992.

Sure, today's graphics look pretty hot, and our videogame systems do some impressive stuff, but we're still playing the same games in the same detached way. It's rare that a game genuinely sucks you in or makes you genuinely immersed. This is where the games of 2020 will make today's offerings seem primitive by comparison.

I wish I were talking about VR headsets and force-feedback body suits and teledildonics. Sadly, it seems those devices are destined to remain just as obscure tomorrow as they are today. I'm instead referring

to an entirely different sense of immersion: putting yourself in the game by creating a persistent in-game version of you that exists across titles, providing a seamless transition from Guild Wars to Dungeons & Dragons Online, or, more interestingly, from World of Warcraft to Warcraft III.

Even now, before you pop any disc into your Xbox 360, you can set some default options that apply to any game you play. You can always be rocking out to Sonic Youth whether you're being fragged in Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter or lapped in Project Gotham Racing 3, and the game will always know whether to invert your Y-axis or disable controller vibration. This is far from groundbreaking, but think about where things might go in 14 years. When we can jump from one game to the next and have our control-scheme and soundtrack move with us, just how far are we from having our hair styles and eye colors carry over, too?

Right now, the only way to recognize your friends in games is by reading the names floating over their heads. That's like wearing a name tag to your soccer league every Tuesday night.

When you play a community-based game in 2020, your friends will recognize you because of the Pac-Man tattoo on your digital cheek whether you're casting a fishing reel or gripping a plasma rifle. This avatar will be someone they will identify as "you," and you, of course, will recognize them in the same way.

Modern RPGs and sports titles have endless character creations, enabling you to spend hours tweaking this and that to create the perfect representation of your ideal virtual self. After all that, it's rare that you create a character you actually feel attached to, because when you move on to the next game, your character stays behind. Even if you spend hours re-sculpting your earlier creation, it will never be the same.

In order to really feel immersed in a game, you have to care about the characters within it, and the best way to do that is to make them familiar to you.

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