May 29, 2013

The Catcher in the Rift

The Oculus Rift, the name of which sounds like a place where wizards do battle, is actually a piece of hardware, but potentially as exciting. Oculus Rift is the name of a virtual reality headset, designed principally for use with 3D video games, which is currently in development by a small company called Oculus VR in Irvine, California. The device is the brainchild of Palmer Luckey, who is 20, and owns, apparently, the world’s largest collection of virtual reality headsets. Yes, that Palmer Luckey.

The Oculus is not yet available for consumers, but for $300 one can purchase a development kit. The development kit is for those who want to explore the technology, implement Oculus functionality in their own games, or scare small children with the frightful Rift mask itself. I understand that in the Oculus’ final form, the device will sport a sleeker, friendlier design: something worthy of a must-have consumer gadget. The prototype version of the Oculus Rift now shipping with development kits, however, is a void-black death mask, a flat, opaque rectangle of plastic obsidian that envelops the eyes and most of the face. Lenses housed within project a virtual, 3D world around the wearer. The wearer cannot see through the mask, so knowing that, it’s an unsettling thing to have an Oculus wearer slowly turn their head and find you in the room – as if, through their unreadable, 2001 monolith of a face, they have sensed an intruder.

The most important thing to say about the Oculus Rift, from a consumer perspective, is that yes, it works. Basically, it does just what you’d expect a VR headset to do. That doesn’t read like superlative praise, but that ‘what’ is something pretty special. ‘What’, in this case, is achieving the promise of virtual reality. For as long as the concept of virtual reality has been around, VR has been a thing we’ve always wanted, if never actually needed, and which has forever, more or less, remained beyond our grasp. Well, this is it.

I first tried the Oculus Rift with “Tuscany”, one of the official tech demos packaged with the development kit. “Tuscany”, an appropriately simple bit of software, presents a 3D representation of a small, terracotta house in the Tuscan countryside for players to explore. When I put on the Rift mask, I exclaimed immediately, with no trace of irony, “whoa.” The Oculus is cynicism-defeating in that way. It is not the detail of the image that convinces (the detail is variable) but its totality. Your entire sphere of vision is fully replaced with a virtual Tuscany, surrounding you from all angles and all directions. To move your head left, right, up, down, to scramble around on the couch and look behind you: all of this maps to the virtual world and feels correct. One of my first thoughts in the Oculus Rift was, literally: what if I get trapped in here.

The Oculus Rift confounds instinct. Try to look down at your hands or legs in “Tuscany”, and you won’t see them. When I marvelled at some virtual books and moved to touch them, I pawed at my flatmate’s neck. It’s the kind of thing that you logically understand, going in – the technology, which tracks only head movement, doesn’t work that way – but it’s alarming for the illusion to be shattered by something as dramatic as not being able to find your limbs. Standard keyboard and mouse controls – which obviously you can’t actually see – move your avatar around in the VR space. The result is a feeling something like having your head inside of a game with the rest of your body outside it. Also, with the dual control scheme in play, a fun thing you can do is physically walk backwards while propelling your vision forward with the keyboard. Don’t do this.

“Spacewalk”, another Oculus demo, puts players in the first person viewpoint of an astronaut outside the International Space Station. This one was not originally designed for the Oculus. It was built by a University of Southern California student for an assignment and fitted for Oculus support after the fact. It’s not quite the immediate showcase for the Oculus that “Tuscany” is: being in space, and locked inside a rendered spacesuit, the visual environment is less detailed and movement is restricted. Your avatar’s hands are modelled here, too, and it’s disconcerting not to control them with your real hands. Your “hands” are housed in huge grey gloves, and you can bring them before your eyes with a keystroke, which looks like giant Hulk hands are arising unbidden from the depths of space to choke your astronaut.

In “Spacewalk”, despite the title, you don’t walk in space so much as gently roll yourself around by controlling the thrust and power of your suit rockets. Nonetheless, once you maneuverer beyond the station’s cobwebs of girders and panels, Earth enters full view – the sun highlighting its circumference – and the experience is suitably majestic.

We’re at a point now, technologically speaking, where the basic act of looking around in a virtual world is – and read this in the strictest, literal sense – awesome. What doesn’t work about Oculus Rift doesn’t matter, because the fact, and the miracle, is that it works at all.

I said that the Oculus Rift was cynicism-defeating, which isn’t entirely true. What the Oculus is capable of right now feels like something truly new, and like all new things, will inevitably be taken for granted. The way things go, we’ll find, and probably not too long from now, something like “Tuscany” to be limited, even crude: the virtual reality equivalent of the train hurtling toward the cinema screen, or Mystery House. Hold on to this point in time, is all I’m saying, because this point in time is the one where virtual reality is still like looking at the planets.

Really, the virtual reality that the Oculus Rift takes one to isn’t Tuscany or space or wherever, but the reality of a child: exploring the world without guile, in a state of constant wonder and learning, playing for the sake of play. The whole concept of virtual reality, as it has endured for so long in the popular imagination, has an innocence, even naiveté, to it. Modern society, for decades, has portrayed VR as a symbol of the future – a certain kind of future in which virtual reality is an everyday consumer good, like hovercars, robot helpers and moon colonies, that we assume the future will provide us. The fact that VR’s been unachievable for so long – at least for the general consumption – has only enhanced its status as a wishful thinking, science fiction thing. Virtual reality is a signifier of a utopian future made perfect and peaceful by technology: a world in which everything is okay.


When I was eight, I wrote a letter to my future self. I put it away in a desk drawer, with the idea that I would forget its contents and not read the letter until I turned, I think, 25. I lost the letter within days of writing it, but have always remembered what it said, which made my experiment a failure on every possible level. In the letter, all my eight-year-old self wanted to know was whether I now had the following things:

  1. A virtual reality headset.
  2. A girlfriend.

In its original design, “Spacewalk” was a multiplayer game, wherein it was possible to encounter fellow player-astronauts walking the exteriors of the ISS. There’s not much one can do with these players other than have your avatar gesture at them vaguely, but nonetheless, the functionality’s there, and carried over to the Oculus Rift version.

I was alone, at first, when I went to space, but soon spotted another astronaut hanging back closely at the boundaries of the station, near where I had entered the game. As the astronaut hung suspended, the sun reflected off the crest of his or her helmet: a light that blinked on and off like a transmission. I had found another Oculus Rift wearer somewhere in the world, and the real world distance between us, however far, had been erased by these strange black boxes strapped to our faces.

Let’s get him,” I shouted into my living room. “Let’s catch him.”

The limited capacity of the simulation makes communication between players impossible, so I bore down on the astronaut while attempting to signal him by raising and lowering my avatar’s arms in tandem and as rapidly as gravity would allow; looking like a space-suited Donkey Kong. I’d planned my trajectory badly, though – eventually, I overshot him and rolled under his feet. I reached out my hands – my real hands – to catch him.

Later, my flatmate explained to me who this second astronaut was. Normally, when you start a game of “Spacewalk”, it creates a new server to put your avatar inside. But this time, the game had accidentally created both a new server and a second client to join that server, spawning two astronauts into space. Both were projections of myself, but as only one could be controlled by me, the second astronaut was dropped into space a stillborn, where it was to forever float lifelessly, frozen in time. And I had chased after a dead projection of my own past self, which escaped my reach.

May 21, 2013

You're a Good Man, Charlie Fyfe

Nobody ever heard of my great-grandfather. This is why.

Charles Fyfe was born in 1881, the twelfth child of Scottish immigrants, somewhere in New Zealand. New Zealand, at that time, was recently colonised and represented for many Europeans a kind of idealised ‘new world’ and opportunity for a new life.

Charles – or “Charlie”, as he was called in the title of this blog post – became a student of chemistry. Once he graduated, he opened his own pharmacy. As a pharmacist, he had easy access to opium, his drug of choice, to which he soon found himself addicted. This detail, I think, is nicely evocative of the period. Opium having become obsolete in the course of the 20th century, the drug evokes in the modern imagination clichéd, Jazz Age vogue – opium as a dark companion to the Charleston – before it does serious substance abuse.

Charles, we can infer, wasn’t discreet about his vice. He was arrested multiple times on drug charges and occasionally imprisoned. But what Charles lacked in discretion, he made up for in jailbreaking: being, God knows how, able to escape from prison repeatedly.

In the few free moments afforded Charles by his preoccupying interests in opium and being jailed, he entertained the company of several young women. One of those women, Alice Montgomery, bore him a son: my grandfather. Upon the birth of his child, Charles decided he wasn’t really feeling it. He fled the country, quickly, and moved to Australia, leaving his girlfriends and son behind.

In Australia, Charles didn’t do much. He continued his opium use, of course, in his new capacity as a full-time vagrant. On one occasion, the police found Charles comatose against the wall of a barn, and released him out of sympathy when he claimed to be a veteran of the First World War whose mind had been addled by the horrors of trench warfare. Charles, naturally, never fought in World War I – the “Great War”, as it would have been called then, or, as Charles referred to it, “that war I definitely fought in.” A free man, Charles drifted around for several more years in this fashion until he was hit by a car and died.

My branch of the Fyfe family is not large, and so Charles has a comfortable hold on the title of Worst Fyfe. Until recently, though, when my aunt took an active interest in researching our genealogy, I didn’t know a thing about him. In my family, he is never discussed and deliberately forgotten. When he abandoned his family, his family abandoned him. His descendants, not particularly interested in claiming him, have been content to record his position on the family tree as just a person-shaped ‘citation needed’. Understandably so: you’d prefer to say your ancestor was a guy who built bridges, or even the person who hit Charles Fyfe with his car.

My younger brother is a medical student. He’ll be the first Fyfe since Charles to go into medicine. He prefers not to draw the comparison. The knowledge that Charles Fyfe existed, and was kind of a dick, has always lurked on the periphery of our family history, but nobody has ever wanted to do anything with that information. Until me, that is. I have been more than willing to take ownership of Charles’ troubled biography and assume responsibility for his legacy. I do this for exactly one reason: I’m the first Fyfe since Charles to be a writer, and in the typically eternal and unforgiving words of Joan Didion, writers are always selling somebody out.

Because of the way Charles lived and the way he died, he never received anything like a proper memorial. I don’t know where he’s buried, or if he even is. These words are the first to be written on Charles Fyfe in nearly a century, and the closest thing he’s ever had to an obituary. And can you imagine this being your obituary? Jeepers creepers. For how would Charles Fyfe have felt knowing that one day his story would be told to strangers around the world, but only in order to establish him as a bad person? That isn’t due to any selective editing on my part, I’ll point out. Charles’ story, as I’ve told it above, is literally all anyone knows about him.

As a brief aside, I know even less about Alice Montgomery, my great-grandmother. With Alice, there’s exactly one thing worth noting: in my aunt’s garage, there are many, many cassette tapes of Alice, as a much older woman, holding a séance to channel the ghosts of her dead relatives. What was going on with these people?

Charles, who appears now never to have done anything of value but father a son, died in 1945. He passed on under the tyres of car and passed into the next life – the next life, in which he ceases to be a human being, cedes control of his legacy and takes on relevance for the living as precisely one thing: subject matter.

Charles Fyfe is not a person, now, but material – material that, in the telling, serves the author as much as the subject, material that I’ve decided belongs to me. Charles Fyfe belongs to me. And so that is how Charles Fyfe’s story ends. Sold out by his great-grandson. Introduced to the world as a bad guy. What’s worse is that he had to wait until now for anybody to say anything about him. He had to wait that long before anybody cared about him enough to do so.

In Charles Fyfe’s wildest dreams, in the numbest of his reveries or as he bled out on the road, I wonder, very selfishly, what he would have thought about all this. I’m not really proud to think like that, nor to conclude this essay on my great-grandfather without mention of forgiveness or compassion or redemption, any of which would be conventionally appropriate at this juncture. Yet here we are. Here we are, Charles: I’m not that selfless either. Which makes sense, I suppose: after all, we are family.

Look what you did. You were born into the new world. And look what happened.

May 12, 2013

Mystery House Always Wins

It is getting dark.

I am standing in the foyer of a large Victorian house. This is the Mystery House. Having let myself in through the front door I am now faced with seven people all standing in a row, neither moving nor talking, and each one looking at me with the same unblinking, lifeless eyes. And it is getting dark.

I try to leave through a nearby doorway. I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU MEAN, protests the Mystery House, then adds, IT IS GETTING DARK. I clarify: type the words 'go door'. I look around in the next room. THERE IS NOTHING SPECIAL. IT IS GETTING DARK. I continue to explore the house in this fashion. The seven people have now vanished. IT IS GETTING DARK. In the kitchen, I find a book of matches. IT IS GETTING DARK. I leave the kitchen. I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU MEAN. I go door. IT IS GETTING DARK. Upstairs, I enter a nursery and find one of the seven, on the floor, dead. IT IS GETTING DARK. IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE. I light a match, and look at the body. I DON'T KNOW HOW TO LOOK. I leave. THE MATCH WENT OUT. I light another match and keep looking around. THE MATCH WENT OUT. IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE. I light another match. I explore the west hallway. I CAN'T GO IN THAT DIRECTION. THE MATCH WENT OUT. IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE. I light another match. I head downstairs. I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU MEAN. I go stairs. THE MATCH WENT OUT. IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE. I light another match. I head to the back yard, where I stumble upon a second body. THE MATCH WENT OUT. IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE. I light another match and attempt to examine the victim. I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU MEAN. THE MATCH WENT OUT. IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE. I light another match and walk to another door into the house. THIS DOOR IS CLOSED. I open the door and go door. THE MATCH WENT OUT. IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE. I light another match. In this dining room there is a candle on the table. THE MATCH WENT OUT. IT IS DARK, YOU CAN'T SEE. I light another match and move to light the candle. YOU DON'T HAVE IT. I take the candle, then, and light it. OK. Breathing a little easier, I head back out into the yard. YOU TRIP OVER RUG AND FALL. OH, OH, YOU STARTED A FIRE WITH YOUR CANDLE! I look at the fire. THE FIRE IS OUT OF CONTROL. YOU ARE DEAD. WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY AGAIN

Nobody likes Mystery House.

The common knock on this (very) early adventure game from Sierra On-Line's Ken and Roberta Williams is that while it has a deserved place in video game history, it's plainly not a very enjoyable video game. It certainly was an innovation, though, being the first adventure to feature full, albeit primitive, computer graphics in addition to the usual text. And this is why Mystery House is remembered: for its historical significance, kind of like Birth of a Nation, or polio.

Mystery House is ostensibly a mystery story, one told through crude line art, constrained prose and a barely functional text parser. The premise is that of these seven - guests? residents? - one is killing off the others, and possibly the player too, in an effort to claim some 'jewels' rumoured to be hidden in the house.

This mystery is not, as Poirot would say, "all that." The killer dumps all of the bodies out in the open, for the player to not so much 'discover' as inevitably happen upon in the general course of being alive. And as to which of the seven is the culprit - a creative choice that is basically arbitrary - the murderer kills the other suspects within minutes of the game commencing, which takes a lot of the guesswork out of this case. The puzzles in this game, such as they are, have nothing to do with solving murders. The player is just present in the house while murders occur as a matter of routine.

So if this is a mystery game, it sounds pretty easy, right? Like Poirot would say, "as if!" Mystery House is unintuitive, frustrating and near impossible to complete unassisted - but not because of the mystery. This is a game about a house. The player's time is occupied not by the solving of murders but discovering secret passages and tunnels within the house or wrangling the text parser to do things like turn on the faucet in a kitchen sink ("WATER ON").

Navigation should be as simple as typing either "NORTH", "SOUTH", "EAST" or "WEST" where appropriate, but any doors, gates, stairways or holes all require unique commands that you must figure out as you go along, like constantly relearning how to walk or "GO HOLE". It isn't this easy, either. Often these compass points don't even correspond correctly to what's on the screen. Exiting a room through the west door may take you outside, into a forest, where you might think typing "EAST" would bring you back inside, but actually the right command would be "UP". Go east and you delve further into the forest, which appears to be infinite in all directions and every screen of it literally identical.

The game is remarkably unhelpful about all of this, actually. If you're on a stairway and want to go UP STAIRS, Mystery House responds, I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU MEAN. Then adds, as though you are confused: YOU ARE ON A STAIRWAY.

The true challenge of Mystery House arises from handicapping the player's ability to function within a world. The art is often incomprehensible: you don't know what you're meant to be looking at. The text parser dismisses direct requests out of hand as clearly nonsensical. The rules change on a whim: from one screen to another, up literally becomes down. Interaction is necessary but often punished: lighting a stove, for instance, will cause it to immediately explode and kill the player. Ultimately, through technical and design ineptitude, the basic act of survival is made a constant struggle.

And in that way, Mystery House is something more than the first graphic adventure: it's the first survival horror game.

Read literally, Mystery House is not a mystery story but a recurring nightmare, unbound from real world logic. You appear on the doorstep of an unfamiliar house with no idea why you should be there. The world is rendered in unclear black, green and purple murk. Seven strange people, all alike, stand motionless in the foyer, staring at you, but you cannot touch them or speak to them. Then they vanish, and you find them dead. There is no way to leave the house. Once you enter the front door, it locks behind you. You walk through a door in the kitchen and into an endless forest. Dying doesn't end the dream: it only sets you back outside that front door, to look at those creepy people again, to find that book of matches again, and light them and lose them one by one, staving off the darkness in interminable style. You cannot talk. It is difficult to move. This is the nightmare where you are in danger and cannot make your legs walk.

In this nightmare, all you can do is run through this empty chamber of a house forever, because you don't know how to leave it and perhaps cannot, fumbling around in the dark while you are told, repeatedly, that you are bad at things like moving.

Catharsis comes in Mystery House not when the mystery is solved but when you start attacking the house itself. Later in the game, you must pull furniture and masonry apart, let fires burn holes in the floor and smash down walls with a sledgehammer. You are not exploring the house at this point: you are violating it. And after all it's put you through, seeing this house destroyed is a welcome brutality.

When the end arrives, the killer is dead and you've found both the jewels and the key to the front door: the exit, at last, to this house. You open the door, you go door, and are informed via simple text that you've won the game. Then, it asks, would you like to play again?

I type "no", and press enter.

And then, no kidding, the game cuts to this:

You will never leave this house.

Nobody likes Mystery House. But this house always wins.