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The Dream and the Rift

Robin Arnott predicts a narrow window of opportunity for avant garde developers in the Oculus Rift.


It seems like a catch-phrase now to say "The Oculus Rift is the future of gaming" - and as skeptical as I am around phrases that get repeated until they lose their meaning, I believe this one to be true. As a developer of a Rift game, there are few people as sunny-eyed as myself, so you'd be right to read this with an eye for bias. But with the experience of putting the Rift build of SoundSelf in front of players at E3, and finally witnessing the VR experiments of other artists, my confidence in this piece of hardware and the company making it is blossoming, and I'll say it myself: 

The Oculus Rift is the future of gaming, but not for the reasons you think.

There's been plenty of discussion elsewhere about what makes the hardware so awesome. And they've done a better job than I could, because what makes it awesome is that it *just works*, which is difficult if not impossible to explain to someone who has not experienced it. Instead I'm going to tell you what I see growing around the hardware.

I've been using this blog to explore what I see as a new genre in videogames that I'm calling the "Videodream." Videodreams are explorative (Tenets of Videodreams, Part I), they forsake goals and story as the prime organizer of player experience (... Part II), and they are musical (...Part III). Proteus may have been the early prototype for the videodream, quietly shattering a barrier of what designers (and some consumers) think games are for.

That this burst of experiential gaming is happening in parallel with an inexpensive evolution in immersive hardware is a marriage that bodes well for the videodream, for virtual reality, and for the future of videogames as an expressive medium altogether. 

Limitations are extremely valuable for thinking creatively, but they become insidious when they're taken for granted and left unquestioned. We have few limitations as pervasive and unquestioned as the screen, and in breaking those shackles as thoroughly as the Rift does, designers are invited to break free from other invisible limitations too. From a simple rocket trip past the moon, toexplorations of abstract imaginary spaces, to a guillotine simulator - we're already seeing a fierce amount of originality in these prototypes. Perhaps I've already defined "videodream" too narrowly?

These unusual VR poems may be a spasm of exploration, laying a path for traditional gaming to grow into as it slowly embraces VR. But they could just as well be the first strides of an outward rush to discover new possibilities for virtual reality and gaming as a whole!

Don't get me wrong, VR dramatically raises the bar for goal-oriented experiences too. EVR and If A Tree Screams in the Forest are two excellent examples that not only use the Rift's mind-enveloping 3D to sink the player into the game's fiction, but do so by integrating head tracking technology into the core mechanics. The results are extraordinary. In EVR, just being able to look around makes the massive 3D battlefield comprehensible without using an awkward map. Does that change gaming forever? Probably not... but it's frickin' awesome!

However, since videodreams are organized around the sensory experience (as opposed to goals and the intellectual path towards achieving them), they don't just perform better in an immersive environment, they require it. Playing Proteus without David Kanaga's magical score, or while tending to a mental list of chores, is not playing Proteus at all. And while the island's beauty guides the player into a quiet mental space, like any other form of hypnosis it only works if the participant is willing.

There's a double-challenge here for videodreams. Like any immersive game, we have to isolate the player. The Rift checks that box beautifully. More difficult though, we must guide the player to let go of their search for extrinsic goals and rewards. That one's not so easy because our industry has trained players to look for goals as the scaffolding from which to build their gaming experience. We essentially have to re-frame the player's whole relationship with the game, ideally with more elegance than telling them directly. And here's where the videodream finds its own extrinsic reward in the Rift…

Gamers love innovation. I've seen mainstream AAA gamers get just as excited about SoundSelf as weirdo indies and hippies do... once they've suspended their expectations for a moment. The Rift is a gateway into the weird, but it's one that fits neatly into the narrative of gamers' dreams since the 80s! This is the day gamers have been waiting for, and they're eager to see what new experiences are waiting for them on the other side of the door. They want to be surprised, they want to try something new, they're asking louder than ever "what's next?"

All avant garde developers have to do now is amaze them.


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