Here be monsters … Farpoint. / Photograph: Sony Computer Entertainment
When the GunCon, a plastic replica pistol for the PlayStation console, first launched in December 1995, it came in just one colour: jet black. Viewed from any distance, the only giveaway that this was a video game controller, rather than an authentic firearm, was the claret-coloured start button on the side of a barrel. Pull a GunCon from a rucksack on a crowded subway and you’d almost certainly cause a terror stampede.
There’s no risk of any potentially deadly confusion when it comes the PlayStation Aim Controller, which launches this week alongside Farpoint, a futuristic shooting game built for virtual reality. It’s an impressionistic sketch of a firearm, built from the kind of white tubing you might find under a kitchen sink, with a glowing ping-pong ball fixed to the end of the barrel. If the purpose of peripherals like this aim to narrow the gulf of abstraction that separates activity in a video game from its real-world counterpart (the plastic driving wheel that makes it feel more like you’re driving a Ferrari in Forza, for example, or the wooden gear lever that approximates the Shinkansen’s dashboard in Densha de Go) then this effort seems laughably off-target.
The PlayStation Aim Controller … Fisher Price tubing or gleaming rifle? / Photograph: Sony
Inside the VR headset, however, the Fisher Price tubing is transformed into a gleaming rifle. Turn the controller in your hands and you can inspect its newfound grip, barrel and slide stop with gynaecological propinquity. Squeeze the trigger and the motors hidden inside the thing cause it to rattle violently in your hands. Game designers’ disproportionate reliance on guns as the primary mode of interaction in virtual worlds is a problem yet to be solved, and one that no doubt continues to hold the medium back from a cultural acceptance. None of that matters when you touchdown on Farpoint’s dusty planet and fire your first ecstatic clip into the sand.
The first time you meet one of the planet’s incumbent monsters, a clicking, spidery, face-hugger, that rattles over the brow of a hill before lunging at you, Farpoint gives you a pretty accurate sense of, as Kanye West once put it, what the end of Scarface should feel like. In the grip of terror you shoot, not to kill, but to obliterate. Once dead, the monster disappears after a few seconds, presumably to stop you from continuing to blast round after round into its twitching corpse. Designers already understand the need to adhere to strict guidelines when it comes to sending horrors our way in virtual reality, where our brains are fooled into believing the action is authentic, rather than simulated, and our fight/ flight response is triggered. Even with smaller creatures encountered in Farpoint’s opening hour, the game treads a fine line between the thrill of a rollercoaster, where you know the peril is inauthentic, and the frontline, where it is not.
Farpoint has been bigged up by Sony, but in truth it is a scrappy game. / Photograph: Sony Computer Entertainment
The effect does not last. While Farpoint has been bigged up by Sony as a major new title for its VR technology, in truth this is a rather scrappy game from a nascent developer still cutting its teeth. Some of the problems are a continuation of the VR medium’s specific limitations. To help reduce nausea, you are by default disallowed from turning left and right. You move your character, a space scientist marooned on an unknown planet, separated from his colleagues and shelter, using a tiny control stick mounted on the gun controller. It only allows you to sidestep left and right, meaning that the game is essentially one vast long corridor through which you can only move forward (this can be tweaked in the game’s settings, but there is no need for exploration or backtracking, there’s little point).
In time your armoury expands (new guns are pleasingly selected by raising the gun, as if pulling a new one from a quiver on your back), but other than shooting the local megafauna, you are only able to scan scenes using a light mounted on the gun’s barrel to occasionally trigger a holographic flashback. With limited enemies (which, in order to get around your handicap of not being able to change direction, will clumsily leap back in front of you seconds after they charge past), a restricted number of weapons, and the rather bland environs, Farpoint would be ridiculed as a relic were it not for the virtual reality component.
While movement is limited, it’s possible to physically duck behind cover using your body (the game tracks your position using a camera, which tracks the lights on the VR headset). Likewise, the controller elevates the project, not least because its held in two hands and, in this way, greatly reduces the abstraction gap, thereby providing new support to your suspension of disbelief.
Nevertheless, when set against the non-VR first-person shooters, a genre in which only those games that have benefitted persistent, focused iteration and a king’s ransom of investment can now compete, Farpoint seems embryonic and amateurish. Its thrills are short-lived, but the lessons that can be drawn from its struggles in trying to transpose the genre into VR will surely echo for a long time to come.