After plenty of pomp and much circumstance, virtual reality finally became a thing last year -- at least, for the first time since the last time it became a thing, or the time before that. But, hoopla aside, the new, breakout generation of VR headsets don't seem to be breaking out as dynamically as some had predicted they might.
There's no shortage of hot takes from both skeptics and believers about what VR needs to do to really connect with the mainstream and take off as a category. And while things like improved screen resolution, better movement tracking and hardware that's wireless and less expensive are all important, I think the answer is actually much simpler.
I think we just need a really good VR game. In fact, I've even got a specific game in mind.
1994: a simpler time. | Photo by Gamespot
It's time for a Tie Fighter remake
If you aren't familiar, Star Wars: Tie Fighter is a 1994 PC classic that has you preserving peace and order (and shooting down plenty of Rebel scum) as a starfleet pilot for the Galactic Empire (yep, you get to be a bad guy). The game does a commendable job presenting that sort of alternate point of view into the Star Wars universe, with a relatively rich story that unfolds mission by mission shortly after the events of "The Empire Strikes Back."
As for the gameplay itself, each mission has you behind the controls of an Imperial space craft -- usually some variation of Tie Fighter. You'll fly into battle in first person, sometimes defending other craft from an incursion of X-Wing attackers, other times scanning cargo ships for contraband, always fearful of failing the Emperor and incurring Darth Vader's wrath.
Tie Fighter was a critical success when it first came out because it built upon the X-Wing-themed game that came before it and showcased what PC gaming could be. I still remember my father splurging on the game (and a joystick), learning how to play, and then teaching my siblings and I how to steer a fighter through the training courses. We studied like good little Padawan apprentices, awestruck by the fact that the clunky computer in Dad's office could take us inside the Star Wars universe we loved. Immersive gaming was a powerful thing even 20-some years ago.
Now, I think it's time for Tie Fighter to reprise that role -- this time, as a showcase for the immersive potential of VR.
Star Wars and VR: like peanut butter and jelly.
Photo by LucasArts/YouTube/LLPhoenix
Why VR is a perfect fit
It's no secret that Star Wars and VR make for a pretty appealing combination, and if you've tried out the excellent virtual reality X-Wing mission in last year's Star Wars: Battlefront, the similarly space-centric Eve: Valkyrie, or even the bird-simulator Eagle Flight, then you know that this kind of first-person flight sim is a natural fit for VR, too.
But it's not just the genre. In 1994, Tie Fighter cleverly exploited the fact that its action takes place in the void of space. Without the need for mission-specific maps or background art, the game's creators at LucasArts had more room to squeeze in additional content. As a result, the game shipped with an impressive 36 missions, along with cut-scenes, training exercises and a practice mode.
The same strategy could pay off today, too. With a heavy emphasis on visuals, VR games eat up a lot of space, which often means they're a lot shorter than you'd like. Without as much need for visual assets, a VR Tie Fighter could give gamers more of an actual game.
Also working in its favor: the level of immersion you get from that well-thought-out story, and from the replayability of the game's dozens of missions, many of which keep you on your toes with optional hidden objectives and clever twists and turns I won't spoil here. It's precisely the kind of much-needed depth that most VR games have completely lacked up to this point. I mean, sure, it was fun to goof off in Job Simulator or toss a couple of Batarangs around in Batman: Arkham VR, but how replayable are "experiences" like those, really? They make a terrific first impression, but they also leave you wanting more as soon as you're finished with them. Tie Fighter wouldn't have that problem.
Simple in-mission visuals made room for more overall content, including cutscenes.
Photo by LucasArts
But why not a brand-new game?
I hear you. I know I'm sick of how many sequels, spinoffs and reboots get thrown at us each year. But at more than 20 years old, and with a timeless story from a universe that's still completely relevant to modern tastes, Tie Fighter is ripe for reintroduction to a new generation. Plus, its canonical storyline is already geek-approved. It's a safe bet.
The path forward is clearer than you might expect.
What's more, the path forward is clearer than you might expect. Other LucasArts games from the '90s have already been remastered for modern systems and consoles -- most recently, Day of the Tentacle, another childhood favorite of mine. And, though Disney Interactive now owns the rights to Tie Fighter, it already collaborated with GOG.com back in 2014 to release a $10 port of the game made to run on today's computers. A fully remastered VR edition is a logical next step.
Make it happen, developers
I see no reason why a relaunched Tie Fighter wouldn't be a smash hit success with the existing VR fanbase. And, with its near-universal appeal, there's a chance it could even pull in new players, too. Now, all we need is for some intrepid game developers to secure the rights and make the damn thing.
But if not a Tie Fighter remake, then let's at least look back and learn from the game's original success. In 1994, PC gaming was still a nascent, fast-developing niche -- similar to where VR is at today. Tie Fighter succeeded by taking advantage of what the modern hardware of the time was capable of to truly take us to a galaxy far, far away. In doing so, it made countless kids like me fall in love with computers.
That's what we need from VR gaming right now: magical, showcase experiences rich with story that show us just what this fancy new hardware is truly capable of. I think a VR Tie Fighter would get the job done, but if nothing else, here's hoping that the next crop of VR games has similarly lofty aspirations.