Set in a future where humans work for artificial intelligence as artisans, the new VR game from Tender Claws is both a love letter and a parody of contemporary virtual reality culture.
A virtual reality game about virtual reality is the meta-premise of Virtual Virtual Reality, a new project by Tender Claws—artists Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman. The two-hour game is set in 2025, in a world where jobs are automated. You play a worker at fictitious firm Activitude, a Virtual Labor System where all the clients are A.I. In the game, you escape your daily drudge by donning various virtual VR headsets to take flight and "get lost down the rabbit hole of different VR worlds."
The game is a response to the current hype and and hope surrounding VR, and is described by the pair as a "comedy satire about VR in VR that addresses AI and other assorted sci-fi fever dreams of the future." Gorman herself worked in a VR lab for eight years from 2002 to 2010, so has seen the various cycles and iterations the medium has gone through to arrive at where it's at now. Although it's been eagerly adopted by artists, filmmakers, game designers, and gamers, the general public hasn't quite gotten on board yet. Hardware is still fairly expensive, while cheaper, smartphone-based alternatives haven't yet gone fully mainstream either, and most of the content clouds itself with excitement around the medium.
"The culture moment of VR and its contemporary enthusiasm is an interesting place for an artist with that type of history to work and inject commentary," explains the pair to Creators. "There were lots of opportunities to play with the utopian desires around VR. The promise of VR in pop culture mythos has always been that it'll become so real that you [will] forget real reality. Matrix, Existenz, Inception are some examples. This and the hyperbolic language around the presence made it a space that we were both invested in, but one that we wanted to take a more thoughtful approach toward."
The game itself, although a commentary on VR, was picked up, developed, and recently released by Daydream, a VR platform and headset from Google developed for Android. Although Google is one of the major players in VR, the renewed interest in it, especially from the media, could be traced back to Facebook's $2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift.
The second half of Virtual Virtual Reality sees the player traveling through various OTT parodies of VR startups. These go on to form the conglomerate company that you start the game working for. "The medium of VR itself seemed like a great canvas for commentary on VR," say the artists. "There were plenty of opportunities to riff off the mechanics for immersion. We do this with how we've designed some of the spaces and one of the central mechanics of the game is taking off and putting on VR headsets in VR to jump between the nested realities of the company the player is working for."
The game is also influenced by games like Portal and The Stanley Parable, sci-fi novels Accelerando by Charles Stross and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and movies Being John Malkovich and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Themes other than satirizing VR, including the future of labor, the gig economy, and how VR might mean no more commuting because you can travel to the office virtually, all get their moments in the game, alongside questions of how our relationships with our pets might evolve and, of course, AI.
In the game, humans work for AI. and the machines value human-made products the way we now value artisanal food and drink. "We envisioned a future in which the only utility left for humans was emotional labor/entertainment for AI: fetishized artisanal human labor," explains Gorman. "Maybe some AIs would value human made objects in the way that we value craft breweries. We are their history. We are the relicts and beloved well-kept pets that they must seek to enrich."
So where do the pair think VR might go now, onwards from 2017? The current enthusiasm for it may die down they believe, but that lull may give way to more insight and another shift.
"I think the pattern of VR development is more of a stairway. This model might pertain to other iterations of 'immersive' media. There are spikes of intense interest followed by plateaus where much of the quieter advances are made (often by hobbyists and academic researchers). Then an advancement made during this quieter time, if timing is right in culture, sets off another spike of interest. I think VR, like many technologies will continue to develop this way until it is absorbed. I don't think there will be one big 'aha' moment of VR. I think it will eventually come to us like many technologies in America (like the internet and mobile phone): injected rapidly and absorbed almost so naturally into a wider cultural use and imagination that it will become taken for granted and cease to be remarked on. Also, independent of VR's wider adoption into mainstream culture, we believe it's a really interesting space to design and prototype effective ways of interfacing with the digital. You can create the AR interfaces of tomorrow right now in VR."