By Neil Merrett
Rick and Morty Simulator: Virtual Rick-ality – released on HTC Vive in 2017, developed by Owlchemy Labs
If it was in anyway possible to exist solely on console gaming and home computing for the last two decades, thereby utterly avoiding the outside world and the broader ongoing struggle of humanity, it would still be legitimate to say that an unthinkable number of things have happened in the last 20 years.
That a gamer could in their very own living room react with a cartoon misanthrope for two hours in a simulation balancing the importance of quality, diligently sourced detergent, while supping digital alcohol and experimenting with the genetic manipulation of toilet plungers, shows how far we have come. It might also show how far we still have to go in terms of species-wide existential development.
From their earliest iterations, videogames have sought to capture broad concepts and sensations associated with the human experience. At their most successful and ambitious, games have in some ways been successful at capturing a sense of being somewhere or someone else.
Whether through a rudimentary tennis experience such as Pong, recreating the perils of menial labour and suburban retribution in Paperboy, or focusing on the rigours of makeshift parenting and helping a young girl survive in a terrifying post apocalyptic landscape in The Last of Us, games simulate a broad number of experiences.
With each new leap in technology, the capability of computers to support more realistic, grandiose or chaotic environments increases significantly.
Great games allow us to buy into the narrative of having a world to explore, manipulate and master, whether as hero, villain or a pill eating circular creature. The antagonist either fails or succeeds based on the player’s own choices.
For many, the experience can be a welcome distraction from life, to others a guilty pleasure to waste time that could be spent doing much needed self improvement or life admin. Sometimes it can be both simultaneously.
The emergence of a whole new range of virtual reality technologies – whether they achieve mainstream market acceptance, or serve as a niche novelty for immersive, hair ruining entertainment – is set to open a fresh world of potential and problems.
Notable immediate challenges seem to include re-adjustment to actual, real world light and the mechanisms of going to toilet after two hours immersed playing out the lead role in a VR cartoon world dealing with nihilism, and the wonders of combining wine and dark matter at molecular level into a drinkable cocktail.
Like with the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, when gaming consoles had been written off as a dated irrelevance that would soon fade from public consciousness, the new era of virtual reality solutions for the homes hints at the potential for an accessible new approach to interaction.
This time, for bad or good, a player is part of the game. Whether this feels satisfying or immersive is down to the work of developers. VR is fascinating, partly because it remains so full of contradictions.
While relatively inexpensive to earlier virtual reality technologies from the 1990’s, the cost of the HTC Vive VR, Oculus Rift and and Playstation VR will still sat a gamer back the best part of £1,000 and require substantial hardware to support it.
The availability of the technology mixed with higher-end modern consoles and computing hardware allows companies to build detailed, graphically intensive 3D worlds to engage in, yet the potential for an involving and nuanced VR football game or fighting sim feels generations away. Interaction still has it limits, even when we plug ourselves directly into games.
What current VR can give us, at least on a convincingly visual level, is a sense of being dropped into a environment, a place that is alien, fantastical, terrifying, surburban, confining, terrifying or even rather dull.
Considering the HTC Vive technology lets an individual map out a play area to fit within the confines of their living room and paste a new visual world around it, VR at its most grandiose is seeking to change our very perception of reality on a fundamental level.
At its worst, the same technology leaves you standing alone in the universe waving around a piece of plastic in your hands, while unconvincingly pretending to be a Jedi Knight from the Star Wars universe in a manner children have been doing happily within their own imaginations for decades. This can therefore be done without the need to spend several months worth of rent moeny for the privilege.
It is surprising then, or perhaps frustrating, that the ability in VR to grab to beer or wine from a fridge to sup down in frustration, then picking up soiled underpants to dump in an intergalactic top loading washing machine are perhaps the most engaging and immersive experiences this fledgling technology has yet provided.
Much like the show it is based on, the Rick and Morty VR game, Virtual Rick-ality, considers the need for comforts in a vast, infinite and uncaring universe – whether through videogames, alcohol, narcotics, pets or a functioning toilet.
There are minor spoilers warnings ahead for the game.
Ostensibly, the game is described as a simulation of Rick and Morty’s lives, with the player taking the role of a blank, disposable clone of the latter character in the story. It is simply about the lengths humanity goes to for clean, soft clothes.
After all, if existence is meaningless save for whatever comforts, happiness and emotions we can ring out from it on any given day, who is to argue that laundry is not the most sacred of all humanity’s rituals?
While VR is still trying to play around and develop engaging worlds, despite its current technological and psychological limitations, Rick and Morty feels like a surprisingly perfect property to push and pull at these boundaries.
The show’s growing mythology, built around multiple worlds, the fleeting, seemingly purposeless nature of existence, the fluid nature of morality and the value of an afternoon gaming or eating ice-cream with family washed down with fourth wall breaking humour is a perfect launchpad for an uncertain technology. Take for example another ground breaking, beloved and cult animated comedy such as the Simpsons.
Verging on being 30 year’s old. America’s subversive first television family have had an ongoing, somewhat torturous history of videogame adaptations.
The technical limitations of gaming systems of the past has meant that the complex, well written adventures of Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge and Maggie were confined to rigid videogame genres, whether platformer, an arcade-based family friendly street brawler, a Grand Theft Auto Clone or a handheld parody of the American Gladiators TV show.
The spin off games often had little link to The Simpsons beyond the theme tune and vaguely similar pixelated characters. For many years, this was accepted as the reality of almost all popular culture figures and properties ported to video games, be they the Australian soap opera Neighbours, the Death of Superman comic or Wayne’s World.
The Simpsons, in more recent years, has brought it own trademark self referential humour and celebrity cameos to gaming thanks to advances in modern consoles. However, the show’s idiosyncratic nature is still channeled into a game that seeks to ape and mimic successful gaming formulas to create a multi-level in-joke that benefits from actual animated cut scenes voiced by the cast.
Yet Virtual Rickality, in playing around with mortality, moral ambiguity, the answer to why Morty elects to become a vegetarian in the yet to be written fourth season, and intergalactic poaching, all without technically leaving a garage, feels like a natural extension of the show.
Well written, visually interesting and with vast numbers of collectibles like mix tapes, cameos and an in-game virtual reality simulation, it is a unique hybrid of episode and first person interaction.
Virtual reality in its current form, feels like one possible future of where gaming will go, rather than the culture’s manifest destiny – at least for a few more generations of technology.
But in stepping into the minds of popular characters, VR may have a unique purpose for game development and interactive story telling. If nothing else, you also get to toss dirty underpants at annoying people like a rage frisby.