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Behind a thick rope barrier were a series of machines and cracked leather chairs. The lighting was that mix of sexy and sickly cobalt blue left over from the salad days of Lan Centre gaming. The four machines were familiar to me. The peripheries connected to each were not.
The barrier was unclipped and my Italian guide lead me in. ‘Now, we have three games for you to try,’ he tells me before apologising for his English. A curious habit that every good English-as-a-second-language speaker has picked up. ‘The first is a rollercoaster. Then we have one where you fly a dragon and drop off these items. The third is a haunted mansion.’ I’ve been playing games most of my life. My earliest memory is of the long white board with bone white chunky keys, which had to be hammered down. The signature crackle of game data being loaded from a tape and onto my Commodore 64. I think my copy of Ghostbusters is still loading to this day. So I know what I’m doing. I’m full of confidence. I’m an experienced gamer. Nothing can faze me. So I hold up three fingers. I’m an experienced gamer and an idiot.
My guide picks up an Oculus Rift headset and asks me to sit down. This is all happening at Vigamus, Rome’s Videogame Museum. A bastion of gaming history where for a small fee you can observe things you owned as a child sitting beside date cards. It’s both a fantastic and deeply depressing experience. One cabinet had so much stuff I once owned in it I actually asked the staff where they sourced it. It is also offering a chance at an Oculus Rift experience as part of your admission fee. Sitting in a cabinet nearby is another ill-fated attempt at a Virtual Reality headset; Nintendo’s Virtual Boy. Its nausea-inducing environments were the privileged experience of very few. The system sold awfully. They’ve tried VR before. It didn’t work. I wondered if there was a space for Oculus Rift right next to it.
My first surprise is the headset. It’s light. Very light. And actually, with some tiny adjustments, very comfortable. Although already I spot a problem. A headache is starting deep behind my eye. A pair of screens, the desktop, appears as a terrible double vision. Oh no, I think, this is how it’s going to be is it? A pair of headphones is placed over the headset and I wait. The screen goes black. I hear ambient horror music. It’s the same as all ambient horror music. My guide asks me to look left. I falter. I don’t have a controller. Then remember I have to swing my head. Low and to the left are a series of locations. I stare at the mansion and it highlights. Then he asks me to turn right. I turn again and a lever shaped like a T pulls slowly down. I hear the crunch of rusty metal gears and now there’s an elevator in front of me. My character steps in. Then I feel a controller thrust into my hands. Now I am on safe ground. My guide tells me this is how to walk around and to enjoy. The safety of a controller. But I noticed something unusual. Something is beating in my chest. And the controller’s wet. It takes me a second to realise how much I’m sweating.
When the elevator opens I know this place so well already. It’s definitely a haunted mansion. I’ve traipsed through many already so I just kick into gear and walk right out. For the first few metres I forget to look around. Old habit. Then I look to my left. The corridor wall. Then right to the selection of strange clowns and children in paintings and photographs. Then up to the peeled surface of the ceiling. Finally down at the floor. It looks good so far. But I know what I’ll do. I’ll break their little machine by looking right behind me where I’ll see an error message or, even better, a blue screen. I turn in my whole body where I sit and look behind me. It’s the long hallway I came from. It’s definitely where I came from. I swallow and realise I am trapped in a haunted mansion.
I fumble from room to room. Hesitantly. And even more so when I hear the giggle of the little bitch-tormentor that lives here. All the lights go out and I’m left with the thin shaft of light from my flashlight. I would be more comfortable with an acid-spitting beastie than a small nursery rhyme repeating little girl. It’s formulaic because the formula works. And she is coming for me. My guide comments on how much time I spend admiring the artwork. I don’t tell him it’s so I don’t have to move on.
By the time I come across a static television I’ve taken to periodically looking over my shoulder. I physically do it. So many noises are coming form right behind my head. I wonder what I look like to the outside world before a creaking door reveals her. All white and small with black eye sockets and standing only a few metres away. It’s giggling and whispering in my ear and suddenly I miss the safety of a screen. Before I reach her, the door slams in front of my face and my last man point goes with it. I shriek and jump in the cracked leather chair. I hear a laugh. It’s not the little girls. It’s my guides. I grip the controller and hope no one else is watching.
Traversing the halls may have taken fifteen minutes or only a couple. I could never tell. I was too absorbed. The controller in my hand and the reliance on it to move was the only lifeline to normality I had. Relying on it dragged me out of the experience, which might seem like a pity, but I was bloody glad of it. It kept me from convincing myself I was really in that mansion.
I regain my composure. I’ve faced my tormentor and lived and now I get it. I understand how this game works. I’ve nothing to fear so I keep moving until I hit a pair of double doors. They swing open and warm, friendly yellow light banishes the darkness. A banquet hall is arranged and a giant chandelier is hanging overhead. I look up and try to establish how far the ceiling is away from where I am standing. But I am not really standing there. I am still in my sweaty leather seat and my neck hurts from looking up. I keep watching until the furniture floats past my vision and start this terrifying dance. Moving around and underneath them I actually duck my head out of fear of a table leg nailing me between the eyes. It’s more fascinating than scary. And remains that way until the lights go out and the furniture slams and clatters to the ground. I jump again but the real horror comes when a nearby door opens and a ghostly light beckons me inside.
It’s another hallway like the rest. This one is longer though. Standing metres away is the source of the light. My bitch-tormentor. I turn my head looking for an exit. If there is one it’s through her. I hear her giggle and my guides laugh as I say, out loud, ‘I don’t want to do this’, but I am already walking towards her. With ten metres to go I’m suddenly confronted with the screaming face of a ghost child. Dark eye sockets above a black hole of a lipless mouth. I jumped back but she’s still right there. I want to run but she’s still there. I want to close my eyes but I forget to. Or I can’t. And suddenly it’s all over. The screen goes to black and my headset is removed. I’m back in the real world and I’m laughing at my pounding heart. My guide laughs too and asks that we give the place a good review. I tell him after that I’ll have to think about it.
This was my experience of Oculus Rift. Rather than talk about its strange development cycle, or it’s many financial suitors I think it’s important to focus on the experience. I’ve no love for technology that’s developed for ‘just because’ reasons. However something about Oculus Rift spoke to the core of my love of gaming. I know because for the first time in a long time I felt excited. Not the excitement generated by the masters of hype that run the gaming industry. Pushing weak products with strong advertising campaigns. This came from why I keep gaming. In search of singular experiences. It connected with something deep in my roots. I remember being completely lost in worlds. As games expanded their immersive experience something was lost. Somehow the search for realism made everything less real. Until now.
As I chatted with my partner. My voice was a little higher. My pace a little quicker. And as I tried to explain what I’d been through she listened but mostly out of politeness. I was talking for the sake of talking. I was trying to explain why it was so important to me. I explained that as a teenager to get me through games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill I repeated a famous mantra to keep me going. And until now it had been a long time since I had to repeat to myself; Remember, it’s just a game…