The Waking Titan – Gaming's Impending Renaissance

Lost in Oculus Rift at GDC 2014 (photo via GDV, CC BY 2.0)
Lost in Oculus Rift at GDC 2014 (photo: GDV, CC BY 2.0)

It’s always an awkward question — someone, who lives a totally normal life, finds out I write about games. This is 2014, and they understand this is a real thing.

“Cool!” They say. “What are like, the games everyone’s talking about right now?”

“Well,” I’ll say, getting excited. “There’s Titanfall! It’s…uh…a shooter! With…robots.”

They nod politely.

“But the robots are, you know, fast! Like, faster than other robots! And the guys can jump real high and one of the guns is curvy!”

“Oh wow,” they’ll say. “That does sound exciting.”

We inside of the gaming world might understand, in various ways, why Titanfall was hailed as the next big thing and a major leap forward for the FPS genre, but the outsider problem is not a small one. Why is it that arguably the largest part of the global entertainment industry just always sounds so, you know, lame?

We ask questions like this, and many others, at the Game Developer’s Conference every year, the Thursday morning seminar counterpart to the blackout drunk frat party of E3. This year, however, things felt a little different. I don’t know if people were jazzed about new consoles and hardware or just building momentum after a long break, but there was a certain kind of feeling about. I was struck by one thing said by a developer from “Everquest Next: Landmark,” an entry in a classic series that also happens to be totally bizarre, risky and beguiling. He said that he remembered running an arcade back in the 80s where every game was nothing like the one next to it. He said he was starting to feel that way again. He said that he thought the video game industry was waking up.

Virtual Reality, the biggest and most-talked about tech of the week whether from the now-Facebook-subsidiary Oculus Rift or Sony, passes the outsider test in spades. It’s a technology that has been in the public — not the gaming public but the actual public — consciousness for decades. It’s here, it works, and it’s cool as hell. The ability to drop down in a virtual shark tank is exciting for gamers and normies alike. Not only that, but VR is one area where the games industry is truly leading the global tech world — these goggles will be used in any number of non-gaming uses, but Oculus and Sony appear to be the ones that are going to bring it market first. Perhaps most importantly, it’s weird. Nobody knows quite what to do with it, but they’re eager to try. We have an entire industry putting muscle behind essentially unproven tech, and that’s terrifyingly fun.

Facebook’s full-throated support of the Oculus Rift is a feather in the video game world’s cap at large, even if some of its earliest supporters are foaming at the mouth over the idea of selling out to a shiny social media titan. Gamers, always the adventurous sort, now sit at the bleeding edge of tech, testing out the strange and unconventional for no other reason than it’s exciting. Who else would suffer through the motion-sickness of early Oculus prototypes just for the sake of trying something new.

I also talked to John Hanke at Niantic Labs, a games “startup” within the Googleverse that’s using the idea of game behavior to think about how their devices can change the way people interact with reality. It’s not hard to imagine that the vision of a Google Glass-enabled future will have a lot to do with the games we end up wanting to play on it.

I saw other things, too — an indie showcase from Microsoft, a demo for a tripped-out motion controlled Fantasia that will capture the imaginations of six-year olds and stoned college students alike. There was a guy with some VR stuck on ski-goggle elastic hanging around the press room that briefly convinced me his was the next big thing. I played a not-yet Kickstarted card-game called “hackronyms” and more fun than I’ve had in months.  Epic opened the source code of the Unreal Engine — formerly the territory of AAA behemoths — to anyone willing to pay $19.99 a month. These are seeds that we’ve seen at GDC for years, but they appear to be germinating in soil fertilized by the Xbox One and the PS4. These things aren’t a hipster sideshow anymore.

The old videogame industry is still here — I saw a man shouting his head off in a hotel conference room out of a genuine love for Batman, various things being shot in spaceships, the requisite “dancer in motion-capture suit” booth, Titanfall. These games will continue to exist, they will continue to get better and be fun, and everyone should feel great about that.

When one of the most talked about sessions is Bioware’s Manveer Heir making an impassioned plea about the desperate need for diversity in the games industry, it’s hard not to feel that something is afoot. It does not mean that we have diversity in the games industry, or that any of other the questions posed at GDC have much in the way of answers. But it does mean that there is a notion of a future out there, and that’s worth it.

I lied, a little bit, earlier. I will tell people about Titanfall, or inFAMOUS: Second Son, or whatever AAA cinematic showpiece is heading to consoles in a few weeks. But I’ve got plenty of other things to talk about. I usually tell them about Octodad, my favorite videogame cum Kafkaesque masterpiece, or the first time I tried Oculus Rift. That sort of thing perks ears. Video games are cool, and video games are exciting — people both inside and outside the industry are starting to recognize that. The Waking Titan – Gaming's Impending Renaissance