March 26, 2015

Ready Player One

Some Thoughts About Hollywood and Virtual Reality

Warner Brothers, the studio producing the Ready Player One movie, just announced it scored Steven Spielberg as the director for the film adaptation of the bestselling novel (which it aqcuired the rights to in 2010, a year before the book was even realeased).

It’s exciting and the prospects (and expectations) for the film couldn’t be any higher. But there’s one thing that multiple sources have mentioned that I find interesting: virtual reality.

Ready Player One already has an appealing resume for Hollywood: dystopian sci-fi, wizard AND mech battles, teenage romance, and of course, pop culture references out the wazoo. But lots of coverage of the movie seems to enjoy tacking virtual reality on to the end of that list, presumably to indicate that VR is part of the zeitgeist now, and we’re ready for films that deal with it. “Now the possible technology that could be used: How will they bring the virtual world to life?” Deadline asks, suggesting that Warner Brothers could unveil new technology that “is said to put 3D into the rearview mirror”.

First off, we should state the obvious: this movie, likely to be released sometime between 2016 and 2018, isn’t going to revolutionize the cinema experience with new goggles or peripherals or any other kind of strap-on (and yes I did mean to invoke fetishistic imagery with that word choice). ‘Avatar’, the closest that Hollywood has ever come to something like that, was merely an isolated example (either a prime one or nothing special, depending on who you ask) of a technology (3D) that was already widespread enough to be loathed by the average moviegoer (3 extra dollars?!?). Ready Player One doesn’t even have the opportunity to be that.

So what can it be? As more and more companies start developing their own tech (ahem, Sony) and more and more VCs start pouring money down that rabbit hole, we can only expect that holodecks (or holodeck-like somethings) are in fact coming, if only because we are seeking them out so vigorously. But what will movies on these new platforms look like? Or games? We don’t have to look far for the answer, it turns out. In fact, Ready Player One itself answers the question quite spectacularly in my opinion. Not movies or games, but something in between.

Consider Flicksyncs for a second, a not-quite-movie not-quite-game in the OASIS (that’s what Ready Player One’s virtual world is called). For those unfamiliar with the book, Flicksyncs basically place the player in the world of a movie and task them with acting out the script. You progress by reciting the correct lines and get extra points for correct timing and intonation.

Yes Flicksyncs are quite literally in between movies and games, but I don’t want to get hung up on actually believing that they will come to pass (although who knows). Moreso I’m interested in how almost everything in the OASIS is quite true to its nature as a simulation first and foremost, and how their content is adapted from that as a form. The OASIS is a universe that another universe created, not one in and of itself. Its worlds contain replicas of galaxies from Star Wars to Star Trek, every fictional planet imaginable in between (including Japanese Anime), and even recreations of people’s childhood homes and hometowns. These are built to be inhabited, not consumed like movies or games (Yes I know that’s a shallow reading of movies and games. But you get the point).

I don’t mean this to be a cautionary tale. Unlike Ernest Cline I don’t envision a dystopic future where we’re so plugged in experiencing things we forget completely about “the real world”. I’m just interested in thinking about new ground in entertainment, and how form affects content. I don’t think we’re really as naive as to believe that we’d invent a whole new medium and use it for the same first person shooters we play currently, but now we can walk with our legs instead of our thumbs. If VR does come, (and it will), we can expect something completely different, something more inherent to the medium. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m excited about it, and perhaps it’s already somewhere in Ready Player One.