Virtual reality games are funny. Why aren’t they pitched that way?


In September, I took a day trip to PlayStation headquarters in San Mateo to try the console maker’s newest virtual reality device, the PlayStation VR2. The games I tried on the PS VR2 felt intense in novel ways. They were mostly either scary or epic — in other words, gripping sensory experiences.

I scaled an imposing rockface and clambered around cliffside wooden huts. I ran my virtual hand through the clear waters of a stream cutting through a prehistoric forest. I fumbled with a handgun’s reload mechanic, clumsily racking the slide just in time to fend off undead hordes mere feet away. The PlayStation 5 aimed to please the senses — haptic feedback, better audio and faster load times all work in service of immersing the player. The PS VR2 is in thrall to that same ambition.

But immersion isn’t the selling point it used to be, when new consoles heralded step changes in visual fidelity. And inasmuch as I enjoyed my time with the PS VR2, I also knew that these games — and the broader genre of “intense” and “immersive” experiences — would not be enough to entice me to buy a headset. (Sony announced Wednesday that the PS VR2 would cost $549; if someone bought me this as a gift I might feel compelled to ask them to return it.)

There is a silver lining, though. You wouldn’t know from the marketing, but VR games aren’t just fun. They’re also funny.

I tried the new PlayStation VR2. It’s immersive, and a joy to wear.

My most memorable moments with the PS VR2 came when the virtual reality tech empowered me to do something weird. Sometimes, the tech was built in a way that allowed me to get up to immersion-breaking mischief: destroying fancy ornamental vases, painting on walls or throwing random objects strewn around the world. (The novelty of picking things up and flinging them did not wear off during my demo).

Just as often, the tech misbehaved in amusing ways. While playing “Resident Evil Village PS VR2,” my in-game hands and head became disjointed from their correct positions and angles as Lady Dimitrescu hoisted me onto two meathooks. Ethan Winters’ sad dad head sank into his chest. Uncharitably, that could be described as a glitch. But truly, I found it very amusing.

Virtual reality games cultivate a tone, and it isn’t awe. It starts with childlike wonder when you first see your in-game hands, and all the ways you can manipulate your fingers with the controllers’ finger detection feature. I made the L shape and finger guns. I tried to approximate a middle finger. It was a juvenile move, but I made an O shape with one hand and pointed my finger with the other, and passed one through the other, just to see if I could.

Once you realize you can do silly things like this or mess with objects in the environment, any reverence for a game’s intended tone goes out the window. In my time with the demo, “Resident Evil” became a “break every vase and stick your head through every wall and window” simulator. Playing “Horizon Call of the Mountain,” I became so immersed in picking up and looking at every object that I was genuinely caught off guard by a robo-dinosaur fight at the end of the demo for the robo-dinosaur game.

This isn’t to say I didn’t like the games I tried that day. Quite the opposite: I thought they were marvelous, remarkable game design and engineering achievements. But the things that make a virtual reality game different from what we might describe as a “standard” console game don’t amplify the game’s core qualities, they change them. Shocker: Sticking my head through a wall using the head tracking on the VR2 shattered the illusion that I was trapped in Castle Dimitrescu. If you can give yourself up to that — if you can betray the sanctity of a AAA experience — you’ll open yourself to a whole new kind of fun. But that may be a tough pill for VR developers (and their marketing teams) to swallow.

Watching somebody else play a VR game is funny, too. Moving around with a headset on can feel awkward and clumsy, which translates to physical comedy for observers. Thankfully, precautionary measures built into contemporary VR devices, like warnings when you exit safe boundaries and cameras that can be toggled to show what’s in front of players, help keep physical comedy from teetering over into physical tragedy.

A lot of money has been poured into selling VR as the future of work, with humorless videos of Mark Zuckerberg advancing a bleak vision of face-sized cubicles. Wearing a VR headset can feel shameful and disorientating, but it doesn’t have to. These unfortunate qualities, manifest in Zuckerberg, VR’s most avid spokesperson, aren’t the end point. They can instead be an on-ramp to greater joy and sociability, if we embrace the fussy awkwardness.

Prediction is a dangerous game. But if I had to guess, the must-buy virtual reality game of the future will be a party game, something closer to “Among Us” or the Jackbox Party Pack series than to a prestige AAA experience. It’ll be the video game equivalent of a viral meme, not HBO. (VRChat, the 3D virtual reality platform that’s often overrun by popular internet characters, is a close precursor to this hypothetical thing.)

Meta’s Quest Pro costs as much as a new PS5, Xbox and Quest 2 combined

Certainly, the virtual reality killer app won’t be epic. None of the features currently valued in the video game quality arms race — realism, narrative resonance, technical performance — will compel people to pick up an expensive ancillary device. All of those things are already better represented in non-VR games, and for a lower total price. (In October, Meta announced the new Meta Quest Pro, which will cost $1,499, as well as a Quest 3, which Zuckerberg said would cost in the $300 to $500 range.)

At the PlayStation offices in San Mateo, the walls flanking the building’s front desk are adorned with a museum-like timeline of past PlayStation devices, starting with the boxy original PlayStation, accompanied by a plaque with the device’s release date: Sept. 9, 1995. Each subsequent console generation represented a tremendous leap forward for visual fidelity, inviting more and more players into increasingly vivid virtual worlds.

VR wants to fit into that lineage: more immersion. But because consoles have by and large solved the problem of graphical fidelity and realism, the immersive qualities of virtual reality merely tinker around the edges, mostly producing interactions that are unintentionally funny. Virtual reality is weird and rough around the edges. It doesn’t always work the way it’s meant to, in ways that can surprise and please in equal measure. The sweaty ache to fill a niche our current games and spaces do is confusing to me. It won’t work.

For VR to succeed, it needs to lean into its unique qualities. Right now, its greatest strength is humor.