Red pill, or blue pill?
Blue pill all the way, right? From The Matrix (opens in new tab) to Snow Crash (opens in new tab), Neuromancer (opens in new tab) to Ready Player One (opens in new tab), getting out of meat space and living in digital, ignorant VR bliss has always had an appeal. Stuff the truth – give me a virtual pet dinosaur, a digital X-Wing and a no-pain all-gain polygonal six pack and you can use my actual body as a battery for as long as my cholesterol-packed heart keeps beating.
It all gets a bit weird though when, like myself over the weekend, you pop on a virtual reality headset, and enter a virtual recreation of the so-called ‘Metaverse’ which is meant to contain these fantasised experiences.
The game which gave me this VR-equivalent of the Inception mind-shag is the cyberpunk-inspired TechnoLust (opens in new tab), which takes the point-and-click gaming form and transports it into virtual reality through fully-explorable 3D environments.
I’d been playing on an Oculus Rift, and the game’s core inspiration was plain to see – this was the cyberpunk dystopia of Gibson and Stephenson brought to life (with a side helping of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Machine, too), in VR.
I’d entered the meta-Metaverse. And that rabbit hole goes deep.
There were the faceless cyborgs of the classic manga, the neon billboards of the Ridley Scott masterpiece, all present and correct. But then there were also the Rastafari hackers of Neuromancer, the telephone line travel of The Matrix, the fluorescent ’80s glow of Ready Player One’s idealised arcades and the VR couriers of Snow Crash.
I even had something akin to a literal ‘snow crash’ (or whatever the closest I can imagine such a named experience would be like) when I popped an in-game VR headset on over the in-game VR headset I was already wearing, while in the real world wearing a VR headset and having to deal with the in-game feedback that produced, and the meta-real-world neural meltdown my poor head was having. It was like having a lobotomy where all anaesthetic was replaced with popping candy simply being sprinkled into my pink bits.
TechnoLust wears its heart on its sleeve, and is a fantastically well-realised cyberpunk romp – a great showcase for the Oculus gear, in fact, and one that has been given surprisingly little promotion, given how it so perfectly renders the genetic material of the VR dream.
Not-so-Ready Player One
But it also shows goes to show that we need to be careful which parts of the science-fiction oeuvre we draw our inspiration from. Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Blade Runner, Ready Player One – these were all dystopias, painting a future full of downtrodden AI, web-stalking terrorists and physical worlds so broken they weren’t worth living in.
Perhaps we shouldn’t want to go so far down that aforementioned VR rabbit hole. The full-on freedom of a virtual reality world, as attractive as it may seem on the surface, just might be a bit much. The odd flight through the Star Wars universe, sure. Maybe even a digital daytrip to the VR Skyrim tundra for a giant-slaying session, or a few quiet hours hooking massive alien fish in Final Fantasy XV (opens in new tab). Contained experiences, rather than the never-ending alternate reality loops and layers that the authors dreamed up.
A cyberpunk playground may be a laugh today, but let’s remember that the works that inspired today’s virtual reality revolution were cautionary, as well as visionary, tales.
- Gerald Lynch is TechRadar’s resident futurist. His bi-weekly Future Gazing column casts a critical eye over the technologies and trends that are set to shape our world, bringing back to today a glimpse of tomorrow in the boot of his Delorean.