(Minor spoilers for Superhot and Cibele.)
Late last year I had the opportunity to play Eurotruck Simulator 2 with a virtual reality (VR) headset. Generally I am pretty skeptical of the marketing promises of VR and the whole project of immersion-through-escaping-your-own-bodily-senses that it depends on. Partially, this is because we are being told the same things about how VR is just around the corner in 2016 as we were told in 1996. Mostly, though, this is because I reject the very premise of VR, that the player can ever truly have their consciousness and senses detached from the playing and situated body they are sensing with. Sure, I can use a VR headset to explore some alien battlefield, but I am never not sitting in a chair in front of a computer, and on some level my mind is always aware of this because my mind cannot exist separate from that body.
But Eurotruck Simulator 2 with a headset shocked me with its effectiveness. It was disorientating and fully encompassing. I had the stupidest grin on my face as I noticed my own senses being so successfully tricked by the illusion that I was really sitting in this truck. The only other VR experience that I have found nearly as affecting was when I played USC’s The Meadow at Indiecade. This was a VR experience about sitting in a virtual meadow while things happened. The visuals in no way attempted photorealism, but the illusion was, again, incredibly affecting
I remember semi-jokingly calling it a ‘sitting simulator’ at the time. Except this is exactly why both The Meadow and Eurotruck Simulator 2 made such powerful VR experiences: because they each accepted and reinforced the player’s own awareness of their sitting body, rather than stubbornly trying to distract the player away from that body. Players are bodies and that will never not be true. Where other VR experiences work to have you forget “the meat and all that it wants” as Neuromancer’s Case says, these two experiences reinforce the strength of their illusive worlds through the player’s own somatic awareness of being a sitting being.
I’ve played two games in recent weeks that in different ways draw attention to the player’s inescapable existence as a body sitting before a computer screen: Nina Freeman’s Cibele and Superhot Team’s Superhot. I played neither of these games through a virtual reality headset, but like the above virtual reality experiences, each of these games worked to use the player’s tacit awareness of their own body-ness as part of the experience of a virtual world. More specifically: each is explicitly conscious of the player’s context as a body sitting before a computer.
Cibele is an autobiographical game about love and relationships through online games. It’s a performance of what a range of internet scholars have been saying for decades: that pre-existing identity markers don’t just get left behind when you ‘enter’ the internet. Gender, race, class, bodies, ‘real life’ are not put aside when one enters ‘the net’ but are ever-present and constantly mediating online interactions. This seems pretty obvious to say in the days of ubiquitous computing and social media, but even up to the mid ’00s, to say this seemed to counter the normal ways the escapism of cyberworld was considered.
Cibele works to actively remind its player that both the players and creators of videogames never stop being fleshy, meaty bodies in actual space. The player takes on the role of Nina, a character acted in both voice and body by Freeman. Throughout the game, the player explores Nina’s personal computer: reading emails, looking at the selfies she took, and logging in and playing the online game she plays. It feels, in part, uncomfortably voyeuristic, to be pilfering through someone else’s computer files and to literally be looking at someone else’s selfies (to look at Nina-the-character’s selfie is to look at Nina-the-game-designer’s selfie). But, at the same time, the game regularly works to remind you that you are not some stranger pilfering this found object but you are Nina-the-character. Actually, no, you are not Nina-the-character, but you are performing her. Nina is Nina and the player is the player. But the player, by sitting before their computer and emulating sitting before Nina’s computer, is performing the role of Nina. You are not walking a mile in her shoes but you are sitting several months in her chair.
While playing the online game, mindlessly grinding, Nina and her crush have long conversations about nothing that evolves into conversations of wanting to meet up. The disembodiment of online worlds is here not an advantage on online worlds but a disadvantage through the tyranny of distance. Online grinding is no replacement for the material intimacy the characters crave. Perhaps the most clever design touch in the game is the difference in the audio quality. Blake’s voice comes through imperfect and crackly. Nina’s voice, however, is crisp and clear. The point is clear: Blake is on the other side of the country speaking to us through the online game; Nina is right here in front of this computer.
The ‘character’ the player plays in Cibele is not visible in the game. It is neither the online game avatar nor is it the cursor moved around Nina’s desktop. Cibele is a sort of first-person game where the imaginary role the player slips into is on this side of the screen. Us, using our own sitting body, looking at our own computer monitor. That is the character body that we use in Cibele to feel embodied within its experience. In Halo you take on the Master Chief’s body as a stand-in for your own. In Cibele your own body sat before a computer is a stand-in for Nina’s.
Superhot has something very different to say about the body playing the videogame. In Superhot, the body is disposable and holding us back from ‘fully’ entering the simulation. It’s a message that feels antiquated and a little immature; however, I suspect there is a deliberate 1980s-90s reductiveness happening there—or, at the very least, a general ambivalence to its own thematic intentions.
When Superhot begins, the player loads up an MS-DOS-styled operating system, and is sent an illegal crack of a game called ‘Superhot.exe’ by a friend. As the player plays the game, they become unable to stop playing, despite ‘the system’s repeated insistence they should not be here. At one point, the system forces the player to promise they will never run the program again. The player must actually quit the game in order to progress. The next time they load it up, the system expresses its disapproval.
Like Cibele, Superhot emulates an operating system within which it wraps its ‘game bit’, constructing the illusion that you are a situated, actual body sitting before a computer monitor on which you are engaging with a videogame. A touch I particularly liked was the chat rooms that have the actual player clack mindlessly on the keyboard to make the character’s text appear, like a computer-using actor in a 1980s hacker film. Like the mindless point-and-click grinding of Cibele, here you are using your own body to perform the actions of the character-at-a-computer.
Yet, where Cibele uses this to say something about the tangibility of online experiences that do not leave behind bodies, gender, sex, Superhot uses the same convention to try to make its player feel vulnerable and at risk of being subsumed by the system—at risk of being left behind in the very way Cibele suggests we never are. At the end of the game’s story mode, the player is sent to shoot their own playing body in the back of the head, and in doing so unlock the game’s ‘Endless Mode’ which, I imagine, is the main mode most people would like to be playing anyway. The character obtains the escape from corporeality that players are told they want, and can now play forever.
For the most part, this story feels entirely tacked-on in Superhot. A game that has gained popularity because of its clever mechanical design (a first-person shooter where time only moves when you do), the ‘story bits’ do very much indeed feel detached from the actual playing of the game. Except, at the same time, a mechanic is added later in the game that allows the player to swap between bodies, abandoning their character’s body for one of the enemies’. Here, at least, we have this symbiosis of story and game where, around the same time, corporeal existence comes to be seen as meaningless and the abandonment of that existence as liberating.
Superhot seems to be wanting to say something about the desire to escape our bodies in order to feel entirely ‘immersed’ in the virtual simulation—the very same desire that the rhetoric around virtual reality has depended on for at least three decades now. But whether what it wants to say is in favour of or against this desire for disembodied immersion seems entirely confused. At least, it is the game’s antagonist that is wishing to suck the player out of their corporeality and the playing protagonist (that the player embodies at their computer much like the Cibele player) that is working futilely to avoid being sucked in.
Both Cibele and Superhot are aware of their player’s context as a situated, embodied being sitting at a computer, and each (to different degrees of success and for different purposes) works this embodied situatedness into the player’s performance of that game’s character. In each, you are not just translating the movement of fingers to the full movements of a virtual body, but to the 1:1 movements of a different, imagined body sitting at its own computer in actual space and time.