I have recently finished playing Dear Esther for a second time. The first time I played, I fell in love with the game. The second time round, as I wiped the tears from my eyes, I professed my undying and unconditional love. This time I played on the Oculus Rift.
Context: Dear Esther.
Dear Esther has been called a first-person walker, an art-game, an embodied experience and everything else between. In a sense it blurs the boundaries between what have been conventionally separate entities: virtual experience, story-telling, art, and game. The game (if such a term is appropriate) features breath-taking scenery, meaningful musical accompaniment, exploration and intricately woven narratives which combine to create one of the most unsettling, moving and immersive experience in gaming – and this is without immersion technology such as the rift.
The game was originally conceived of back in 2007 as a mod the popular Half Life 2 and the subsequent popularity of the game led it to be published as a major standalone title to critical acclaim in 2012. The initial force behind the project was an AHRC grant to research telepresence – or the sense of being immersed into the virtual environment and storyline to the point that technological assistance is not immediately apparent to the user. In other words, you forget you are accessing the world via a keyboard and mouse, and are simply aware of being a part of the generated world. And for me at least, there was an inescapable sense of reality and presence in my original game experience. I can clearly remember the first time I played Dear Esther – the moments of breathlessness, of complete engagement with the world, the moments where I stopped being me, and became a projection of myself, engrossed in this incredible, beautiful, emotional world.
The parallels between, and applicability of Dear Ester to archaeological inquiry has been re-hashed to death (See: Here, Here, and Here) so I will avoid too much detail on the topic here, however it is worth noting that there are, even on an elementary level, a number of points that could be extracted and applied into culture heritage management and museum display – namely the seamless integration of narrative, place, music and object.
Context: Oculus Rift.
The Rift is a head-mounted stereoscopic display unit which allows the user to perceive the world in 360° 3D. Head-trackers allow for the world to rotate as the user rotates their head allowing for unparalleled positional tracking and environment immersion.
Bringing it together.
Dear Esther is already an incredibly immersive experience, but playing with the Rift was a world to its own. The first thing that really struck me was the scale of the landscape, insurmountably expansive, to the point of nihilism. Loading in and looking up towards the cliffs and towers the journey ahead took on new meaning, by bringing the scale into 3D it became personal, and in many ways I began to embody the landscape – beginning to ascribe meaning and emotion to every step I had taken and every step I was yet to take.
In a similar vein the sense of place was heightened – spaces had feeling, meaning and emotion. The houses were no longer simply places to explore, but were claustrophobic, uncomfortable spaces filled with uneasy memories. Caves became expansive, confusing and fearful places – to the point that I experienced my only true panic attack in a game. I walked to a internal cliff-face that backed onto a plunge-pool, admiring how the Rift really accentuated that feeling of height, it helped me give meaning to the distance, it made me wary. As I moved off my model clipped over the edge and I plummeted towards the pool of water. I was aware that I was in a virtual space, but my physiological response was as though I had slipped off that cliff myself. Body braced, every muscle contracting in shock and fear, the sharp intake of breath before hitting the surface of the water. The experience really drove home how different superficially engaging with an experience, and really living it can be – even if that living only takes two of the senses and takes place in a virtual world.
Within current archaeological discourse there is a fair amount of back and forth regarding the implementation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), with commentators from post-processual and phenomenological schools voicing concerns that prevailing methodologies reduce human agency and culture to a deterministic function of the environment. Even abstract models that take a cognitive approach end up having to utilise environmental proxies, or become subject to their own rule based determinism.
So where does that leave us with regards to Dear Esther and the Rift? Well, imagine for a second that on a preliminary level you could utilise digital elevation models as the basis for your world, populate it with trees and environmental assets as necessary and then set about experiencing the world. Such a model would allow the popular GIS methods of view-shed, site-catchment and least cost path to be experienced and embodied.
On a totally different level the ability to create embodied narratives such as that displayed in Dear Esther has intriguing potential as educational and display tools for consumption both online, or on a museum / heritage site. I personally think there is something pretty seductive about the potential to take the objects out from the cases, put them into their original contexts and allow the user to embody the experience in a multifaceted way.
The Rift experience has inspired me to start porting GIS data into the game engine Unity and set about reconstructing an archaeological landscape. So, let me know what you think and stay tuned for updates on my experiments into Archaeology + Oculus Rift.