I never thought I’d be one of those people who’d prefer virtual reality over the real world. But then I played Rez Infinite.
The long-awaited PlayStation VR headset came out last week, carrying with it Sony’s hopes of enticing PS4 owners into taking yet another pricey hardware plunge. The aspirational sales pitch for PSVR is a bit counterintuitive. Only one person can wear PlayStation VR at a time and the new headset doesn’t deliver a showpiece experience you can share. It seals you into a closed-off world; the uniqueness of the delivery system is an anti-social one. You can’t gather friends around PSVR to collectively ooh and ahh over how much more shiny things are.
However, that sense of isolation works to Rez Infinite’s advantage. Rez Infinite is the latest mutation of a 15-year-old video game classic, a beloved opus reinvented as a virtual reality game. The slight narrative premise of Rez casts players as an elite hacker journeying into cyberspace to confront the newly self-aware AI in charge of a future society. You’re supposed to feel alone, and the act of wearing the headset heightens that.
PSVR also heightens the psychedelic beauty of Rez. The new presentation makes an experience that was already beautiful feel more immediate and enveloping. Everything feels closer and wider. Rez's signature aspect -- a synaesthetic game design that tightly fuses visuals, sound and vibrations so that they blur into each other -- feel more fully realised. The glowing gridlines and spiralling energy trails stretch out into the horizon with no interruption from the real world, and it really feels like the entire game is throbbing through the controller into your body.
[the video above was captured in the game's TV Mode, not VR Mode.]
As I turned my head to steer my glowing particulate avatar through free-roaming levels with the headset on, the new Area X section made me feel like an exploding firework. Millions of glowing motes blink and glow in Area X, making it feel like I was wandering through a series of subatomic datascapes. The classic version of Rez happened on rails, meaning that players were locked to one path through the game. Area X lets you float around in 360 degrees and folds a bit of exploration into the mix. Where the power-ups that upgraded your avatar were thrown at you after blowing up enemies in the classic game, you need to wander through Area X's impressionistic environments to find them.
To experience Rez Infinite on PlayStation VR is to move through an update of the game's hacker-as-hero conceit. The new physical accessory plunges the player deeper into the fiction; you look like an idiot in the real world but feel cooler in the virtual one. One weird side effect of playing Rez in VR was a yearning for even more sensory immediacy. It wasn't enough to have my entire field of view consumed by Tetsuya Mizuguchi's masterwork; I wanted my entire body to vibrate along with "Rock Is Sponge" and the game's other songs.
Rez Infinite edges a game that was near-perfect closer to perfection. It makes Rez's notional subtext -- a hacker rave party where the player dances into interconnected enlightenment -- more emotional. More importantly, the VR implementation doesn't feel like a coda to the game's design ideas. It feels like the opening of new possibilities.
This isn't a case of a game trying to justify the existence of a new peripheral. It's an instance where new technology refines and re-energises extant artistic imperatives. This is a game that exists because its creators want people to experience beautiful sensations all at once and PlayStation VR is the best way to phase into a very moving work of art.