As I powered up the PSVR to play the recently released Skyrim VR, I wondered whether this was yet another company's lazy cash grab exploiting a new tech fad, or a genuine new step for the franchise. This was my third first time playing it. First released in 2011, the same exact game now had four releases across half a dozen systems, with only minor graphical upgrades. While the transition from PS3 to PS4 didn't exactly leave me floored, it seemed the transition to VR could potentially be its most radical reformulation yet.
Somewhere along the line, the jump from one graphical technology to the next stopped feeling special. Every few years we get a new console. We can tell ourselves that everything is moving forward, but we all know we don't need a PS4 Pro. Amongst the boring updates to gaming tech, VR has seemed to be a more interesting technology of late. And Skyrim VR shows how tantalisingly close, yet excruciatingly far we are from a leap in gaming that feels truly different.
Skyrim's leap to VR promised a genuinely new breakthrough in interactivity: Craning your neck upward to see dragons circle overhead, sneaking through torch-lit caves, drawing arrows from you bow by pantomiming the movements using the PlayStation Move controllers, and observing the infamously glitchy townsfolk up close at a more realistic scale.
Let's be clear: Skyrim VR doesn't deliver on most of those promises. But despite its failures, the game actually made me hopeful about the future of VR.
The best way to describe the sometimes thrilling and sometimes nauseating Skyrim VR experience is as an incredible chair. Just imagine yourself in a movie theatre, reclining in an enormously luxe, obsidian-black leather seat. The design is contoured perfectly to align your neck and spine, while the arm rests make you feel weightless, as if you're lying on a King-sized cloud. Then, the movie starts. The 15m screen is playing 30cm from your face. Suddenly, arm and neck restraints burst from the chair and you sit there, your arms bound and your eyes brutalised in luxuriant agony.
Because however well-realised the world in Skyrim VR is, it's still just elaborate armchair tourism. Whether using the PS4 DualShock controller or PlayStation Move controllers, I'm still sitting in that chair, just like I was in 2011 when I bought the PS3 version of the game. While walking through the towns or exploring a field, I feel more like a disembodied camera than an actual person occupying space. It feels like a missed opportunity. The same way a Google Daydream user experiences the Taj Mahal, the game gives players a novel way of exploring Skyrim without actually inhabiting it.
Skyrim was maybe one of the best-realised open world virtual environments we got to experience last console generation because, like Oblivion and Morrowind before it, it capitalised on a very particular style of immersion: A booming, orchestral score, first person perspective with expansive backdrops, non-linear storytelling, and a huge world perfect for exploration. That's what was impressive at the time. At its best, these combined into a real sense of player freedom. What is VR's version of that?
As immersive VR experiences go this is the best thing available.
Unfortunately, it isn't Skyrim VR. It's too safe. It doesn't push far enough into VR's novelty or weirdness. A far superior example is Superhot VR, a slow-mo action game where the player freezes time, and, using their body IRL, grabs weapons in the virtual world to counter attack. Mileage may vary on how well executed Superhot VR is, but its core conceit isn't possible in other mediums. Skyrim VR is immersive, sure, but it always was - there's nothing specific to VR. VR's real breakthrough won't come until a full experience (game or otherwise) has created its own style of immersion and can offer something platform-specific. Superhot VR, which allows you to dodge and weave and move around a room as you participate in a slow motion ballet of violence, might be the best example of where virtual reality experiences should go.
Still, for its innovative gameplay, Superhot VR is also painfully simple and your experience is brief. You're participating in a quick bout of violence, not wandering a new and foreign land. It can't compete with Skyrim for vistas or the sense of experiencing a new world.
Skyrim VR is probably the best of the "the same thing but in VR" titles, but hopefully it signals the end of them. Because while there are many technical limitations to creating VR games (to say nothing of our limited ability to even stomach playing them), developers need to start thinking natively in VR now if VR is to stand on its own as more than a landing spot for cash-grab re-release in an industry in love with redundancy.
To that end, Skyrim VR is a good way of acclimating people, but it isn't the epoch changing game you might hope for. We're still very early days here. At its best, Skyrim VR lets you forget that. At its worst it doesn't go anywhere - at least not anywhere the game's many re-releases haven't gone before.