There are a lot of things I want to say about Area X from Rez Infinite, the PSVR-enabled re-release of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s classic shoot-’em-up/music game that isn’t really a shoot-’em-up or a music game.
Here are some of those things:
It might be the best thing I have played in years
It can be played without PSVR, but doing so is a waste of time
Seriously, you need to play it in VR
No, please don’t watch a video of it
Or play it on your TV
But I’m trying not to say those things, because it makes me feel like a proper dick.
I don’t own a PSVR magic helmet, and I can’t afford one. I was lucky enough to spend a weekend with one after Mat Murray purchased it and kindly let us occupy his living room for a weekend so we could have a go and do a special episode of The Computer Game Show.
Area X doesn’t unlock immediately, but just playing Rez’s original levels had us pretty convinced that it was already our favourite VR game. The release of Rez HD a few years back reminded everyone how timeless the game is, but playing it in VR gives it a whole new sense of scale. Put me in charge of PSVR’s marketing and I’d cover the world in billboards that just read "PSVR: You'll appreciate how fucking big everything is."
We’d heard a few murmurs about Area X, namely that it would be the best thing we’d ever seen, and that we should go in blind. So we played it one by one, turning the TV off so as not to spoil it for the others. I went in first.
What followed was a profound experience that I feel I can’t adequately explain or discuss. Here’s why!
1. Everything I want to say sounds like try-hard hyperbolic drivel
I mean, listen to this: It’s a game where you fly around and there are some colours and lights and explosions, right. And only minutes in, I could feel that I was welling up. The sheer beauty and impossibility of what I was what witnessing was making tears try and come out of my face. But Jesus Christ, aren’t we just sick of people telling us that games made them cry by now?
It’s a bizarre yardstick of supposed cultural worth from back in the day when we all got angry at the likes of Robert Ebert saying games are shite, and it’s not something you hear so much nowadays, so presumably most of us are over it. But the claim has still got that whiff of desperation about it, like you’re still banging the 'guyyyys games ARE art' drum rather than just explaining that this is one game in particular that made you feel a certain way.
Area X feels like a legitimately transcendental experience. It does! I fucking forgot where I was, completely. So completely, in fact, that David Turner was able to do this:
But again, ‘transcendental’? Do you believe me when I say that? You shouldn’t. I fucking wouldn’t if someone else said it to me. It’s only a game, mate. Calm down.
It’s like Area X makes you want to tug on such lofty concepts that it’s impossible to discuss without coming off sounding like a marketing goon. We’ve all played brilliant games, and we’ve told our mates about how good they were. But have you looked someone in the eye and said “I played a computer game that showed me things that my mind could not fully comprehend and I suspect I have been permanently altered by it”? Of course you haven’t. You’d sound daft.
2. What if I’m talking shite?
Imagine if I was using all the right words and I was able to explain exactly what I saw and felt when playing Area X, without the listener doubting me. What if they then have a go, and feel nothing?
I remember the early days of Left 4 Dead, and the first time I witnessed a startled Witch. The unbelievable, unearthly scream she’d let out absolutely scared the shit out of me. But after a few listens, it’s totally unremarkable! It was just the context that made it sound so horrible, the tension of creeping around her and not really knowing what she was capable of if disturbed, only that she would completely fuck us up. All these things added up to amplify that scream in my head, which still makes it a triumph of design, but I’d enthused to people about how I just couldn’t understand how this sound had been made. And those people probably went on to hear it, and think “eh?”
Area X is so good that you feel like you can’t even trust your own recollection of it. It fills you with self-doubt because it elicits feelings generally reserved for significant life events, rather than an expensive piece of consumer electronics.
3. VR is expensive, man
Yes, PSVR is the most affordable VR headset going (Google Cardboard notwithstanding) but it’s still £400 with the camera. If that doesn’t seem like a lot of money to you then that’s great, but to most of us it’s a big deal! So there’s something fairly monstrous about telling people that they need it in order to have this incredible experience which only lasts about 20 minutes.
This barrier to entry seems like the main culprit for the general suspicion towards VR that still seems to be with us - VR is here, and it’s really cool, but the vast majority of people are still wondering if it’s really the future, or just a gimmick. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle; it’s a worthwhile technology beyond a ten-minute “ooh look everything is 3D” demo session, but it’s still difficult to see it becoming truly mainstream, too.
And yet, I think Area X might genuinely be pointless without it. I later watched a video of it, expecting at least a faint echo of the wonder I’d experienced. And yet, nothing. I barely even recognised what I was seeing. Listening to the soundtrack still gives me chills, but that’s the best I can do until my brother visits me with his PSVR at Christmas.
It’s one of videogames’ major problems writ large; they’re great, but it’s an expensive hobby to keep up with. So of course one of the most mind-shattering experiences I’ve ever had playing a game was also one of the most prohibitively expensive.
Most people have to carefully consider if a £50 game is going to be worth a punt. Tell them they need to spend £400 to enjoy one level of a game and most will, quite rightly, tell you to get fucked.
You can always pony up for a half-hour session in your local GAME, mind you. Just try not to get any tears on the pre-owned section.