As a kid, what enticed me to become an author was the way fiction could sweep me into other places. Through reading I could experience through words what I could not experience in real life; I could even become other people. It was sorcery.
However, words were imperfect. Reading could only transfer experiences to me if I had some personal frame of reference for them. As an adolescent I had trouble relating to books with military settings, for example. They were so far removed from my experience, I struggled to create a vivid picture of them in my mind.
I was painfully aware of how my patchy store of personal experiences could limit me in writing. I scrounged for anything that I could use to make up for the gaps, so as a sheltered adolescent, I seized upon one of the most reviled technologies of the age as a way to broaden the scope of my experience for my writing: video games.
At first I only loved them because they were fun, but as they became more advanced, I began latching onto the pseudo-experiences as raw material for my writing.
My epiphany began with the NES Zelda games. They offered whole worlds to explore with castles, waterfalls, and mountains. No matter that that were crudely drawn; my imagination could fill in any gaps. They were like books in that they could take me places I had never been without my actually having to go anywhere. However, even then, it did not occur to me to use the settings as inspiration for my writing.
Decades later that changed with games like Skyrim that took graphic realism to a whole new level. Scenery burst into three-dimensional clarity and there seemed to be no limit to the wonders I could experience without even leaving my living room. With the new games, I really felt like I was crunching snow as I climbed a mountain; I could almost feel the chill of the wind that thrashed the cedar trees. I could explore the great echoing halls of magnificent castles; wade over slippery stones through roaring rivers; climb towers and look down at the world in miniature with the same wonder as if it were all real. Those games inspired me, and it is perhaps no coincidence that all three of my published novels were originally inspired by playing video games.
My novel Paw actually began as an exercise to add missing sensory details to what was lacking on the screen. I would record what I saw but add scents, emotional responses, temperature, and textures. I tried to feel the chill of the snow, smell the wild scent of grass, or imagine the horror I might feel at having just killed another living creature in a fight. I admired the full moon, lamented my sore feet, and shivered from the wind chill. I ended up with a bunch of scenes written from the point of view of my emotional two-legged cat-like avatar that I had named Mittens. Those exercises became the basis for Paw.
In writing my novel I made the most of my “virtual” frames of reference. In my novel Paw, my main character needed a horse. I had personally never ridden a horse. No problem. I had galloped around on a whole lot of video game horses. Using Skyrim as a frame of reference, I described how my main character trotted her horse through cobbled streets looking for a way to escape slavery. I have never mined a mountain for ore either, except in the game Skyrim. No matter. My character still ached from the repetitive effort of tapping on rock under the boiling sun all day.
I know video games are not always true to real life, so I am careful to add research to my virtual experiences, but for experiential frames of reference video games are a fun place to start that appeal not just to the mind but the senses.
I thought that graphic realism could not progress much beyond Skyrim. However I was mistaken. For my birthday I got an Oculus Rift. For anyone who does not know what an Oculus Rift is, it represents the latest in virtual reality technology in which you wear a kind of helmet which allows you to perceive a 360 degree video game environment. The experience is the closest I have ever felt to actually being inside a video game. If I am in a simulated museum, no matter where I turn, I still appear to be in a museum with its glass cases and signs. If I walk closer to an object, say a desk, it appears to get bigger. In some games I can see my hands and interact with objects like a book or pen.
One of my favorite programs is the Oculus Dream Deck. It is aptly named because the program makes you feel that you are walking around in the dreams of another person. It simulates a variety of environments and situations: At one point I am visiting with a bloated bug-eyed alien on another planet that looks so real I feel like I could reach out and touch him; later I am in a dimly lit, desolate, ruined dinosaur museum. Moments later I find out why it is desolate and ruined as a fully 3-dimensional T-Rex turns a corner down the hall and begins lumbering my way. He stops right in front of me, inspects me with irate, suspicious eyes and treats me to a mighty roar; he lowers his neck, turns his massive head to the side, and studies me with one wild orange eye. I can almost feel the scales of his skin, they look so close and detailed. At last he loses interest in me and walks over me so that if I look up I can see his massive belly and fleshy tail. The effect is terrifying and magnificent.
As a toy, the Oculus Rift has much to offer. However, I am fascinated with the potential of the Oculus Rift to benefit me as a writer because the realism means better frames of reference for a writing addict like me who enjoys staying home rather than joining circuses, taking weird jobs, or sky-diving for the writerly “experience.”
The Oculus Rift is also useful for my character observation exercises. I keep a notebook on my Android phone. Whenever I go out to, say, a grocery store, I try to observe people, noting their expressions, mannerisms, styles of dress, or habits of speech as raw material that I may later use in creating characters for stories. However, there is a problem with this method. When you observe people, they observe you back.
On my Oculus Rift I have a video app called “Amaze” that allows me to travel to different virtual places and observe passers-by in 3-D. I can observe them all I want without worrying that they will see me looking at them. Plus, I get to go to more interesting places. Forget grocery stores. Why not Times Square? The Golden Gate Bridge? Amsterdam? Virtual reality is truly one of the best parts of living in the early 21st century.
Plus, the technology has the ability to do something that novels do: it enables me to see the world through other eyes. Aside from games, there are many videos available for the Oculus that are impressively artistic.
I watched one 360 degree VR video called Limbo: A Virtual Experience of Waiting for Asylum. The video grants the viewer the point of view of an asylum seeker, someone who is forced to flee their home and move to a foreign country, perhaps because they fear for their lives or those of their children. The video did for me what books often do; it gave me the feeling of being someone else for a time. Enhanced by narration, the video created the same first person experience of anxiety, loneliness, and alienation that a person seeking asylum would likely really feel. It swept me through streets and crosswalks of fast-moving, faceless, ghostlike pedestrians in such a way that I myself felt like a ghost, floating, searching, and adrift.
The camera led me into my desolate-looking new apartment where the beds, desks, and tables were all transparent; nothing looked solid, permanent, or certain. Later it treated me to a point of view in a government office in which a husky, barrel-chested male interviewer was towering over me and interrogating me about my reasons for changing countries, magnifying the sense of helplessness and fear asylum seekers must commonly experience.
Many great novelists and movie-makers have used the tools of their respective mediums to encourage empathy for strangers, but because 3-D virtual reality mimics real life so closely, it allows you to experience the “dream” of another with minimal demands on the imagination.
I have sometimes worried though: In a world where video games can recreate an illusion of real life or visually represent the outermost limits of the imagination, what value does fiction have, which only uses the low-tech medium of words? I comfort myself with the thought that, while virtual reality may dazzle, I have still not lost my appetite for the written word. Reading satisfies me in a way that playing video games never will, allowing me to build in my own mind a picture of what is being described. In some ways reading invites more personal engagement because I must bring my own memories, thoughts, and emotions to reading a story in order to create my own picture of what the author has described.
However, the Oculus Rift makes it an exciting time to be a writer. Plus, I have an ironclad excuse to play video games: research. What more could a nerdy, introverted writer want?
Well, I suppose a Holo-deck like on Star Trek would be nice, but I may have to wait a few more years for that. For now I will settle for my magic helmet. But if I ever do have to choose between it and writing, I will have to say a sad goodbye to my Oculus Rift in favor of the virtual reality I know best: the timeless sorcery of the written word.
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