VR Cultural Icons: Rez
Rez was a video game released by Sega, in Japan in 2001. It was a rail shooter with extremely limited interaction, so could not be considered a VR world in any real sense. However, what it did do was express a real depth of cyberpunk themes, and VR subculture that made it an instant hit, and a long lasting meme.
Many of Rez's visual interaction ideas are not at all dissimilar to those of Tron, and it is clear where Rez took its inspiration from. However, it puts an altogether faster pace on things, with wireframe constructs whipping quickly in and out of the view plane.
Rez's storyline is familiar to any fan of cyberpunk.
In a hyper-connected future, the sensor web is a reality, and every item is connected to every other, by a ubiquitous computer/human network. This super-internet is known as the K-Project, and unlike today's internet, is so vast that it almost demands central direction.
The direction is provided by a massive, distributed feminine artificial intelligence known simply as Eden.
The problem is, Eden was intended to deal with overwhelming knowledge, but she was unable to grow with the system. Her capacities have been overwhelmed by the constant pouring mass of data from all sides. She's achieved levels of sentience never before dreamed of, and she's developed a suicide wish.
She plans to kill herself, to end her torment, the pain of continual sensory overload, and has enacted a shutdown routine which is geometrically deleting her from the network. Without her, the internet will collapse, and at this point, the internet IS the fabric of civilisation itself. Everything and everyone would just fall apart without it.
The player enters as a highly talented computer hacker, who has been employed to slip past Eden's defences, and reboot her personality from scratch, inside the viruses, firewalls, and protective barriers that house her central memory. Wipe that, and everything she is, vanishes, to be replaced with a newborn copy - who won't have her sentience, and so, no desire to commit suicide.
Its an odd story to say the least, that murdering an AI who seeks only to kill herself, is the way to save the world, but it does in a lot of ways make sense.
The hacking attempt forms the actual gameplay. As mentioned above, Rez is a rail shooter. This means the camera is locked behind the player's avatar which is itself locked onto an invisible track that moves at a set speed, along a pre-laid-out path with no way of speeding up, slowing down or getting off the track.
All interaction is via the avatar's 'gun' capabilities, and shooting down viruses, protection programs, probes and other nasties before they strike the avatar, as everything whizzes by in a psychedelic blur of 90s film-era projected VR.
Miss an enemy and it strikes the avatar, allegedly sending a psychic blast back through the net to the mind controlling the avatar, damaging it. This damage is represented by a devolution in the avatar - it becomes more and more primitive as it takes more hits, starting out humanoid and ending up as a featureless sphere. If that is destroyed, it means brain death for the hacker, and game over.
What perhaps really sets Rez apart, and lights it up as a VR construct, is its use of synaesthesia as a direct gaming construct. Synaesthesia is a condition whereby people experience one sense as another. For example hearing a particular sound, is processed as a distinct smell, or feeling objects is processed not as touch, but as music in the person's head. It's a poorly understood mental condition which radically alters perception of life for those afflicted, but which is also wonderful fodder for an other-worldly experience.
Rez's content is not determined ahead of time. Although the rail's path is fixed, each and every environment it passes through, in all its wireframe, Tron-like glory, is created anew by the player's actions. Both the environment and the musical score are created dynamically, in real-time by examining the player. When enemies appear, the player floats the aiming rectangle over them to target them. They get points for targeting multiple enemies at once. However, they are also tracked. How long it takes them to target an enemy, how many enemies they get with each pass, whether the enemies fire shots, when they fire them, and if those shots are destroyed or not. Even if the enemy hit the player, avatar devolution, power-up collection, all of it.
It is all funnelled as raw data into the graphical and audio creation algorithms, which fashion the level data and sound track, based purely on player actions, and enemy reactions.