Updated Sat, Oct 18, 2008 by Ethec
Virtual reality was to the eighties what rocketmen, a meal in a pill, and streamlined aluminum were to the fifties - semi-kitschy guesses at what a world of the future would be like. When you think "VR" you likely conjure up images of pallets full of unsold VirtualBoys quietly spirited away from the mainstream. But today, games are starting to reel us in not just mentally and socially (as they had before), but physically as well. Look no further than Guitar Hero, Wii Fit, and Rock Band for proof.
Tad Williams' bestselling Otherland saga has been translated into more than a dozen languages
Author Tad Williams' Otherland - a four volume saga about the future of interactivity and the power that virtual reality could potentially wield over reality itself - was published years before cellphones, email, laptops, and wireless Internet went mainstream. Yet, to borrow some slang from the book, you can probably picture a "netboy" checking his "message pad" at a "public node." This is a small example of why Williams' work doesn't seem far-off or contrived when read with a modern eye, and ethicists and economists are already plumbing the depths of the imperfect VR prototypes that are today's MMORPGs and virtual worlds.
To use Williams' words, Otherland is "content that screams for interactivity." Enter one of the few remaining independent game publshers in Europe, as Hamburg-based dtp acquired the Otherworld license in 2006. According to Williams, the goal of the project wasn't just to re-create the world described in Otherland, its to realize Otherland. "People ask if I'm going to write a sequel... this is my sequel." Williams, who's currently in the middle of authoring a series of children's books called Ordinary Farm with his wife, was asked if he's taking an active role in the Otherland project. "They can't get rid of me," he joked.
RealU's Singapore Studio
Developer RealU set up shop a year later in 2007, making as its home a three-story studio in an airy, affluent section of Singapore's Chinatown. Singapore seemed an obvious choice for game development, both because of government incentives promoting high-tech business and its multi-lingual yet predominantly English-speaking population. Additionally, Singapore's natural deep-water harbor and reputation for stability (it's a sort of Asian Switzerland) has made the tiny former British colony a cultural crossroads for centuries. As a result, RealU's 80+ person staff draws from over 14 nationalities.
Such easy diversity has practical benefits as well. "We've got the best of both worlds," Senior Producer Kevin Buckner commented. "Here we were able to embrace and consider employing non-English speaking people - we'd never do that in Europe. We do that here because we can find ways of communicating with them without that perfect understanding of language." Plus, Singapore's high concentration of Mandarin Chinese-speaking professionals may allow RealU to tap into low-cost programming and artistic hotbeds like Shanghai.
That kind of manpower will come in handy. Otherland is easily the most ambitious MMORPG we've seen in years, and we cover the work with dozens of development houses that make a glorious. forgivable habit of biting off more than they can chew. Other MMOGs bandy the term "multiverse", but no other title has more claim than Otherland. The game will be more like a collection of worlds distinct in every way - from races, quests, everything down to how your character develops in each world - with the worlds connected through a central hub called Lambda Mall.
Mr. J's in Lambda Mall- Home of the best perception-warping experiences this side of legality
Otherland's central hub, Lambda Mall, is much more than a stopover between points A and B. It's a sort of Dave & Buster's meets Six Flags on the Las Vegas strip about 20 stories above the set of a gentrified, pollution-free Blade Runner. Two of the Mister J's meeting places we toured - and these are just bars, mind you - had me wondering why we hadn't seen these imaginative concepts in a game before. One 70s themed bar had a dance floor of miniature people inside a sort of disco-fied craps table. You could join the mini-me dancefloor and look up at the gigantic actual avatars of other players. Another bar had a planetarium theme and had us swooping to planet-tables without a sense of gravity, let alone a horizontal plane, with a mind-expanding, star-laced backdrop. By the way, these are some of the safest ways to mess with your mind in a place like Singapore, where a drug trafficking conviction carries the death penalty.
Lambda Mall also features mini-games for the scoreboard inclined, all kinds of shopping plenty of sites to see, and to move around the environs quickly you have a few travel options other than good old-fashioned walking. The easiest and least interactive way is via flat tubes - polygon flight paths that offer up characters into "hyper cubes" in which you select your destination and are delivered to chosen terminus toot suite. The second, more hackerish way requires a little more dexterity. Spline surfing requires the character to keep his balance while surfing a ribbon of light. Since this mode of transit is fairly open ended, Buckner explained that its possible to get into areas of the game that, by in-game rules, you shouldn't be mucking around in. Just how these objectives and other achievement-oriented aspects of the game (like combat) work is currently under wraps, but Buckner assured us that the game has all the traditional MMORPG bases covered.
RealU did show us one of the worlds branching out from Lamdba Mall, however. Mars is loosely based on the ferrous planet we all know and love from any number of horror and disaster movies, but this Mars has some kind of life force flowing from a mysterious heavenly source. These un-Marvinlike Martians have no inkling that they're constructs of a computer intelligence, and in fact believe that their sacrificial rites keep the water flowing. If that puts you in a mood to save the intended victim, beautiful as she is, and put a stop to this madness, you might be on the right track, but we're thinking that the huge archipelago that makes up the Mars landscape as well as the numerous Moor-inspired buildings might hold a few more secrets.
According to RealU CEO Andrew Carter, actions and interactions in each world will carry persist to others in surprising ways. Williams explained this principle as "coercive storyline" - no matter what decisions a player makes, those decisions support the character's own storyline.
With a target release date some time in 2010, you can bet Otherland's minimum specs will sound astronomical by today's standards. I'll further soften the blow by relaying Carter's comments that this is a game meant to be played at 1080p 1920x1440 resolution. What we saw of the game was breathtaking, both in terms of art direction and raw creative power.
That said (and, again, Otherland is two years out) RealU is aiming at a quad-core Nvidia 8800 machine as a minspec. The game will include two hours of CGI cutscenes, so with the game's tremendous need for art (and very little of it reusable from world to world), you might want to start clearing out some hard drive space pretty soon.
Travel options in Lambda Mall: Flat tubes and hyper cubes (left) and spline surfing (right). Large floating presence of Jimi Hendrix may or may not be included.
Without any clear information on the game's combat, character development, housing, or player-created content (which, judging by many dropped hints, figures to be huge in Otherland), along with the fact that Otherland is still two years out, my cheers and jeers for the game have to be somewhat muted. One fairly serious concern at this point is whether or not new players will feel a real sense of attachment to the Tron-like Simuloids with which you start the game. Those smooth blue models aren't placeholders, and though we were shown the incredible degree of costuming detail players can later customize their characters with, there's something to be said for that early buy-in to your character via a character creation screen as meticulous or random as you want it to be.
But players will gladly look past minor problems to play a truly innovative game. No one complained that your character creation options in Portal are severely non-existent. If RealU can pull off half of what they're aiming for, a wildly innovative and compelling game... not game, experience, is exactly what they'll have on their hands.