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The future of virtual reality games is soul-killing office work

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The Verge's New York offices now have an official virtual reality room. The library for its HTC Vive Pre holds a bunch of experiments and demos for full games we won't see for weeks or even months. But there's too much cool stuff to ignore. So for the next few weeks, we're putting our writers, editors, artists, and videographers through some of the best that VR has to offer. Here's what we think.

When writers dreamed about virtual reality 20 years ago, they imagined putting on a headset and being whisked away to golden beaches or powdery slopes. This technology could take you anywhere, they reasoned, so of course we’d use it to go to the most beautiful places on earth.

Instead, I used it to go to a small cubicle in the middle of a low-polygon office floor, where I made coffee, ate a donut, and plugged in a computer. Clearly, the future is not everything we hoped.

A VR parody of the European simulator genre

The cubicle is part of Job Simulator, a VR game from Owlchemy Labs. It’s a tongue-in-cheek simulation of an average day at the office, part of a growing crop of games that parody the deadly serious European simulator genre. But unlike the absurd pyrotechnics of Goat Simulator, Job Simulator plays more like a comedy of errors. The game’s premise is that, by 2050, computerization has eliminated all jobs. What you’re playing is a haphazard reconstruction of the jobs of the past (that is, the present), with an emphasis on "haphazard." Most devices are operated with comically simple "1" and "0" buttons, including the computer. The coffee machine is a single button: push for coffee. It’s simulator-as-malaprop, made to emphasize all the ways game simulations distort the world.

Job Simulator

Weirdly, the joke plays even better in this generation of VR. For all its limitations, the Vive gives a remarkable sense of being in a space. Putting on the headset for Job Simulator, I found myself in a room very much like the one I was in already, with almost no changes in the eyeline or scale. (That’s in contrast to a game like Final Approach, which gives you a Godzilla’s-eye-view of an airport or city.) This setup isn’t going to convince me I’ve been magically transported to the Bahamas, but for something mundane like an office, it was close enough to give me goosebumps.

Even when the Vive fell short, it came off as part of Job Simulator’s clunky-on-purpose aesthetic. Pushing buttons is still harder than it should be (there’s still a little between where you move the controllers in real space and where your hands go in virtual space), but that fits right in with the absurdist simplicity of the workplace around you. The workplace is a bit QWOPy, and you’re a bit QWOPy too.

The result is stressful and more than a little dehumanizing — just like a job! When I was asked to start firing employees at the end of the level, I was genuinely upset by it, a trick that only works if you’re operating in a fully realized world. Surprisingly, it’s a world that relies as much on the limitations of modern VR as its strengths. Maybe the joke is on us?