What does virtual reality do for a game that doesn’t need to be played in VR at all? That’s the question I’ve been asking about Chronos, one of the best games on the Oculus Rift. Chronos is a gorgeous third-person action game that fits well in the Rift, using VR to turn players’ worlds into a series of tiny imaginary landscapes. If a good game can eventually make you forget the outside world, Chronos is even more engrossing, focusing you entirely on a puzzle or boss fight. Still, mechanically, there’s not much reason for Chronos to be exclusive to the Rift. It doesn’t require you to convincingly inhabit another body, and it uses a standard Xbox gamepad, so you’re not playing with motion controls or getting up and walking around.
Spoilers for Chronos ahead.
Thematically, though, it’s the epitome of a genre that we’ll probably be seeing a lot in the coming years: the virtual reality game about virtual reality.
Saying something is "the Dark Souls of" any given category is a cliche, but Chronos self-consciously replicates, then builds on, the Souls formula. It’s a game about being killed and revived over and over in a hostile fantasy world, your progress measured in opening endless, looping shortcuts between its rare checkpoints. But where Dark Souls and its successor Bloodborne have a grim, cyclical lethargy about them, Chronos — as its name suggests — constantly reminds you of the ticking of the clock. Every time your character dies, they "age" by a year, their stiff video-game-character hair slowly graying and flinty face webbing with wrinkles.
Besides the cosmetic effects, aging in Chronos adds another dimension to the ordinary process of gaining experience and upgrading a character. As an 18-year-old, the strength and agility points that determine your weapon’s damage are dirt cheap, but their cost grows as you get older. Starting in middle age, it becomes more effective to focus on the "arcane" knowledge that powers special abilities, charged by attacking enemies and successfully dodging blows. Every decade gives you a choice of perks, like more health or added weapon damage.
While the perks will obviously give a quick boost to weaker players, the system theoretically influences you in more subtle ways too. The better you are at prolonging your youth, for example, you’ll be able to accumulate lots of brute force, while if you blaze through the years, the game forces you to get better by privileging the precise fighting that arcane knowledge requires. Practically, though, aging is mostly an elaborate and devastatingly effective form of psychological manipulation. There are few ultimate consequences, but the idea of wasting a year for every death in a boss fight still stings.
In Chronos and other games, the novelty of feeling physically "present" with virtual reality has also created a new fascination with narrative coherence. Academic Jesper Juul has suggested that players will use a game’s mechanics to explain things that would be justified by story in a book or movie: instead of deciding that Donkey Kong’s world allows for reincarnation, we accept that Mario has three lives because the game would be too hard if he didn’t. But Chronos’ aging system is a great example of how the VR world likes to play with fictionally explaining elements of gameplay, even when they’re not directly related to VR — like the way that restarting after death in EVE: Valkyrie supposedly transplants a player’s literal consciousness to a new body, and the Adventure Time platformer pretends your disembodied point-of-view is an actual character stuck floating in the air.
But Chronos ultimately only makes sense if you allow for some incoherence. The fact that you age seems to suggest Chronos will have a totally different trajectory from normal role-playing games, starting players at their peak and (eventually) killing them for good. By the time I realized Chronos was handwaving away real physical degeneration and final death, I’d spent so much time worrying about it that I felt almost let down. Still, even though it would be fascinating to design a whole game around that concept, I’m glad this one doesn’t try — I’d much rather have a satisfying combat system than a realistic physical body.
Chronos’ premise, similarly, is fun because it’s such a hodgepodge of influences and genres. In early previews, the game’s developers showed off a sword-and-sorcery hero’s journey with some slightly unusual artistic flourishes, but that’s only one flavor in a blend of post-apocalyptic survivalism, fantasy, alternate history, and — in by far its weirdest turn — totally non-cyberpunk virtual reality sci-fi. There are already plenty of non-VR games that pretend to be putting players in a simulated reality, but modern VR games in particular are fascinated by the clumsy physicality of head-mounted displays, and Chronos is a particularly striking example. It’s not totally original: midway through, I remember leaning back in my chair and whispering, "Ohhh, so it’s like Harsh Realm set inside Reign of Fire!" to no one in particular. But the fact that my closest reference points were an almost catastrophically unpopular '90s TV series and a moderately successful '00s B-movie should indicate that there’s still quite a lot of room for exploration.
What Chronos could really use is either a lighter or heavier narrative hand. While it includes some of the same environmental storytelling elements as Dark Souls, the game is much more overt about delivering a coherent plot. But this also sets expectations for a payout that never arrives — just when everything starts coming together, the game slams to a confusing, nihilistic halt that actually led me to email the developers and ask about a nonexistent "good ending." It’s a near-miss, because most of the game is great at offering just enough detail to feel both satisfying and mysterious. You don’t really need virtual reality to play Chronos — but it’s a familiar-feeling game that’s all the more interesting for having been steeped in VR’s conventions.