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Ten virtual reality games that simulate altered states

The recent resurgence of virtual reality (VR) has seen an exciting period of innovation in the format, as developers explore the fresh new possibilities that it brings. VR differs from the video games you might play on a standard television in that the head-mounted display engulfs the visual field, producing a more immersive sensory experience. In VR, not only can you see a virtual environment, but you can also turn your head to look around it. Many games use this capability to transport the player into strange virtual worlds, or see the hallucinations of a virtual avatar.  Some titles focus on pure sensation, while others are highly artistic, developing ideas drawn from gothic or cyberpunk literature. This list suggests ten VR games that in different ways use the medium to explore the idea of altered states:

1. Gnosis

Gnosis by Fathomable invites the player to “explore, understand… and ascend.” With a stunning synesthetic style influenced by cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and Philip K. Dick, the game transports the user into the “memory palace” of an artificial intelligence, which they navigate and configure by connecting a lexicon in 3D space.

2. SoundSelf

Described by creator Robin Arnott as “inspired by a group-ohm on LSD,” SoundSelf uses the human voice to create visualisations that recall the spiral and funnel patterns that people may see during psychedelic drug experiences. When experienced in complete darkness, the game is intended to fuse ancient meditation techniques with modern video game hardware.

3. Affected: The Manor

Horror games are particularly powerful in VR, offering terrifying experiences that are so intense they might even be dangerous for some people.  In Affected: The Manor, the player must explore a haunted mansion, complete with pitch-black corridors, creaky doors, paintings that eerily move, spectral beings, and other such tropes of the gothic genre. The experience has a distinct hallucinatory quality, as the house contorts itself and seems to have a life of its own, causing the player to second-guess the reality of their perceptions.

4. Death is Only the Beginning

Produced by Virtual Awakening, Death is Only the Beginning is a VR experience like no other, which aims to simulate the dreamlike hallucinations of a near-death experience (NDE). The project draws significantly on Rick Strassman’s hypothesised explanation that “light at the end of the tunnel” experiences people may have during NDEs could be caused by endogenous release of the psychedelic molecule DMT.

5. Guided Meditation VR

Of course, other developers have sought to provide more relaxing VR experiences, with many meditation games available that aim to soothe the user. Guided Meditation VR is one such title, which recalls the Holodeck of Star Trek. The game transports the user to a virtual beach, a breezy clifftop, and several other relaxing spaces of synthetic tranquillity.

6. Microdose VR

Microdose VR is another psychedelic (or “cyberdelic”) project, which has been sited at electronic dance music festivals such as Coachella. Many of us probably played with paints or crayons as children — Microdose VR taps into the joy of such unstructured play, by allowing the user to creatively paint with multi-coloured particle effects. It’s like Tilt Brush… on acid!

7. Rez Infinite

The original Rez was a cult-classic on the Sega Dreamcast and Sony Playstation 2 back in the early 2000s. Using flat-shading and a wireframe style that recalled the classic science-fiction movie Tron (1982), the game was an “on-rails” shooter that incorporated a cool techno soundtrack with music by Adam Freeland, Ken Ishii, and others. Rez Infinite updates the experience and brings it into VR, providing one of the most acclaimed big-budget titles to date.

8. Dionysia

Psych-Fi’s Dionysia is another title that aims to offer audiences at music festivals mini-excursions into VR, enriching events such as the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia with something a little different. Dropping on the headset transports you into a melting alien world that is fittingly reminiscent of prog-rock album artwork from the 1970s.

9. Squarepusher “Stor Eiglass”

Throughout his career, Warp Records artist Squarepusher has been pushing the boundaries of electronic music through his high-tech stage shows of funk-bass wizardry and rinsed-out-yet-scholarly jungle beats; a bit like the Björk of rave music. Stor Eiglass is his collaborative foray into VR in the form of a 360 music video, which sends the viewer on a turbocharged-ride through a candy coloured psychedelic world. Could this be Yellow Submarine for the 21st Century?

10. TAS “The Canyon”

TAS (The Adventurous Spark) is a VJ known for his outstanding video mapping shows at psy-trance parties and festivals. The Canyon demonstrates his importance as one of the most interesting underground visual artists to emerge in recent years, by providing a short journey through intricate neon structures reminiscent of aquatic lifeforms and bioluminescence.

Featured image credit: Gnosis by Robert Bogucki/Fathomable, 2018. Image used with permission.

Slideshow images: By Robert Bogucki/Fathomable, 2018. Images used with permission.

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