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The Game That Kept Me Sane During COVID-19 Isolation


It would be a disservice to call 2020 a Really Bad Year. We've all had Really Bad Years in our personal lives for one reason or another. We've had years were a lot of Really Bad Things happened and everyone considers it a Really Bad Year because we as a species are doomed to failure. But 2020 wasn't just another Really Bad Year. 2020 was a year were nearly everyone on the planet was negatively impacted in some way. Many of us lost our jobs. Many more of us have lost at least one family member. But all of us were compelled to stay indoors away from our friends and family. Not everyone did that (again, doomed to failure), but most of us did. And it sucked.

Many of us have turned to multiplayer video games to alleviate the feeling of isolation. I know many of my friends turned to Animal Crossing: New Horizons to aid with that. The timing of that release couldn't have been more perfect. It was so successful, the game got multiple nominations at The Game Adverts last year and won in one category. People were hosting talk shows in Animal Crossing, for fuck's sake. It helped a lot of people cope with 2020, which is a really good thing. I'm not one of those people.

I fell out of Animal Crossing after New Leaf. That game felt overly grindy, even for an Animal Crossing game. The villagers also lost a lot of personality from the older games. And from what I understand, a lot more features were axed in New Horizons to make room for the sheer amount of town customization features. A crafting system has been added and there's a mobile-style secondary currency, just in case you thought Animal Crossing games weren't grindy enough on their own. So I can't really bring myself to jump back into the franchise at this point.

But that's not to say that I haven't been using video games to connect with other people. For there is another game that I've using to keep me sane in my self-imposed isolation. A game that, while nowhere near as polished as your average Nintendo game, has enough experiences to last for a very, very long time. VRChat.

You've probably seen videos of VRChat from the Ugandan Knuckles meme that became popular a few years ago. The truth is, there's a lot more to it than running around worlds in avatars based on popular characters. I've spent over 400 hours in the game as of this writing. While a lot of that time was spent chilling with friends in various worlds (often nightclubs), a lot of it was spent exploring some really cool stuff.

One of my personal favorite worlds is an aircraft carrier with fighter jets you can pilot. That's right, you can actually pilot a fighter jet in VRChat. What's more, these are two seater planes, so you can bring a friend along with you. It's not something I'd recommend playing in VR if you're just starting out or you have motion sickness, but I've had a ton of fun in it. Some of my other favorites include worlds where you can pet/play with dogs, feed ducks, play Home Run Contest, re-enact historic moments, and other fun stuff.

But even that's not why I play VRChat so much. For me, this game fills the biggest part of my life that was missing from last year. Being able to spend time with friends at conventions.

See, I'm a big convention goer. The thing I like the most about all the cons I go to is that I get to see friends I don't normally get to see in person. Usually from way out of state, or even out of the country. And not being able to do that has made me a bit antsy. On the one hand, I saved a lot of money on registration, food, travel expenses, room fees, and stuff I buy from the dealer's den. On the other, I've been cooped up in an apartment mostly by myself without the ability to even see local friends without jumping through a ton of hoops. Gave me flashbacks to my teenage years, I tell ya what.

So the fact that I could pop on my VR headset and spend time with whoever was online regardless of distance is a very, very goodthing! Especially with some of my international friends.  I've been going to a weekly event with some Japanese friends and had a great time, despite not knowing much Japanese at all. Similarly, I've been hanging out with a group of friends from the UK every week or so. It's mostly to spend time with a really, really good friend of mine who I cherish to bits, but they're still a fun group to hang out with.

All that being said, it's not perfect. The largest number of people I've seen occupying a single world instance is 50, maybe 60 people at maximum. Your average real world hotel can host hundreds of times more people than that. Perhaps as technology improves, we'll see more world instances be able to hold more people more reliably.  Until that point, people are stuck with small population sizes. That's fine for introverts like me who can only handle so many people at once. But if you're more extroverted by nature, or you just feel like taking part in a big event, your mileage will vary.

And then there are the avatars you can play with. A lot of them are super basic, but the latest iteration of the avatar system lets you get really in-depth with avatar customization. You can even purchase pre-made sets of models, animations, particle effects, sound effects, and other fun stuff. That's actually fairly common for VRChat users to do. A lot of them are made so you can pop them into Unity, hit the upload button, and you're good to go. But if you're willing to dig a little deeper into the VRChat SDKs, hit up some tutorial videos on YouTube and monkey around with stuff, you can add even more functionality to those avatars. 

You can also purchase an avatar Unity package for you to use in game. That's actually a fairly common thing to do amongst my circle of friends. One of my personal favorite avatars is the Virtual Diver VD-02, which is an avatar very heavily inspired by the Kamen Rider series. It's basically like purchasing a set of toys to play with, but you can actually see yourself doing the things! Having grown up watching Power Rangers and miming out the morphing sequences and special attacks with various toys, this made my inner child very, very happy. You can purchase this on Booth for about $40 USD, which gives you all the models, animations, particle effects, etc. All you do is make a new Unity project, import the latest VRChat SDK, import the asset package, upload to your VRChat account, and you're good to go! The maker uploaded a video showcase of the avatar, for those interested.

As I write this, I've already got my second vaccine shot a couple weeks ago. By the time this blog goes out, it'll have fully kicked in and I'll be out in the real world partying with friends again. While it's not like I'm going to stop using VRChat completely after that, my time in cyberspace will be significantly reduced. And I'm not gonna lie, the thought makes me kind of sad. I'm going to miss spending time with my friends in VR. Especially the ones that I don't normally get to see outside of big conventions.

That said, I feel like VRChat is gonna stick around for a good while after the pandemic is over. Developers are still exploring the limits of what you can do in VR and in games like VRChat and NEOS specifically. And having VR instances of real-world events for people who can't physically attend for one reason or another is an incredibly good thing! And if nothing else, having another way to connect with international friends is a great thing overall. And I can't wait to see what the next 10 years of advancements in the social VR space will bring.

In the meantime, feel free to shoot me a friend request and hop on if you wanna say hi! I'm usually online in the evenings hanging with various friends. And please, don't be afraid to send invite requests if you want to join my sessions, because I'll usually respond. I'm always happy to hang with folks and show them around this beautiful, insane virtual universe.

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About Zalnoone of us since 2:32 PM on 05.15.2011