When you get the crap kicked out of you by a fifth grader named Elliot who lied about his uncle working for Nintendo, you love the idea of virtual reality. Did Elliot kick the crap out of me because I called him out on that Nintendo lie? Yes. Was it also because I asked his mom if it was true at a birthday party and she yelled at him? Probably, who's to say?
But when you were a fat, bullied kid in the early '90s--or really, any type of bullied kid in the '90s; there are a lot of flaws you can find in a child--virtual reality seemed like the promise of a better future where you didn't have to be you. Instead, you could be a god who didn't get pantsed by other kids who understood that wearing cotton shorts every day made you look insane.
You could be... The Lawnmower Man.
I can't believe I'm going down this rabbit hole.
So. The Lawnmower Man is a bad movie. The least offensive way I can describe it is to say that it's about a religious man with a cognitive disability (already off the rails on this) who uses virtual reality to become super intelligent (as I guess we thought you could do back then) and abandons his human body to become a god in the Internet (which wasn't really a thing at the time, so it's just a hexagonal computer world) and then kills people in real life (this part is accurate).
That's about it. Oh, and also pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan was a doctor who, I dunno, thought it was kosher to experiment on that guy in the first place. And there was some goofy-ass computer sex that looked like this. (I'd warn against children watching it, but what are they gonna learn? Not to turn into a giant space bug and eat their partner? Great. That’s terrific knowledge to have. I wish my sex-ed teacher had imparted that on me in high school.)
But to an eight-year-old who was angry and bitter and obsessed with video games and who genuinely thought sex was basically hugging that felt good (and what a great definition of sex that could be!), The Lawnmower Man was the dream.
I didn't want to get beat up anymore. Solutions, solutions, solutions. Well, I knew two things: I was good at computers and also that's it. The world was telling me that if I put on a helmet and a body suit, I would be absorbed into a different world where I defined myself and my real-life, unruly flesh vessel would be left behind. I just realized that's also probably why monasteries were big in the dark ages, and also why most monks look like me with slightly longer hoodies.
And let's not forget just how INTO this virtual reality shit people were in the '90s. You're probably reading this at work, so take time out of your surgery schedule to watch this news report on the FUTURE!
One, thank God nerds have become cooler in the last 25 years. I mean, look at those dudes. This whole story revolves around being bullied--and I want to kick the crap out of those guys.
Two: Do you see what was being marketed to us? Can you imagine that? Sure, they didn't say you'd get absorbed into the computer and get superpowers. But when you're eight, you don't know that. You just see people entering a different world where everything (supposedly) isn't terrible. And maybe, just maybe, you can get absorbed into that world and disappear forever.
Not that the media encouraged kids to think that way. Oh, wait...
I think my generation (I guess technically millennials? Is that the preferred nomenclature?) was and is so excited about virtual reality because we had a decade of movies and TV shows and news broadcasts that made it seem like virtual reality could deliver knowledge and power straight to your goddamn eyeballs.
Or at the very least you'd get sucked into your television like Captain N: The Game Master. Which, having worked at Nintendo, I can definitively say is totally canon.
I was raised to believe that at some point, playing on my computer would create an immortal digital version of myself with no actual problems. And why not? If they could store video games on CDs, they could totally download a child and make him a man (what?).
We thought virtual reality would be like this:
And what it actually was--and kinda still is--is this:
And, yeah, it's easy to know that it was all bullshit in retrospect. But when that fat little sausage kid I used to be paid five dollars (FIVE!) at the Coral Square Mall to try out Dactyl Nightmare, IT LIVED UP TO THE PROMISE.
Sure, the helmet was heavy, but I was in a totally different world and I couldn't hear my parents argue or my teachers yell at me or kids make fun of me. I could just walk on a flat space and shoot lines at other people made of eight triangles. And it was GLORIOUS.
I was so hooked because I didn't need to be me. I didn't think for a second that, hey, maybe I should find a way to confront the problems and fears I was having. I just wanted an escape from all the bad and just feel good. I think this is a familiar narrative for heroin users, except I was never good enough at anything that could be considered tragic to throw away.
Nobody told me that you could, you know, address your bullies and work on your body and exercise. Well, technically, LOTS of people (and talking cartoon PSAs) told me, but I wanted more than to just be normal. I wanted to be Jobe from The Lawnmower Man. I wanted to have virtual sex and make bad people die, like you do.
I even started playing with a long-dead program called Virtual Reality Studio where you could design simple 3D worlds and program them. They looked like this:
You know what I did in “Virtual Reality Studio”? I made the house I wanted to live in (one room) and the places I wanted to hang out (an inaccurate replica of Big Foot's Arcade in Tamarac, Florida), and the people I wanted to hang out with (I made really bad looking girls).
That's right, I programmed FRIENDS. And by program, I mean made them have one or two rudimentary responses because I was nine or ten and had no idea what I was doing. And I want to verify--this is ALL true. I tried to program a girlfriend. I named her “Mega Girl.” I'm not creative but I am very, very sad.
I was so convinced by the power of virtual reality that I ignored everything wrong with my life and tried to recreate the life I wanted in glorious MS-DOS 3D. I convinced myself that if I was just a little bit smarter--or had the right headset--I could finally get absorbed into the polygonal world of tomorrow and forget these round-faced losers.
And that's when I made the second-worst decision of my life: I used up all my savings from 8 years of birthdays and Christmases to buy a Virtual Boy.
Now you could argue that the Virtual Boy has a surprisingly strong library and that the counter-hype did more damage to the system than a lack of quality. But you could also argue I was a child who spent $200 and wanted to justify it so hard that it hurt.
And as much as I told myself that the Virtual Boy was a perfect escape from reality, it wasn't. There weren't a lot of games, and the closest any of them came to feeling like another world was Red Alarm, which looked like someone ate a bunch of red lines and shit triangles. And that's in the “pro” column.
My trust in virtual reality shattered, I promised myself to only believe in technology that could prove itself to be both useful and practical.
No, I didn't. I bought a fucking R-Zone.
At this point, I was kinda like a dying patient who will take any cure. There had to be SOMETHING that worked. Right? Right? We were promised magic by HOLLYWOOD! And instead, we just got really bad headaches and more people kicking the crap out of us at school because--I dunno if you know this--you can't actually SEE anything when your face is in a Virtual Boy.
Yeah, that happened, too. I brought my Virtual Boy to school and, oh man, they were right to mock me. I mean, what was I doing? What did I think I would show them? The future? Dear God.
That's pretty much when I soured on VR. I realized I was trapped in my body and my problems were still my problems. Not that I'd ever solve them. Oh, I have not solved one personal problem in my life that couldn't be fixed with an emotional forest fire instead. But I also finally got it into my thick, sad brain that no computer screen was ever sucking me in. Also, I became a mature teenager and started thinking I'd be a vampire one day.
And in a way, that makes me more excited for the new crop of virtual reality because I think all of us have realized the promises of the '90s were a sham. A lot of people pledged ludicrous notions of a digital future that nobody could ever live up to. Technology now makes technology in 1992 look like someone hitting their own face with an abacus and it STILL can't pull off the range of wonder that mullet-haired nerds were promising.
But that's okay. Our expectations have been lowered. And we can finally enjoy virtual reality for what it is: A way to make video games and other interactive experiences a little better. You're not going to have magical cyber sex with a woman who actually likes you. No woman will ever like you (this is me talking to myself right now; I don't want to see your angry comments about all the virtual women you've had [or men, there is no gender or sexual preference bias here]).
Virtual reality isn't going to change the world. It'll enhance it. It'll give us new game ideas and maybe some new ways to communicate. And as long as we keep our expectations low, it might even surprise us with what it can do.
But we gotta keep ourselves from going full “Fat Kid Buying the Virtual Boy” or we're gonna all be disappointed and miss the opportunity for something smaller, but still very special.
Mike Drucker is a Giant Bomb contributor who writes for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” He's also written for Nintendo, The Onion, and SNL. He also co-hosts the podcast, “How To Be a Person” which can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter @mikedrucker and watch him on Twitch under the surprising name “MikeDrucker.”
Listen to him on Giant Bomb Presents here!