VR unlocks the true vision of Rez Infinite

Rez has the power to make me geek out like few things can. Ask just about anyone who's played and loved this cult classic on Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, or in HD on Xbox 360, and they'll likely gush about its glorious fusion of techno music and arcade shooting. To Rez radicals like myself, the way it blends spectacles of sight and sound make it feel more like an experience than a plain ol' game. Rez is rife with irresistible rhythms, energetic action, and a deceptively deep narrative, all of which are preserved, enhanced, and built upon in the forthcoming PlayStation 4 version, entitled Rez Infinite. And when played in PlayStation VR, where you're enveloped by full 3D sound and 120fps visuals, the transcendent experience that is Rez transforms into something almost otherworldly. As veteran game designer and esteemed auteur Tetsuya Mizuguchi describes it, the VR version is what he and his team at United Game Artists (a former studio within Sega) originally envisioned when making the game. After 15 years' worth of technological advancements, VR is bringing us Rez in its truest form.

"Rez, in my mind and the minds of my staff, was like virtual reality," says Mizuguchi. "If we had the virtual reality system at the time, looking around with 360 degrees - we wanted to create like that. But we had to create in just a square monitor. So that was so frustrating... so frustrating." Mizuguchi speaks with a humble passion for his work, determined to create games that can transfer his vision (or the closest thing to it) directly to the player's brain.

If you've not yet known the sensory stimulating joy of the Rez journey, it's an on-rails shooter representing a hacker's deep dive into a futuristic computer network, erasing and eliminating viruses in an effort to purify and reboot the system. Each downed firewall brings you closer to Eden, the AI trapped in the network's core. Everything you do - locking onto targets, destroying enemies, collecting power-ups - creates a distinct noise, and levels are divided into layers pulsing with their own variations of an overarching, escalating beat. With each action, you're adding another sound to an intensifying rhythm that keeps all the chaotic noises in sync, building up and up until it peaks in a boss fight crescendo. It's a gameplay loop that blasts your dopamine receptors repeatedly, and is meant to induce a feeling of synesthesia, which Mizuguchi defines as "the expression or impression of cross-sensational feelings... hearing the colors, seeing the sound."

Strapping in for Rez Infinite's completely optional VR mode is an absolute trip. When you've got abstract cybernetic voids or wireframe pyramids surrounding you on all sides, stretching as far as your eyes can see, the unforgettable Area stages take on an entirely new dimension. The controls are as simple as ever: X as the primary button you hold down to establish up to eight target lock-ons and release to fire, and Circle deploying the 'nuke absolutely everything on-screen' bombs. The PS VR headset adds an interesting wrinkle, letting you look to aim - but you're still able to move the crosshair with the left stick, as in the classic control scheme. The latter is my preferred method of play, as it's the most familiar to my muscle memory, while still allowing me to giddily gaze around in pure awe of my kaleidoscopic surroundings. And though looking in one direction and moving in another has been known to trigger nausea in some VR games, the steady, constant movement in a singular direction seems to completely counteract any would-be motion sickness.

What's amazing to me is just how fresh Rez Infinite feels, despite the fact that I've played through these levels at least a dozen times before. But then, Rez was designed to be replayed time and again, with the hope that each voyage might evoke a new sensation within you. "[With some titles], you play the game, you clear the game, it's over," says Mizuguchi. "We wanted to create a game you want to play more and more and more and more, feel good, feel good, feel good, find something, feel [other, unfamiliar] things. We believed the game should be like a new media form; the game is an experience." The trance state that Rez invokes in its most devoted players lends itself to some degree of introspection - not just of new point-scoring strategies, but also story elements you might never have considered, or new rhythms you find yourself tapping out purely for your own musical satisfaction. In VR, it's even easier to lose yourself to the Rez groove, as your senses become fully encased in this hypnotic rendition of cyberspace.

Speaking of story elements, Mizuguchi's postmortem’s talk at GDC 2016 reveals an interesting insight into the narrative that drives Rez forward. Not only is Rez a representation of a hacker seeking out and revitalizing Eden - it's also an allegory for the universal odyssey that brought about our existence as individuals. That is to say: our humble beginnings as a singular sperm seeking out an egg, hoping to unite and create new life. Suddenly, so much of the abstract imagery in Rez makes sense. The hacker's subtly male-shaped avatar contrasting with the distinctly feminine Eden; the lowest and highest evolution forms resembling a single cell; the fact that you can morph into a chrome fetus during the finale of Area 5.

And that narrative is being expanded for Rez Infinite, in the form of an entirely new sixth stage named Area X. "If conception is the theme of the original Rez, then in Area X, what we're envisioning is what happens after the conception, which is going to be birth," says Mizuguchi. Developed by Mizuguchi's newest venture Enhance Games, in conjunction with independent studio Monstars, this mysterious region is currently "deep in experimentation". Mizuguchi has only offered brief glimpses into Area X, but the concept art and split-second of trailer footage shown depicts a strikingly unique aesthetic, where seemingly millions of bright particles take the place of the familiar wireframe world.

Much to my chagrin, the impressive full-body 'Synesthesia Suit' that Mizuguchi proudly wore for Rez Infinite's announcement won't be entering mass production any time soon. The (what I can only imagine to be) overwhelming sensations brought on by wearing a Daft Punk-looking jumpsuit with two layers - one for the haptic feedback of 26 vibrating pads, the other for a matching LED lightshow - are reserved for Mizuguchi alone. But by God, he deserves it. Rez Infinite, especially when experienced in VR, has reenergized a game that was already vivid and vibrant enough to be the stuff of legend. "I think the combination of game and music, those elements combined and coming together in various, new, experiential ways is something that is healthy for our industry," says Mizuguchi. "Not every game will get that type of experience across." A monumental understatement, to be sure - and when you dive the full embrace of VR in Rez Infinite, it's like experiencing this sublime synesthesia trip for the first time all over again.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucas likes his games like he likes his music: eclectic. With all the weird and wonderful stuff he's played over the years, the two of you are bound to feel the same way about something!

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