VR Chat: Virtual Vacationing Part 2
Updated: May 11, 2020
In my efforts to find ways to stay in touch with friends online, I found that many now flock to a program called VR Chat. Of all the online chat platforms I will review, VR Chat is undoubtedly the most advanced technologically, and possibly the most weeaboo friendly.
(A screencap I took of a friend of mine as I hung out with them. As you can see, the CG quality of the rooms can be very high. The microphone symbol on the lower-left side is off, meaning that I had pressed "V", allowing me to speak with my own voice. 2020.) VR Chat is named such partially because you have the option of using it with a VR headset. This is possible because unlike most avatar-based chat games, VR Chat actually makes you live as your avatar. You see through its eyes. And your voice becomes its voice. However, I found the avatar selection process relatively tedious. In most games where an avatar is used, one is able to select from a menu of options that enable them to customise their avatar. In the world of VR Chat, things don't really work this way. While there is a menu, all the avatars you can see in it are set. You can't change their clothes, or skin colour or anything else unless you are able and willing to work with VR Chat at a technical level and build your own avatar from scratch.
The menu options are painfully limited. So, when I found myself in the universal starting area that all avatars will find themselves in, I quickly went to visit the Avatar shops which could be visited through portals. This, too, was annoying to me. While there are many avatars available in these places, and all are free, there were very few female options, but many, many male options. I was determined that my VR Chat self should somehow be recognisable as me, so I had absolutely no interest in taking on any of the male options. With the exception of Pickle Rick. I don't think I have to explain why. I spent a little time as Vanellope Von Schweetz. But I found that shorter avatars created a greater sense of nausea as they walked. Their movements are quicker, but the fact that you have to look up to see much all the time means a wider range of wobble as you move. So, I discarded this and briefly spent time as the same avatar my friend wears above. I finally settled on Himeko, since she was the only wafuku-wearing avatar I could find.
~Virtual Vacationing On A Whole New Level~ Part of what keeps me coming back to VR Chat despite how frustrating I find the avatar selection process, is how beautiful some of the rooms are. It really is as though you could type in the name of the most famous cities in the world and visit some permutation of them. This is probably already true for most virtual chats. I know it has been true of IMVU for a long time. But the degree of quality you can find in VR Chat is probably unmatched.
One of my favourite rooms is a perfect replica of the tram from Spirited Away. There are two rooms, one for the day and one for the night in this theme. The day version of the train includes an inanimate Noface or Kaonashi. The replica is remarkably high in quality, complete with an infinite sea visible in both directions from all windows, reflections in said windows, signs and signals that periodically whiz past, and the lilting strains of Joe Hisaishi's original soundtrack.
(I joked to my friend, who took this picture, that we were going to rescue Haku. 2020)
(Another popular room is a replica of Tokyo's Shibuya district. It's not unusual to find actual Japanese players chatting to one another here. I found a mid-air crayon in this room, which I used to draw many streamers. Screencapped by Edward Kuo, 2020)
~A Vacation Away From Yourself~ The curious consequence of being unable to customise your avatar easily is that identification with the avatar is very difficult. So while it would outwardly seem that you are meant to become your avatar, in practice, people constantly replicate each other's avatars. This is easily done providing the avatar is shareable. All it takes is hitting the Esc key and then left-clicking the username of the player.
(A natural consequence of being unable to see your own avatar, the way you would in a game like World of Warcraft for example, is that players will tend to form crowds in front of mirrors in almost any popular map where I large mirror can be found. They'll be seen doing the awkward squat that the avatars all do. Or crawling on the ground. Often jumping up and down. I couldn't resist doing a little of this myself. Each time I come across a mirror in a room, I find myself irresistably drawn to stop and look at myself. There is something curiously exciting about knowing that however much I might grow to hate my appearance in the real world, in this virtual world, I can still be cute and likable. 2020)
(This is another huddle I found in the VR Chat Hub. This is the main room you'll enter as you go into VR Chat. It's not unusual for strangers to strike up very casual basic conversations here. 2020) There is something about the way being able to become anyone but still have your own voice impacts the player. Instead of having normal conversations, its often the case that players will end up making strange noises at each other; something that couldn't be done in text-based chat. But another thing that can happen is an odd kind of impromptu roleplay. During my last session, I encountered a player who could turn himself into a toilet.
(One toilet avatar, coming up. 2020.) The player encouraged others to sit on him and take a dump. This was so odd to me, as I wondered who on earth would want to be a toilet and be dumpted in. It made me realise that VR Chat isn't really about the same ideals that Avatar based chat was when it was at its infancy in things like Half-Life, Kaneva, IMVU or Habbo Hotel. In VR Chat, you aren't trying to become an ideal form of yourself and live a virtual life as that entity. You are having to accept whatever absurd forms the game imposes upon you. Meaning you are freed from the concept of presentiment; freed so that you can simply play with others as a child. So, there were other players who turned into child versions of my character and asked me to be their mother and take them home. And at other times, they became toilet rolls and still called me "mother". And then the toilet hugged that toilet roll and said it was his son, and that I was his wife. And he got me to climb onto him so that we could ride around the room chasing our "son". There was a strange joy I felt as I played this way with them.
(An image of me in repose upon my toilet husband. One of my cat-children stands away in the background. 2020.) Being freed from a physical form means being freed from physical threat and even self-conciousness. In the real world, if I was approached by two people dressed as a toilet and a toilet roll telling me they wanted me to be their mother and wife, I would feel the need to try to tell them to be rational. To think about the gravity of marriage and parenthood before asking me for such a commitment. Or I would at least seek to verify that they were just joking and weren't serious. But in VR Chat, it's easily understood that noone can be taken too seriously.
(My toilet husband breifly became an overweight Hatsune Miku, and told us all that he was hireable as an online wedding celebrant so that people could still have their weddings on VR Chat if Coronavirus had cancelled their actual weddings. 2020.) There was a strange way that I, at first, felt frightened of how strangely these people were behaving. Why would they become helicopters and then ask people to ride them? Yet they did, so I did. Once I embraced their strangeness, I felt an odd and calming sense of acceptance. In the real world, my identity matters, and so the concept of rejection becomes frighteningly relevant; a monster looming in the shadows of every relationship.
In the world of VR Chat, I could, for five minutes, be part of a family unit as a matriarch, even if it was one that involved a broader joke about the toilet paper crisis. Even if I might not feel good enough to be the wife of anyone I'd want to be married to in reality.
For a little while, in VR Chat, I was able to sit on a throne and feel like a queen.