The reason I love videogames, I think, is that every few years they absolutely flatten me. They destroy my sense of what’s possible and replace it with something new and weird. Impossible Mission did this back on the Commodore 64 – a game, but so stylish, so transporting! (I would not have framed it that way at the time; I was probably six or so.) And then Wonder Boy 3 came along, a platformer in which left and right didn’t matter – you could go anywhere.
This chain of little explosions never really ended, but maybe it did slow down a bit. The opening to Another World – actually Another World in its entirety, its sense of what gameplay could be. The sheer visual delight of Jet Set Radio. And more recently, VR.
VR absolutely astonished me. And yet I didn’t expect it to. I thought at the time that it was going to be a tech thing – a thing that would impress me but leave me slightly cold, like an Unreal graphics demo. But when Oculus arrived in our office I found myself itching to unpack it. I then had a week of just screwing around with it, one of my favourite weeks in all the years of doing this job. And it turned out VR wasn’t a tech thing at all. Or rather, tech had allowed for something that did not feel like tech, like frame-rates and fidelity and all that jazz that I love, but which generally goes over my head. Tech had allowed for something toylike and – that word again – transporting. As with Impossible Mission, Wonder Boy, as with Jet Set Radio’s Tokyo-to, I was leaving my desk and arriving somewhere new.
Listen: do you know at what point I was won over? Instantly. It was instantaneous. There was no period of deciding to be won over, no slow caving. Instead, Oculus came with a sort of starter sequence of places it took you to visit. One of those, I can almost imagine it fading in now. I’m high above a comic book city, standing on some kind of gantry. I look up and the skyscrapers only continue higher into the clouds. And moving over the cold night above, maybe an airship.
That sense! That sense of being up so high. And it wasn’t just that as I turned my head my view of the world turned around me. It was everything – the distant traffic, the hint of wind. I was at my desk, but I was also…
You know what happened next. Great games and great hardware, but VR remained niche. It was a wire problem, a storage problem, a not-wanting-to-wear-a-bucket-in-your-living-room problem. VR feels beloved today, but beloved by a few, It’s Twin Peaks rather than Lost. It’s the Backroom Boys. It’s a club you’re a member of or you aren’t.
Yet I carried with me that sense of having seen something incredible – a future for games that was unprecedented, that I was actually hungry for. And I thought of that bittersweet future twice this week. Once because I realised Apple’s about to announce its headset thing, so my club and I are off with our bright hopes once more. Twice because… Well. How to put it. A new room appeared in my house.
Never forget, I tell myself, that VR always starts by ushering you into darkness. A thrilling kind of darkness, potent, expectant. It’s the darkness of the theatre. It’s the darkness of cinema with the lights going down as the screen expands, the darkness of a gig in that rare, fragile gap between songs. And this new room in my house is dark, too. Dark and almost formless, a space I emerge in with a palette and paintbrush in hand.
This is Tilt Brush, and Tilt Brush came back into my life this week because someone I know wanted to see VR for themselves, and where else to start? I don’t have Oculus anymore, so the city diorama is out of reach. Budget Cuts, which hit me, at the time, like Half-Life 3, takes too long to get going, as does actual Half-Life 3, or Alyx, or whatever you want to call it. Beat Saber requires too much movement – dangerous for a first trip into VR world. Job Simulator has that brilliant exit burrito, but I’ve always been clumsy with the game itself. Something else was needed.
Ultimately, Tilt Brush struck me as the perfect place to start with VR for my friend. And it turned out to be so perfect that after I’d finished showing them its strange pleasures, I stayed with it. The headset and cables and stations and controllers and all that have been laid out by my desk for a week now, no sign of being bustled away into a closet. This is underheard of with VR in our house. But Tilt Brush is just too good.
Tilt Brush is an art package and a Google product. But unlike a lot of Google products it doesn’t feel rushed or compromised. It’s a joy to play, it feels great, and it’s tools start with a simplicity that scales to giving you really quite powerful stuff as your own ambitions grow. (Also, rather than just shutting it down, Google allowed it to go open-source a few years back. Nice stuff!) One controller is a palette – of colours, but also brushes, tools, menus. The other is your brush. You paint in the 3D space you start in, your lines and arc taking and holding the air. It’s paint. It’s 3D. It’s instantly comprehensible.
But Tilt Brush is also VR incarnate, by which I mean that, moreso than what you can do here, Tilt Brush makes its most powerful impression as a place. I’m not near my desk anymore, I’m somewhere dark and cool and promising. I could paint, but I could also just sit cross-legged until I can think of something to doodle in the air. It’s thinking room. It’s a study. It’s somewhere new and necessary in my house.
In other words, I spend a lot of time in Tilt Brush just being in Tilt Brush.
That’s not to say I don’t do art. It’s hard not to do art. Pull a trigger and you’ve done a bit of art, with the program secretly smoothing your lines and emboldening your reach. One day I drew a flower in gummy pink paste, and then washed in a flat background. The picture needed a frame which I drew in lightning around it. Then I signed my name in neon tubes. Terrible art, but so tangible! And all mine.
Another time I created a tube and then expanded it – there’s a beautiful Minority Report thrill to resizing in Tilt Brush, you grip the handles of your controllers and just pull them apart – and then I had a lighthouse I could live within. Look Tilt Brush up on Youtube and TikTok and you see a lot of this. Not lighthouses, specifically, but people making spaces for themselves to spend time in.
Over the last few days, I’ve done something a little different though. You can import reference images into Tilt Brush. So if you want to copy a Turner, you grab it and then hang it in the air in front of you and try to understand how he did it, what brushes you might use, where – oh God, Turner – you might start and finish.
But I’ve found a real pleasure in just grabbing art I like and hanging it in the air in front of me. Let’s talk briefly of Velazquez, and his painting of Jose Nieto, which now hangs in Apsley House in London, rescued from the mud of a battlefield and worth the price of admission to this weird, brilliant gallery by itself. Nieto is a man, and Velazquez has painted his head and shoulders so that he is man-sized. I only notice this because Apsley House has hung him up so beautifully, so that he is at my height, as it were, and we are eye to eye. Voila. On Chrome or in books this is a striking painting of intelligence and scrutiny at peace. But in Apsley House, this painting is an encounter, you and Nieto, as Laura Cumming noted, sharing a moment. It’s almost a form of time travel.
And in Tilt Brush I can recreate this. I hang the picture and I stand before it. I am back in Apsley House, back with Nieto, on his terms, on his scale. I am back in his space. This is the wonder of VR, isn’t it, whether it’s a game or a diorama or an art package. You give yourself to someone else’s space.
One last thing. I love Velazquez. I have been to Apsley House and the National, been to Madrid to see his paintings. But Tilt Brush, yesterday, let me get that little bit closer. The pipette tool. I lean in towards Nieto and reach out and steal the exact colour of his cheek – one of the colours, anyway as, oh God, this is Velazquez. And then I sit down and think for a bit. And then I start to paint.