2018 has been a good year for video games . From blockbuster epics to smaller indie experiences to inventive takes on VR, the breadth and variety of games that came out over the last 12 months is astounding. To celebrate, Verge staff members are writing essays on their own personal favorite games, and what made them stand out above the crowd.
I’m about to tell you about my favorite game of 2018, Beat Saber — even though I’m a little worried it will ruin my favorite part.
Beat Saber, which was released by Czech indie studio Hyperbolic Magnetism in May, is one of virtual reality’s most popular and critically lauded games. It’s been on Steam’s VR best-seller list for most of 2018, and it just launched on Sony’s PlayStation VR headset last month, with new songs and new game modes. And it deserves all the accolades it gets, because it’s an intuitive, physically challenging, and almost unbelievably cool-feeling rhythm game.
Beat Saber is essentially Dance Dance Revolution with lightsabers. When you start the game, it maps a red or blue saber to each of your motion controllers, and you see a floating stream of red and blue arrow-marked boxes, which you slash in the correct direction with the correct saber at the correct time. The notes are punctuated by barriers that you have to duck, or bombs that you have to avoid with your sabers.
You’re not imitating any real-world activity with this process, but it all makes perfect sense after a few songs. It can also be incredibly hard if you care about playing at higher difficulty levels and climbing the game’s leaderboards. Unlike many rhythm games, skill in Beat Saber isn’t judged by precise timing. The scoring — which I had to learn from the developer’s Twitter feed, since early versions of the game didn’t describe it — is all about form.
SEGA’s VR Glasses Project That Didn’t Make It. Gaming companies also knew that Virtual Reality was going to become a huge thing in the gaming world. However, while they had the vision, they were lacking the technology we have today. In 1993, at one of the first Consumer Electronics Shows, SEGA announced the Sega VR headset for their Genesis console. The prototype glasses had head tracking, LCD screens in the visor and stereo sound. SEGA’s idea was to release the product for a mere $200 at the time, but technical development issues turned the idea into one of the biggest flops for the infamous gaming company. The product was never released on the market.
Read next: The 15 best video games of 2018
Beat Saber’s bare minimum for success is slashing a box in the right direction, but the game awards more points for making the arcs of your cuts longer, and by hitting a note box down its center. That doesn’t mean you’re supposed to be constantly making wild swings. (In my experience, good beat sabering is largely about the wrist snap.) But it emphasizes the game’s physicality, and at higher difficulties, it encourages training and forethought, as you figure out which arm placements will give you the best angle for your next cut.
Beat Saber fans were greeted with an update on all platforms today which has introduced a new free track debuted exclusively within the game. ‘One Hope’, which was added to the game in an update today, debuted exclusively in the game and won’t be available on other platforms like Spotify until a later date.
This is a great idea for a game, and I’ve enjoyed Hyperbolic Magnetism’s small collection of songs. But Beat Saber is my favorite game of 2018 because of a feature that’s unofficial, somewhat illegal, and possibly unsustainable: custom tracks.
Beat Saber doesn’t license well-known songs, and while the developers are rolling out new tracks, it’s been a slow process. But a fan-built level editor lets you compose your own saber tracks with any audio file, then add it to a community-maintained database where anyone can download it with a modded version of the PC-based Oculus Rift or HTC Vive editions. (As far as I know, PSVR players are out of luck.)
The Health Care Industry Is Using It. Health care is actually one of the leading industries that have fully embraced this technology. For example, medical schools are now using virtual reality to teach and train doctors on conducting complex medical procedures and operations. There are also simulations that are engaging doctors in certain medical situations in real life. For patients, virtual reality can be useful as well. Many hospitals now give patients virtual reality headsets instead of drugs to help relax them.
This opens up the game incredibly. For one thing, it provides more content that matches your musical taste, which is a major reason I’ve kept playing Beat Saber so long. But just as importantly, the custom songs realize Beat Saber’s potential as a creative choreography medium, not just a fun workout.
Beat Saber custom tracks are often rougher than their official counterparts. The flow of boxes doesn’t always fit the song’s beat, or it forces you into motions that are awkward rather than flowing. They can also be hard to enjoy as a casual player, since many composers only build for the highest difficulty settings.
But the custom tracks are designed with a clear, and fascinating, range of individual styles. Some are arranged to literally simulate lightsaber battles, and others seem scored for sheer manual dexterity, full of wide-ranging, rapid-fire patterns. Others capture the style of the artist: a track for “Bohemian Rhapsody” is full of bold theatrical gestures; one for Green Day’s “Holiday” evokes playing a bouncy pop-punk drumbeat; and a track for “Gangnam Style,” unsurprisingly, nudges you into imitating Psy’s infamous dance sequence.
iGlasses. While today Apple is infamous for their use of “i” in their products, they weren’t the first ones to come up with the idea. In the 1990s, a company known as Virtual I/O came up with a headset that was capable of color 3D stereoscopic vision, as well as head tracking. Known as iGlasses, the device had a price tag of just under $1000. While the glasses were fully capable of delivering an immersive experience, they didn’t truly ignite the consumer market.
The custom tracks underline how creative Beat Saber level design really is, creating an interplay between song and motion that’s not nearly as evident with the vanilla tracks. And while games like Guitar Hero have homebrew design scenes, Beat Saber’s feel unusually central to the game, simply because that short song list naturally pushes people to explore what’s outside the official catalog.
I doubt the modding community will remain so vital if Beat Saber becomes more than just “big for VR” and reaches true mainstream status. It’s already a little surprising that (as far as I know) Beat Saber hasn’t gotten a strongly worded copyright notice from Lucasfilm, although the PSVR update did tweak its sabers to be less clearly Star Wars-derived. The game’s custom songs are pretty unambiguous piracy, and Beat Saber could undercut a lot of them with official, downloadable tracks. That’s a shame, because while there’s a lot of appetite for downloadable songs, they probably won’t have the same artistic diversity as today’s community tracks.
It’s uncertain what this means for players on Rift, Vive, and Windows VR playing through Steam and the Oculus Store, although the game is technically still in Early Access on PC, so it’s possible that when it makes its full-featured launch it will include many of the same updates (minus whatever exclusive songs are coming to PSVR).
I’m talking about the extremely niche field of high-end virtual reality here, so I don’t foresee Beat Saber overtaking Guitar Hero any time soon; the Rift, Vive, and PlayStation VR are still just too pricey and inconvenient. But Beat Saber is one of the best games VR has produced, and one of the best rhythm games in any format. I hope that more people get to experience it the way I did: as not just a game, but a medium.