Escapism has become an art form. As we search for ever-more engrossing ways to forget the troubles of the real world, new forms of media are emerging to help us live out our dreams. Speaking in the vernacular of video games and powered by an array of new technologies, these mixed-media entertainments offer a thrilling escape from the world we know. Consumers are eager to jump down the rabbit hole - here's where we think they're going.
Where did it start? It's hard to say, but July 2016 seems like a good place to plant the flag. Two key things happened that month: the release of Stranger Things, which catapulted the grandfather of immersive games - Dungeons & Dragons - into mainstream popularity; and the launch of Pokemon Go, an augmented-reality game that brought a digital world to suburban backyards and city streets.
In the years since, we've seen a boom in immersive experiences that merge reality and imagination; the Oculus Rift drove a revived interest in VR and made it, if not a runaway hit, a fixture in the popular consciousness. Tabletop gaming has seen an enormous revival, with friends gathering to slay imaginary orcs and write their own epics. Instead of becoming a pop-culture footnote, Pokemon Go continues to grow. And a new wave of games like Fortnite remove the anonymity of online gaming as real-life friends form squads online to battle for supremacy.
2019 is already looking like a banner year for immersive fantasy. Netflix's choose-your-own-adventure Bandersnatch movie was a runaway hit, seamlessly merging television and gaming, and their Russian Doll series brought a video game twist to the Groundhog Day trope. The best hope for a true VR turning point will arrive later this year, too, with the release of the Oculus Quest, a self-contained VR headset that's more game console than PC accessory.
The most radical form of escape, however, will arrive this summer and fall, when Disney opens its Star Wars-themed Galaxy's Edge parks in Anaheim and Orlando. Disney's parks have always set a high bar for self-contained experiences, but their Star Wars worlds will present an uncanny, Westworld-like degree of total immersion. Instead of being Star Wars-themed, the parks simply exist within the Star Wars universe. The designers have been careful to make this distinction clear, and it is rumored that concession stands may not even sell recognizably branded products, lest the glimpse of a logo breaks the illusion of being in a galaxy far, far away. Visitors stay in a hotel that resembles a spaceship, adopt a new identity, and complete quests and tasks that follow the internal schedule of a world filled with actors. We can only imagine that aging Star Wars fans must already making plans to retire there.
At times when reality is stressful and feels out of our control, we've always be drawn to escapism. Two things make this particular moment different: Emerging technologies allow us to overlay these adventures on the real world, or escape the real world entirely. And today, 36 years after the release of the first Nintendo Entertainment System, the underlying logic of video games - of quests, power-ups, temporary death and instant rebirth - has become a shared understanding in the mainstream. Generations raised on games are remaking their own realities - and they're building them with a gamer's sensibility.