Our Vive hands-on experience with The Lab took place in Valve’s GDC booth. Actually, ‘booth’ isn’t the right word at all. Valve had transformed a large chunk of the Moscone North hall into a suite of sleek, white virtual reality chambers. The setting itself is a statement of intent, clean and minimalist in comparison to the usual attention-grabbing showfloor stalls, and quietly but efficiently guarded. As Pip and I sat in the waiting area on the final day of the show, the ‘Demos Full’ sign out front had two stickynotes attached: “No, really.” “Really, really, really.”
We were there to see The Lab, which I understood to be a Portal-themed collection of minigames (I suspect you’ll be reading about a lot of minigames in these early stages of VR). They turned out to be four small demos that took us back to the world of Portal and explored the possibilities of the Vive’s virtual spaces and impressive motion controls.
People were still convinced they’d be able to talk themselves into an appointment. In the five minutes I waited, a steady stream of hopefuls arrived, asking if they could see just one game, or even watch somebody else playing. One of them asked if he could book a slot for next year’s GDC. “We don’t even know what we’ll be showing!” the man at the desk laughed. “It doesn’t matter. Can I make an appointment now?”
Given the mystique that comes with such exclusivity, I half-wondered if the guy had been drafted in to play out his part like Alan Partridge’s autograph hunter. The Vive demos really were one of the hottest tickets in town though.
It begins on a mountain, blue skies stretching overhead and vertiginous drops all around. Christopher Chin, the Valve employee running the demo for Pip and me, explains that the setting was created by stitching together photographs. This is Vesper Peak, a real mountain a couple of hours from Valve’s offices. Seeing it in VR is like stepping into a real space and that somewhat works against me – I step toward an edge, looking down, but I don’t want to get too close. I was genuinely scared of falling and it would have taken a much more persuasive voice than Chin’s (he’s a soft-spoken and articulate environment artist/architect) to convince me that I could step off the edge. Or perhaps I couldn’t?
While I was playing this and the other demos, I was very aware of the perfect setup that the Vive was operating within. Alec has already described the workings of the Vive’s room-scale technology as used at home; I can only tell you what it was like to use in perfect, controlled conditions. The individual spaces in which Valve operated the demos were designed to fit the limits of room-scale, snug and comfortable, so that there was plenty of space to move around as far as the cable would allow. Indeed, the environment was so carefully designed that I reckon I might have run up against the ‘walls’ of the chaperone system, which prevents users from bumping into an ACTUAL wall, before I stepped into the apparent nothingness where the mountain gave way to air.
That’s beside the point though. This wasn’t a game about carefully navigating walkways at the roof of the world, it was a demonstration of the Vive’s ability to drop users into convincing real world locations. It was also my introduction to teleporting, which will be a common method of artificially expanding the available space players have to move around in.
In this case, holding down one of the controller buttons, in the right hand, created an arc leading from that hand out into the game world. Aimed at highlighted spots farther down the mountain, it moved my view from one spot to the next. The transition is instantaneous, with no linking animation, and I didn’t find the effect even slightly jarring. As a proof of concept for believable large-scale areas traversed one room-sized slice at a time, this is a convincing mountain.
Apart from looking back from one point to the next, my only way of seeing any continuity between one place and the next came in the form of the small robot dog that bounded along trying to keep up with me. I mentioned that you’ll be reading about lots of minigames in VR coverage; you’re probably going to read about a lot of animal companions as well, robotic or otherwise. They make a lot of sense, these virtual pets, providing something with which to interact and to act as a guide or focal point in the world.
Vesper Peak’s robo-dog is a cute little thing. Reaching out and ‘touching’ it feels so natural that I worried that my brain had been rewired. I’m crouching in the middle of a room, stroking the air, content to believe that I’m petting a robotic dog.
It fetches sticks, too. The first one I threw went straight out of view, tumbling down the mountain, and I gasped when I thought my little chum was going to pull a Wile E Coyote, rushing off the edge and treading air for a second before plummeting. My terrible throw wasn’t punished, however, and the dog managed to follow a trail and came bouncing back with the stick a couple of minutes later.
The mountain scene ended when an object like a snowglobe appeared. Picking it up, I could see a scene inside that looked like a giant warehouse. Holding and staring into the globe took me inside that scene and the mountain was gone, replaced by stacks of crates and explosive barrels. All very videogame.
And then I heard the voices. Personality cores.
I think we’re more likely to see a new Portal game than a new Half Life game. It’s not just that The Lab dropped me back in the world of Aperture, with writing as gleefully clever and silly as you could hope for, it’s that the whole issue of spatial awareness and movement within VR could have been custom-designed for the series’ puzzles. And its sense of humour too – there would be something weird and wonderful about Valve, fully invested in the VR revolution, lampooning the tech’s apparent limitations through game design. Who better to explore those limitations than a studio intimately involved in the process of discovering them?
The personality core demo does not explore VR in any meaningful way. It’s called Slingshot and it’s Angry Birds in 3D, the personality cores playing the role of the birds and the stacks of crates and barrels, which tumble in the massive space, playing the role of the pigs and their structures.
Tech-wise, it’s impressive, the slingshot that fires the cores providing an impressive level of physical feedback as tension builds. The cores themselves are the star of the show though and I wish I’d been able to take a breather and listen to their monologues from beginning to end.
Next up is a medieval-themed shoot ’em up, Longbow, in which the player fires a bow from a castle’s ramparts. The castle is explicitly introduced as a model and the demo takes an approach to scale that is markedly different to most VR experiences I played through over the past week. Where so many attempt to impress with grand vistas, Longbow positions you at the edge of this tiny castle and allows you to lean in, as if playing with little figurines.
Those figurines are tiny Paper Mario-esque enemies, the Aperture Science ad-people in fancy dress. You’re there to blast them away, and environmental hazards such as burning oil can be turned to your advantage through careful targeting. Pip played this one while I watched and as well as proving that she’d be far more likely to survive a siege than I would, she gave me some time to talk to Chin while the demo was running.
He explained that the archery demo and the one that followed, a sci-fi bullet shmup set inside a giant 3D sphere called Xortex, had grown out of attempts to understand existing genres through the lens of VR. Even though the archery used the motion controllers in a novel fashion, requiring the use of both hands to draw back the string and aim each shot, the sci-fi shooter was the more impressive demonstration.
Even though your entire body seems to be present in the 3D space of the game, it’s only the controller that really matters. It’s the only part of you that has a hit location and it’s a tiny little ship that you’re effectively holding in your hand, steering it between waves of bullets and targeting enemies as if you were playing with a physical toy. If you’ve ever picked up a model of an X-Wing and made silly noises as you make it fly around the room, you’ll be at home in this game immediately.
It takes a genre that doesn’t seem a natural fit for the form and turns it into pure play. Watching on a screen, while somebody else plays, it doesn’t seem particularly intuitive at all, but with the controller in hand and the sphere and its incoming hordes of ships filling your entire vision, it’s as simple as a game could be.
These four demos will make up a portion of The Lab’s contents. Within the hub area of the lab itself there are more snowglobes to pick up and a board lists eight titles.
The Lab, as a whole, feels like Valve are very publicly exploring their first steps in the VR world. They’re doing that with all of the polish and wit that you might expect, but these are very much demonstrations rather than full-fat games. Prototype games, perhaps, but I wouldn’t even be too sure about that. Prototypes of sequences that might become a part of something large and more varied, more likely.
These aren’t the kind of experiments that might blow up in your face. Unlike Aperture’s test chambers and tech, The Lab’s contents are reassuring. A show of safe hands, demonstrating not only that VR is ready to roll and full of potential, but that almost anyone can pick up and play. Whether it’s the comedic simplicity of Slingshot, the intensity of Xortex or the sedate beauty of Vesper Peak’s mountain landscape, there’s something that you’d be able to show to just about anyone.