Wot I Think: Valve’s Portal-Themed VR Suite The Lab

The Lab is a free, semi-Portal-themed collection of minigames and vignettes from Valve, designed to show of the capabilities of their new VR headset, the Vive. It’s out now, but clearly most of you won’t be able to try it – even if you ordered a Vive, you’re weeks or more away from receiving it. Given this is, in theory, the first new Valve game in quite some time, I thought I’d tell you all about it.

First things first: despite having Valve on the loading screen and an Aperture Labs theme, it’s better not to think of this as a new Valve game. It’s a technology showcase, and while there are flashes of the ingenuity and sharp, witty writing Valve are known for, its clear intention is to say “these are the kinds of things that room-scale VR can do, now go forth and do more with it.” Or, if you’re not an aspiring developer, “these are the kinds of things that room-scale VR can do, now go forth and blow your relatives’ minds with it.”

With that said, let’s explore exactly what’s inside The Lab. The titular location is a hub adorned with various Aperture trappings, including a huge and sinister factory which convincingly stretches out into the far distance even though you can’t walk into it. Objects within that hub lead to eight mini-games, a few of which are also Portal-themed, one of which is Dota themed and others of which are basically disassociated from any known Valve-world.

You can walk around the hub to some extent if you have the floorspace, but mostly you’re going to be using the D-pad on your Steam controller to robotically move around tile-by-tile, Legend of Grimrock-style. Room-scale is all well and good in concept, and suits short movements and crazy flailing very well, but in terms of moving in a straight line for any length of time, it’s kind of a bust for now.

It is A Nice Room, though, full of mad machinery, little things to peer at in corners and assorted sight and sound gags characterised by Aperture’s patented brand of sadism. It’s good to be there, imagining what a full VR recreation of Aperture’s labs would be like – and particularly what a VR Portal 3 could be. Maybe one day soon we’ll have that, but right now we get a grab-bag of impressive but short-lived tech demos instead. Sadly these demonstrate the Vive’s limitations as much as they do its capabilities.

Take, for example, the one that places you on a mountainside or in the Icelandic wilderness, accompanied by a cheerful robo-canine who looks uncannily like a cross between GlaDOS and a Houndeye (Half-Life 3 confirmed, etc) and capers like the faithful mutt of your dreams. It looks lovely, screendoor and jagged edges not withstanding, and using the motion controller to pick up and throw a stick for GlaDOG (if they haven’t called it that then they bloody well should) is delightful.

Then you realise the only way to move any meaningful distance across the vast flatland is to ‘teleport’ to a handful of fixed circles not far away, and the illusion falls apart. It’s a tech demo! That’s OK! But at the same time it does feel like a statement admitting that “yeah, we can render these vast spaces but we haven’t really figured out what to do with ’em yet.’ I don’t want to ask the tech to do things it can’t – specifically, walking across effectively limitless spaces – but man, I really would like to wander around virtua-Iceland just a little bit. Treadmill accessory for the Vive 2 please, Valve.

Same goes for a variant on this that has you on a mountaintop/side. Unfortunately the dog does not plunge to its death if you hurl the stick over the side of the mountain. It’s nice to stand on a mountain with a robot dog by my side, though. I would play that walking simulator. However, what these vignettes are really trying to do is demonstrate the Vive’s potential as a tourism and education device. Visit far-off places from the comfort of your own home and all that, or even check out hotels and streets before you commit to rental.

Those things don’t require anything more than looking around, and I think can be genuinely useful – and cheaper than the real thing, for those of us who can’t afford exotic holidays. Mixed reality like this is something to keep an eye on, possibly more than games are.

More substantial from an interaction point of view is Aperture Robot Repair, which we’ve covered a few times before. It remains both a funny and a visually dramatic vignette from the Portal universe. It shows off that the Vive can handle both the tiny and the gigantic, but Portal VR it most certainly isn’t. It does, however, demonstrate very well that VR is not limited to chunky, toony art.

The other Portal-y scene is Slingshot, which is basically VR Angry Birds with Personality Cores used as cannonballs. Their patter is magnificent, and a welcome reminder that I would do dreadful things in order to play a whole new Portal game, and the scenes of destruction when you land a shot just so are glorious when seen at this scale. It’s The Lab vignette I’m most likely to revisit, but it is strictly minigame and does feel straight out of the Wii school of semi-casual, physics-based tomfoolery. I like it, and you’ll like it too, but it left me hungry for more.

Also from the Valve-verse is Secret Shop, which sees you pay a visit to a room containing various items and creatures from Dota 2. It’s one of the more substantial vignettes, in that there are quite a few bits and bobs to poke at, it’ll really melt your GPU and it is truly designed to be a space you wander around and peer at, if you have the floorspace. Its nature – browsing oddities and inciting unexpected effects – also made my mind turn more to future possibilities than most of the other Lab experiments did. It reminded me of the shops and voodoo parlours in Monkey Island games – nosing around at all these strange things and being rewarded with both spoken and sight gags.

I don’t know about full-blown shooters, but based on Secret Shop I do think VR – particularly its roomscale and motion-controlled variants – could support a first-person point’n’click adventure rather well. It would be a fine opportunity to build in tons of fine comic detail and setup a few physics-based puzzles, and the whole getting-out-the-room ethos would fit an enclosed space well.

Speaking of shooters though, there’s an archery mini-game which again is very Wii, but is satisfyingly physical and a proper two-handed affair. In terms of demonstrating that the motion controllers are extremely precise and responsive, and that aiming in VR can entail literally raising a targeting sight to your eye, great. But like the Slingshot one it’s a mobile game writ large rather than a signpost to the future.

Similar but more frantic and, perhaps, longer-term is Xortex, a bullet-hell game in which your motion controller becomes a shooty spaceship which moves in full 3D space. It’s a good time, with boss fights and escalating difficult and scoreboards, so there’s far more reason to go back to it than to anything else here. With its focus on hand and upper-body movements rather than leg movements, this one might just be the strongest statement that the Vive does not necessarily require having a huge open space at your disposal: you pretty much stand in one spot, sweeping your arm around and rotating your head and body in an extremely natural way.

I rather suspect the tech’s near-future is standing-based games more than it is trying to walk around a relatively small space. It’s almost easier to accept the limitation of staying in one space than it is constantly butting up against a digital barrier and having to scurry backwards or, worse, awkwardly teleport yourself to a different part of the in-game room.

Rounding things off are two demonstrations of potential non-game applications for VR. One is a life size human skeleton which you can essentially X-ray in order to see the internal structure – one day, VR may well be useful from a medical point of view. Better this than chopping up real corpses, perhaps. The other is a solar system you wander/teleport through, and optionally pick up planets and chuck ’em about. I went bowling with Venus, basically. If this was my first time with the Vive I’d be gobsmacked by it, but I’ve done quite a few OMG I’m In Space thingies by now – more on one of which very soon – and I must confess that it’s now becoming less startling. I don’t like admitting that, because I don’t want to be the guy who’s bored of space.

All told, then: a great demo for the Vive, with a few highly intriguing signposts to VR’s possible future and several flashes of the great wit and invention which underpins the Portal games. But, like Job Simulator, it’s not something I see myself heading back to other than to show it off to others – with the possible exception of Xortex, which does get my pulse spiking a little. Unlike Job Simulator, however, The Lab is not asking £30, so there’s no arguing with it whatsoever.

It’s so hard to battle the desire for a full new Valve game asap, but based on what I’ve done in VR so far I am more than comfortable with them taking their time, waiting to see how the Vive – and other headsets – play out and what it is ultimately possible, rather than rushing into something which only takes partial advantage or doesn’t yet understand what the average player feels both comfortable with and capable of.

‘Cute’ is the term I most want to use for The Lab. It’s a collection of often very impressive proofs of concept for where this tech might one day go, if there’s enough take-up. There’s some third-party stuff I’ve tried which goes significantly further than that, more on which soon.

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  1. Kefren says:

    I think I’d be only interested in “room scale stuff” when we have headsets that don’t need a PC (maybe they’d have a small laptop in a backpack) so you are “untethered”; and no need for base stations, the headset can work out where you are. Then I could go into the garden and have fun on an open space with no walls or furniture, and a soft ground. Get some fresh air too.

  2. Morte66 says:

    I’ll float a few inches above Iceland on my virtual hoversofa, thanks. Stick your VR treadmill in your virtual gym.

  3. Frog says:

    “even if you ordered a Vive, you’re weeks or more away from receiving it.”

    Is that in Valve time I wonder?

  4. Runty McTall says:

    – I placed my order about 3 minutes after sales went live;
    – Got a confirmation email 26 minutes later;
    – Had my payment value “held” March 26th (with attendant email saying the order was being processed and a link to a site where I could track it);
    – Got an email from DHL saying it has been shipped (from the Czech Republic?); &
    – DHL tracking site says it should be delivered on Monday.

    Am psyched :D

    • Runty McTall says:

      Guh, got the DHL email *today*.

      • hollowroom says:

        Mines on it’s way from Prague now. Delivery tomorrow… there goes the weekend.

  5. Humppakummitus says:

    Hmm, not much good for walking simulators, but the standing simulators will be magnificent!

    • ChrisGWaine says:

      Pottering about in a room simulators will be fabulous

    • Xzi says:

      Teleportation being just one of several artificial locomotion methods used in VR games currently. I like the ability to change scale, and A Legend of Luca is a roguelike that re-positions the player in the game world when going from room to room. Even teleporting is quite fun, Alec is a bit foolish to think people won’t enjoy thinking with Portals.

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