Let Them Eat Cake
This was the last demo I tried and was Valve and HTC’s pièce de résistance. As soon as the demo started, I knew exactly where I was. I was inside a Valve game, inside Portal, in a robot repair room at Aperture Science.
The fidelity of the graphics in this room where beyond anything else I had seen before, and a robot voice started giving me directions as to what to do. I was instructed to open a drawer, and, of course, there was more than one, and I wasn’t directed as to which one I needed to open. The wrong ones contained some funny Valve Easter eggs – one had a half-eaten moldy cake, and another one contained a miniature world of the black 2D stick-figures of the Portal 2 promotional videos.
I was then told to turn around and pull a lever to open a large door, and behind it was a robot – Atlas, the round robot from Portal 2, to be precise. He looked to be out of order, but he suddenly sprang to life and moved through the doorway into the room, in an ungainly fashion due to his state of disrepair.
The sight of this huge robot that was as tall as me (and much bigger-looking in person than he looked when playing Portal 2) coming towards me was a little unnerving. I backed away as he entered the room.The sense of scale that you get when using the Vive is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. No matter how "big" something is, when you view it on a 24- to 32-inch monitor, it just isn’t the same.
The Atlas before me was incredibly detailed and realistic. I was told to pull another lever on him to start the robot repair, and all his internal components sprang out and were suspended in space in front of him. The detail on each of these individual animated parts was incredible. Later, I found out it was because this demo was running on Valve’s new Source 2 engine. You can see a short video clip from the demo over here.
I was then instructed that I had to repair Atlas, and I had a limited amount of time to do it. I don’t remember how long it was, but it felt like a minute at most. As I struggled to work out what to do, which I figured out involved rotating parts of the robot, the timer was ticking and the disembodied robotic voice’s instructions became more and more complex. I was destined to fail, even though the HTC rep walking me through my experience assured me that there had been only four people who did successful repair Atlas. (That could have been a lie though!)
And fail I did. The timer ran out, and Atlas’s parts fell to the floor, and the robot slumped down in a state of disrepair. Suddenly, the walls of the room began to fall apart around me. I guess failing this task wasn’t a good thing, and my electronic instructor began to berate me for my poor performance.
It was then that GLaDOS (Portal’s main antagonist) appeared. As her enormous robotic armature moved towards me, her robotic eye’s glare burning into me, I jumped back again in fear and awe, just as did when I encountered the whale. Again, the sense of scale was unparalleled. You can’t imagine how large GLaDOS until you actually (virtually) meet her.
It was this demo where I cried. Not because it was immeasurably better-looking (though it was) or more interactive than the others, but because it was the first time that the magnitude of what the Vive would allow hit me. Valve’s Half-life/Portal universe is one that I’ve be able experience for almost 20 years of my life, but it has always been as an outsider looking through a window into that world. I currently game using a triple monitor setup, headphones, and an insistence that I only play when there is nothing else to distract me to maximize my immersion into the game world. However, my current setup can’t hold a candle to the level of immersion I got when playing this demo.
For the first time, I felt like I was actually transported into a universe that I know and love. Being able to actually walk around and interact with a room in Aperture Science, rather than view it through a monitor, or (if I was using a competing VR solution) just look around it from a fixed position was absolutely mind-blowing. It felt real. I was there. Never for a minute did my subconscious doubt that. At the moment GLaDOS confronted me, I wasn’t experiencing a demo in Barcelona, Spain. I was there in a room with her, one of gaming’s greatest villains, staring down at me, wondering if I was about to live or die.
As GLaDOS was talking to me in her incredibly creepy monotone voice, the world was disintegrating around me, exposing the scale of the huge facility I was in. There were other platforms and areas off in the distance, both on the same level as me and above and below me. I was almost freaking out at the HTC demo rep, asking him to reassure me that the floor wasn’t going to drop from under me and I was going to fall to my death. I don’t think I could have handled that. There’s even a chance I would have lost control of some bodily functions -- it was that intense.
Thankfully, GLaDOS decided to spare me, and with that and the appearance of a Companion Cube, my time with the Vive ended.