Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole considers virtual real estate and the uncanny valley
What will videogame technology do for property porn? That is the pressing question as one watches Benoît Dereau’s recent tech demo for the Unreal 4 engine, which takes the form of a placid, uneventful stroll around a heartstoppingly beautiful Parisian apartment. I used to live in Paris, and while neither I nor anyone I knew lived in an apartment like this, because we weren’t billionaires, the Unreal Paris demo still somehow captures an essential ambience of life in the City of Light.
The solution to our housing crisis is clear: instead of providing decent living space at reasonable cost to all, just do a mass mailout of Oculus Rifts so the less fortunate can spend all their time indoors with a headset strapped to their faces and inhabit the domestic illusion of living in a designer Paris pad instead of where they actually are.
It still needs work, though. Indeed, technological advances seem to approach the long-held dream of absolute photorealism only asymptotically. Unreal Paris is the most strikingly detailed and persuasive simulation of a real place I have ever seen in a realtime videogame engine, and yet it’s still obvious that it is in fact not real.
We normally think of the Uncanny Valley problem as applying only to human faces. And yet in this uninhabited apartment the uncanniness has not disappeared; it has merely been displaced into inanimate furnishing materials. The big black leather cushions forming the bed’s headboard look eerily like real big black leather cushions, except you somehow know they would feel weirdly hard to the touch. The arms of the beautifully upholstered white sofas are angled just a touch too rigidly. The oak flooring looks just a little too consistently shiny. Indeed the whole place is unnaturally more clean than any place could be with actual humans living in it.
No wonder that soon I began dreaming of throwing bombs around this disturbingly idyllic home. Not in a terrorist way, you understand. Simply that I have lately been enjoying a co-operative romp through Lara
Croft And The Temple Of Osiris. No chance of the Uncanny Valley (of the Kings) here, as giant pastel-coloured scarab beetles and enormous skeletons (that for some reason, are on fire) all just become surreal fodder for one’s twin assault rifles or eventually (and why not?) a golden rocket-launcher. (Don’t ask why it isn’t far too heavy to wield.) Of course, the isometric Tomb Raider lineage is deliberately more of an all-out action-fest ( Dead Nation among ancient ruins) than the original games. But it’s still notable that the best parts of Osiris, like the best parts of its predecessor Guardian Of Light, and the best parts of basically all the other Tomb Raider games ever, are the parts where the runningaround-shooting-guns kind of action stops, and the real core action of the game can bloom: exploring a space at one’s leisure and figuring out what to do in it.
In Osiris, the best parts are mostly relegated to the “challenge tombs”. Here, in fine Tomb Raider tradition, you are left alone (or alone with your co-op partner) in a creepy room, with all the time in the world to puzzle out a solution to some slow-burning physical problem. You stand on that switch and I’ll stand over here; you turn that mirror this way and I’ll fire my magic blue stafflight at it, and so on. The cleverest mechanical additions are big rolling balls that are also time bombs, and must be ushered through a maze of spikes and other traps in time to blow up a conveniently vulnerable section of wall, behind which lurks some new weapon for shooting swollen geckos or obese exploding mummies. When I realised that we could use a remote bomb to jump one such time-bomb ball through a wall of flames, it was extraordinarily pleasing. Meta-bombing in creepy rooms: playing videogames does not often get much better than that.
And the more time you spend in the Unreal Paris tech demo, the more its rooms, too, seem potentially creepy: the perfect sort of environment in which a future Lara might be tasked with understanding what eldritch mechanism drives it. Dereau’s distinctive, semi-mournful aesthetic of nostalgia for a living space so perfect that it never existed turns even eerier as the walkthrough visits the bathroom. We pass by the mirrors, but see no reflection of ourselves in them. This, I decided, is quite obviously an apartment belonging to a Parisian vampire. When she finally gets here, Lara’s golden gun had better be loaded with silver bullets.
Meta-bombing in creepy rooms: playing videogames does not often get much
better than that