SAN JOSE, Calif.—In bad news, Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab is not the kind of “VR film” that should have you rushing to purchase a high-end VR rig and exploring the edges of the Blade Runner universe. The dialogue and story are first-draft fluff. The acting is stilted. Its connections to the new film are tenuous at best. And the series-lore payoff is equivalent to a cartoon character opening a wallet to let a single fly buzz out.
So why talk about it at all? Because this 25-minute experience is the most polished execution of VR-for-film I’ve ever seen, and it may herald the true beginning of VR films with actual human actors.
Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab, which we got to take for an exclusive spin at the latest Oculus Connect conference, puts you in the shoes of a new, silent replicant. He looks like a cross between Ryan Gosling and Macklemore, and he’s in trouble for apparently violating protocol: he mistook a human for a target replicant and killed him. If a replicant actually killed a human for no justified reason, then its creators at Wallace Corp. (the bad guys in the new film) would be in deep dystopian doo-doo. Thus, your task is to help your Wallace Corp. handlers with the investigation over what exactly happened… and maybe assist them with a cover-up.
The experience opens with a dramatic flight over a grimy, rain-soaked Los Angeles. Watery effects pound the windshield on your flying police car while a female replicant briefs you via video chat. But the following scene, in a barren interrogation dome, proves far more stark and interesting. Here, a human actress walks up to you, talks to you, and walks around you. Lean your head whichever way you like—up, down, all around—and every part of the woman will be rendered immediately and accurately. You might catch a bit of rendering weirdness here and there, but, for the most part, it’s impeccable stuff. And it sets the stage for even more actor interactions, which you can freely warp around, as the experience plays out.
More VR creators have begun playing with this photo-stitching technology, which works by aiming dozens of cameras around a person in a capture studio, floor to ceiling and recording their volumetric data for use in a 3D program. Your computer will then grab and render whichever video-capture data is relevant for whatever angle you’re looking at, since this isn’t the same as wrapping a 3D polygonal model in static textures; the game or app has to adjust which video footage is used on the fly, since some 2D trickery must be used to make people look real, not like weird polygons.
Night Trap callback
Previously, the coolest thing I’d seen use this tech came in the form of After Solitary, an award-winning short VR film that required a room-scale system like the HTC Vive for dramatic effect. Blade Runner: Memory Lab expands upon this idea by combining its immaculately rendered actors with solid “teleportation” movement and the semblance of game-like exploration.
Eventually, your replicant is given a mission: walk around one of your memories, in which human actors are milling about a two-block of future Los Angeles, and look for any incriminating data in the memory that you can delete or alter in order to protect Wallace Corp. This sounds a lot better as a game idea than how it’s executed, however, with nothing in the way of clue-gathering or “look carefully to solve a puzzle” gameplay mechanics here. Instead, you warp around and point a little laser at objects until you hear a bleep, indicating that they can be scanned, and then you use your replicant powers to delete a memory. Do that a few times, and you’re done.
That simple gameplay is a shame (as is the terrible plot and an awful Jared Leto knock-off actor at the end). Memory Lab’s production values are through the roof, thanks to dramatic 3D world design, handsome lighting effects, and no shortage of human actors rendered to great effect around the scene’s streets and alleys. The demo tried to rush me out once I’d deleted enough evidence, but I wanted more time to soak up the developer’s best efforts and imagine what this experience could very well inspire in other, future games. Honestly, the thing that kept coming back to my mind was the bygone era of full-motion video in games. Laugh all you want at the cheese and camp of games like Sewer Shark and Night Trap, but there’s something to be said about combining real human actors—who you can actually walk with—and compellingly interactive worlds.
The Sega CD might not have been an engaging enough platform to pull off FMV-gaming greatness… but perhaps VR presents an entirely new opportunity. What if a Hollywood star appeared in dramatic photo-stitched fashion in a game—and not just behind a pane of glass, but actually next to you, hiding behind chest-high cover with a gun in hand, as your ally? Or what if you happened upon multiple actors having a dramatic moment and you were able to walk right up to them, like some sort of strange “immersive theater” project? Blade Runner: Memory Lab really shines when two or three actors interact directly with each other—and, in this short film’s case, in brutal fashion. It’s heart-stirring stuff that has to be seen to believed.
Thus, I invite any curious PC VR users to head to the Oculus Store on Thursday, October 19, to pick this up for free. (A GearVR version launches one week later, but I was unable to test whether the photo-stitching tech in this PC version transfers well to the mobile platform.) More importantly, I invite the next generation of VR content creators to see this app’s few successes and build upon them for a new era of FMV-fueled VR games.
Listing image by Oculus