The world of virtual reality in video games has explored places never seen or experienced. In these scenarios, the landscape and everything that goes with it is new and springs from someone’s imagination.
But what if VR tries to recreate someplace that is very well known and puts the player inside that location? In “Star Trek: Bridge Crew,” developers not only let you see what it is like to be on the bridge of a Federation starship but also allow you to take control of different positions, including being the captain.
For a “Star Trek” fan, this is a dream come true. Whether you are aboard the U.S.S. Aegis, a newer starship, or the legendary U.S.S. Enterprise (the first one), the attention to detail by Red Storm Entertainment and Ubisoft is meticulous, lovingly rendered, and reflects the passion of those who loved the television series and the movies.
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David Votypka, senior creative director at Red Storm, felt a little bit of pressure to get things right, but he wanted it to be more than just a recreation.
“’Star Trek,’ maybe even more than ‘Star Wars,’ has fans that are extremely adamant about accuracy and scientific logic behind everything,” Votypka said. “We knew from the very beginning we had to get it right. Not only the details on the bridge but actually the sense of being inside ‘Star Trek’ and being on a Federation starship and doing the things that a Federation officer does.”
The VR experience is best done using hand controllers, which allows the players the freedom to use their hands in a more natural motion. Whether captain, engineer, helm or tactical, the roles intertwine and create a sense of team to complete the missions.
It is a smooth experience for the player and doesn’t create any motion-related illnesses that can come with a virtual reality game. The calm motion, when not in a firefight situation, also allows players to really get a sense of how vast and complex the bridge of a starship can be.
Whether on the Enterprise or the Aegis, Votypka and his team created a unique sense of actually being on those starships. Fortunately, they had many years of source materials to make sure they could produce that feeling, both visually and aurally.
“The Aegis was based off the ships in the new films. In recent Hollywood production, the crews keep all the digital copies of everything they’ve done,” Votypka said. “(For the Enterprise,) CBS has an archive in (Los Angeles) and we got to visit that and they have props that exist from the shows.”
Whether it was audio tracks from the films or TV shows or video that play on the background screens on the Enterprise, the developers had a lot of material from which to work. Votypka said it was all very helpful in allowing them to get the finer details while still using them as springboards to tell the stories they wanted to tell.
Some of the most meticulous information as to the look and feel of the Enterprise bridge came from a super fan, James Cawley, from Ticonderoga, New York, who built a life-sized replica of the starship from the original TV series.
“Every hallway, every room, every prop you could think of. When I walked in there, it totally felt like a time machine, especially when I walked into the transporter room. I really expected (William) Shatner to walk around the corner at any minute,” Votypka said. “When I went on to the bridge, it was recreated to the finest level of detail.”
Cawley used screenshots from DVD and Blu-Rays of the original series to help him build his “starship.” He also spoke with set designers who worked on the series in the 1960s to find out what they made their props with and how they constructed each piece.
All that attention to detail is great, but it only becomes truly immersive in a game setting where players can naturally interact with one another. Social VR, allowing players to interact with one another through voice or gesture, gave the starship bridges a new sense of reality with the natural movements of the players.
“The heart of ‘Star Trek’ is the relationships between those people on the crew,” Votypka said. “The idea of social VR and ‘Star Trek’ seemed like a perfect fit.”
Whether in solo mode or in co-op with other players, “Star Trek: Bridge Crew” hopes everyone gets the feeling they are in starship missions. The missions aren’t all combat, but like their inspirations, the starships also explore, find new discoveries, help others when they can, and put them in situations where there is not necessarily one right answer.
“That’s such a common theme in ‘Star Trek,’ where they come upon a situation, and there is no obvious choice here, and we just have to make the best moral decision we can or the best decision that reflects the intent of Starfleet,” Votypka said.
Much like those starship, the game also has its unique computer partners. IBM Watson, and its interactive speech and cognitive capabilities adds another layer to let players use their voice and natural-language commands to interact with their virtual Starfleet crew members.
“We have been eager to find the right way to use interactive speech further the immersive and interactive experiences that virtual reality offers,” said Votypka. “Watson gives captains in ‘Star Trek: Bridge Crew’ the ability to issue commands to non-player crew members in the same way they do with a human crew by using their voice.”
Watson can operate a crew of just AI characters or mix in with other human players without breaking the immersion of the experience. Think of it as having another Vulcan on the bridge.
Votypka doesn’t want people to think this is only for “Star Trek” fans. He hopes the lure of the detailed experience in virtual reality will get other people to dive into the universe.
“The game is about being on a spaceship with others, with your friends out in space, and that’s a pretty broad and universal fantasy,” he said. “The core gameplay experience and the social interaction is still a lot of fun, even if you aren’t a ‘Star Trek’ lover.”
“Star Trek: Bridge Crew” is available now for Oculus Rift, PlayStationVR and HTC Vive. It is rated E 10+ for everyone 10 years of age or older due to fantasy violence.