Valve’s Destinations [official site], a workshop/gallery designed to enable us to experience detailed recreations of real or fictional places in virtual reality, was released into early access last Summer. This is the first time I’ve used it in earnest – partly because I wasn’t able to maintain the floorspace needed for a full Vive setup, partly because the shine so rapidly came off VR once the initial awe had faded. I’ve finally pushed enough furniture into the stairwell to be able to give it a go. It’s both exactly what VR needs and all the technology’s disappointments focused into one place.
Destinations is an ideal Steam application in many ways – it’s plugged directly into the Steam Workshop, and an optional accompanying editor enables smarter folk than I to create a theoretically endless roster of ‘rooms’ for end-usery-types to goggle at. The base game/application is effectively a gallery picker, from where you pick your ‘Destination’ of choice and, if you so wish, a few basic physical props to use within it. Interface-wise, it’s smart and intuitive, and there’s no issue with choosing anything from inside your headset, with your motion controllers of choice in your hands.
The killer twist – in theory – is multiplayer support. You find somewhere to go on your blinkered holiday and drag a few mates in there with you. A hangout in an unreal place – or a meticulously-recreated real place, depending on your preferences.
A couple of years ago, before the Vive had been released and only a select few had been able to try devkits, a friend of mine breathlessly told me about the demo he’d tried, and said ‘this time next year, you and I are going to be in our Vives, drinking beers on the Riviera.’ Destinations didn’t exist then, but it is pretty much what he had in mind. And it’s also exactly what I what I suspected the reality would be like.
Which is to say, amazing sights rendered at life-size scale, but whose initial impact wanes due to an inability to meaningfully interact with anything. The first location I visited, an old English church and surrounding graveyard, I spent a good 20 minutes exploring. After that, I flicked through amazing places at speed, like a bucket list world tour on extreme fast forward. Yup, seen, seen, seen, seen.
The detail on some of these destinations is truly impressive, even despite the limited resolution of current VR headsets. It’s not like Google Earth VR, which though it may feature dramatically more locations (and freedom of movement) can only render any of them as if someone applied stickers to clay shapes. It’s photo-quality, bearing up to scrutiny from any angle. If you go for the room-size VR option – you don’t have to, standing and seating is available, with the old point’n’teleport movement controls – there’s a museum exhibition quality to it.
Barriers exist, though, and consciousness of those barriers grows with each new Destination. There’s no walking inside that church, or along Tower Bridge in the background. I mean, we can’t expect miracles here – not to mention the impracticality of trying to render and allow the player to navigate truly vast spaces when some poor sod has to photograph, map, model and import all that stuff. It’d be the work of months, for something some ignorant ass like me downloads for free, spends two minutes with then moves on to the next thing.
Destinations offers options for a few cod-physical props – balls and baseball bats and Weighted Companion Cubes. In multiplayer, these things can be thrown to or swung at your companions, who appear as cartoonish, blocky, simple avatars, not in any way themselves. It’s a giggle, to say you played catch with your mate on the South bank or clobbered each other harmlessly with bats inside a scene from The Ocarina of Time. I’m glad this exists. I’m just not going to do that very often.
Sure, I could have that drink on the Riviera with my friend, but my eyes would hurt after ten minutes, I’d almost certainly knock my beer on the floor while blindly fumbling for the glass, there would be no chair to match the chair in my room, no warmth from that sun, and we’d both look like cutesey robot-heads made for a 2008 Wii minigame collection that sold 700 copies worldwide. But we would both yell ‘now let’s see Captain Picard’s quarters!’ or ‘what about the lookout tower from Firewatch?‘ and that would be fun too.
Destinations is absolutely a VR title, which means superficially impressive but inherently limited. How long can the joke remain funny for? Well, a while, but only if there’s enough take-up by smart and skilled people to ensure a steady stream of suitably appealing locations. Yeah, I want a drink in King’s Landing and I want to stare down from the top of the Burj Khalifa, but someone needs to make those things. Right now, the Destinations gallery just isn’t terribly full, given it’s been kicking around for eight months. Unless there’s a sudden influx of new Vive or Oculus owners, that is sadly likely to remain the case.
The right places will bring me back, for sure – for instance, browsing around Valve’s offices, I spotted the cover of a magazine issue I worked on myself, which was a startling delight. I think I’d almost enjoy this more to revisit places I know well than I would limited slices of places I’ve never seen. I hope new things are steadily created for this, and I hope that one day we have a more comfortable headset to visit them with.
Destinations is a must-have if you own a Vive or an Oculus Rift with Touch Controllers, partially because it’s free, but partially because it’s exactly what VR needs to do – and then go further still. I am less and less convinced that the technology will, at least not any time soon.
Destinations is available on Windows via Steam for free.