Valve’s The Lab was intended as a showcase for the HTC Vive way back in 2016. But in typical Valve fashion, once they started polishing their game, they forget to stop. The result is a top-tier set of minigames that serve as an excellent introduction to VR — just a few years late.
- What is The Lab? An introductory VR experience, comprised of a handful of minigames with varying replay value.
- Reviewed On: Windows, Steam, HTC Vive
- Price: Free
- Developer: Valve
- Publisher: Valve
- Release Date: April 5th, 2016
- Website: https://store.steampowered.com/app/450390/The_Lab/
Photogrammetry and Fetch
How do you start someone’s VR journey on the right foot? For Valve, the answer was obvious: simulate a photorealistic mountaintop and play fetch with a robot dog! Sound too simple? The result is surprisingly compelling! Most first-time players, myself included, couldn’t help but kneel down and try to physically interact with the little metal puppy.
Valve being Valve, they foresaw this. The robot dog responds positively to the virtual scritches and scratches with more waggles and beeps of delight. Tossing the sticks scattered around the environment sends the dog racing after them, leaving you alone for a moment to take in the sights. There’s limited teleportation here, but the sense of place is far stronger than even present-day VR can regularly reach.
And this is just the first of a half-dozen or so VR experiences that The Lab offers. Valve wanted to make a strong first impression, and they succeeded. But do the rest of the minigames hold up?
Of course they do.
Bows, Bodies, and Big Monsters
It’s easy to see how The Lab is the result of brilliant brainstorming sessions at Valve. Each minigame brings something new to the table. While they might not all share the same “wow” factor, they all explore unique possibilities in VR. Even in seemingly simple ways like manipulating a bow.
One game gives you a bow and tasks you with defending your castle’s gate. It’s a simple task with a satisfying gameplay loop made possible by the high-fidelity interactions involved. Perhaps less awe-inspiring today than it was on release, but no less satisfying in practice.
Another minigame gives you a slingshot and stacks of boxes to knock down. Instead of angry avians, you’re given friendly (and hilarious) Aperture Science personality cores to launch to their doom. This ended up being one of my favorite minigames, if only because it gave the writers at Valve an opportunity to speak into a VR experience. I hope they stuck around for Half-Life: Alyx.
In some minigames, there’s not much game to be had. The Robot Repair game feels more like a cutscene than anything else. The human medical scan was rather thin, as well. But the potential real-world applications should excite any VR enthusiast. We’re only a few decades out—if that—from giving doctors the ability to manipulate and make sense of your MRI in real-time. Emergency Medical Holograms can’t be far behind.
Each minigame brings something fun, new, and engaging to the table. There’s an arcade-style bullet hell game that has you flailing as much as a good Beat Saber song. Despite the limitations of standing in place and having a single hand mapped to piloting the spaceship, it’s remarkably engaging.
We’ve touched on Postcards’ photogrammetry experiences, but they’re worth highlighting again as some of the best “sense of place” in VR to this day. And the inclusion of a scale model of our solar system puts it all in perspective. The latter grants you a humbling sense of scale without any action or threat.
Prefer your sense of scale accompanied by the sense of impending death? Valve completes the package with a Dota-themed minigame called the Secret Shop. As a Dota fan, I had a great time exploring the inner sanctum of the fabled Secret Shop and meeting the Shopkeeper. Seeing realistically scaled items and creatures was a unique thrill. But that was nothing compared to the finale, which I won’t spoil other than to say it certainly leaves you wishing for more.
And that seems to be the prevailing emotion evoked by The Lab: the desire for more. For a free experience, you get a good amount of mileage. There isn’t a single misstep in the bunch, and that’s more than some full-fledged and costly VR games can say. But it’s obvious that The Lab was only intended to be the beachhead from which VR could expand. A set of experiments meant to tantalize consumers and get the wheels turning in developers’ heads. That’s exactly what it does. No more, no less. Will Half-Life: Alyx be the fulfillment of the future foretold here? Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, I’m going to go explore an Icelandic meadow with my robot puppy.
Gameplay - 8/10
Variety - 8/10
Value - 10/10
VR novice friendly - 10/10
Compatibility - 9/10
It’s safe to say that The Lab serves as an excellent introduction to VR. The minigames are loads of fun, and you get to sample a little bit of everything VR has to offer. Overall, the prevailing emotion evoked by The Lab is the desire for more.
- Free without feeling free
- Solid introduction for novice VR users
- Amazing sense of place (Postcards)
- Short on content
- Limited locomotion options
- Aged mechanics