Arts & Culture

‘I was driving a freaking starship’: New ‘Star Trek’ virtual reality game is a nerd’s dream

Take the helm in new ‘Star Trek’ VR game

N&O correspondent Corbie Hill gets a sneak peek of “Star Trek: Bridge Crew” virtual reality game at Red Storm Entertainment in Cary. The virtual reality game releases May 30 on a variety of VR platforms.
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N&O correspondent Corbie Hill gets a sneak peek of “Star Trek: Bridge Crew” virtual reality game at Red Storm Entertainment in Cary. The virtual reality game releases May 30 on a variety of VR platforms.

I was supposed to save the escape pod, but instead I ran right into it.

I mean, it was floating in space, just like you see on the show, so I headed for it like the captain asked. I didn’t think to hit the brakes, though, and wham, there it was – stuck on the front of the starship like a bug on a windshield.

Hunter Janes, captain of the ship, wondered if I’d be better suited to demolition derby. I shrugged and tried not to run into anything else.

“Picky, picky, picky,” I said.

I was at the Cary office of Ubisoft subsidiary Red Storm Entertainment, playing the new “Star Trek: Bridge Crew” virtual reality game, which releases May 30. I wasn’t driving the Enterprise – not yet – but the USS Aegis, a starship designed specifically for the game. I was all wired up – VR headset, ergonomic controllers for each hand and two sensors by the laptop that did who-knows-what – and fully immersed in the Aegis’ virtual bridge.

In real life, the captain was a Red Storm game designer; the engineer, Michael Micholic, was the studio’s marketing director; and the tactical officer – that is, the guy taking special glee from firing photon torpedoes – was David Votypka, the creative director of “Bridge Crew.”

And then there was me, the journalist. And I was driving a freaking starship.

I’m told, though, that you don’t have to be king of the nerds (I wore a Spock uniform to this interview) to get something out of “Bridge Crew.”

“It’s not that we made ‘Star Trek: Bridge Crew’ because we’re all super-crazy about ‘Star Trek,’ ” Votypka told me later, once the VR headsets were off. “We have some hard core ‘Star Trek’ fans in the building, don’t get me wrong, and I really respect and value the brand. But, at the end of the day, I think it was because the brand is such a good fit for VR in a crew-based VR experience.”

I’m told, though, that you don’t have to be king of the nerds (I wore a Spock uniform to this interview) to get something out of “Bridge Crew.”

Corbie Hill

Red Storm, which was started by author Tom Clancy and which has a long history of multiplayer shooter games like “Ghost Recon” and “Rainbow Six,” specializes in social games, Votypka points out. Social VR, then, is only another expression of something the studio has been doing all along, with “Bridge Crew” being its second social VR game.

But why “Star Trek”?

Think about pretty much any episode, Votypka offers: everything revolves around the interactions on the bridge and the cooperation among the crew there, at the nerve center of the ship. When it came to making a social VR game where none of the roles feel superfluous, “Star Trek” ended up being the ideal vehicle.

“I couldn’t think of a better crew-based concept,” Votypka says.

Down to smallest details

Most of the gameplay takes place on the bridge of the Aegis, a ship of the same design lineage as the ones in the three most recent “Trek” films, yet you can also play the bridge of the original 1960s Enterprise. In designing it, the Red Storm team consulted “Star Trek” lead graphic designer Mike Okuda, whose indelible contributions to the look and essence of the franchise date back to the 1986 film “Star Trek IV” – that is, the one with the whales. As startrek.com notes, Okuda has earned the second-most “Trek” screen credits, topped only by show creator Gene Roddenberry.

“That’s kind of like dealing with the most expert resource you could possibly imagine,” Votypka said.

Okuda’s considerable involvement in the franchise began after the original sets were demolished and even after the blueprints for the first bridge were lost. Still, the original bridge set was recreated three times for iterations of “Star Trek” that Okuda worked on – in “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine” and “Enterprise” – and was also rebuilt for travel exhibits and museums. Each time, Okuda says, it got closer to the original. He works for “Star Trek,” but he’s also a big fan of the original series. He gets why it’s special.

“There is a visceral magic to stepping onto that bridge, something that you’ve seen on television so many times,” he says.

Even someone like myself who didn’t know the game, I could sit down, put on the viewer helmet, and then with some talking through with the Red Storm guys I could fly the ship, even though we blew up. I claim that’s not my fault.”

Mike Okuda, lead graphic designer on numerous “Star Trek” shows and films

The Enterprise bridge is a big part of popular culture, Okuda notes, but is also central to a shared dream among fans: they, like he, want to actually step onto it and sit in the captain’s chair. So he helped make Red Storm’s virtual bridge as accurate as possible.

 ‘Star Trek’ fans are enormously discriminating consumers,” Okuda says. “Generally, they have studied the show a great deal because they enjoy it so much, they love it so much, so they want to know everything about it. As a result, they often know more about the show than those of us who worked on it.”

You don’t have to get every detail right, he admits, but accuracy helps maintain the in-game illusion for people who really, really know their “Star Trek.” He wouldn’t want anything to pull someone out of the moment, even if it was a little thing – and Okuda notices even the little things. While he was playing “Bridge Crew” with the Red Storm team, for instance, he noticed a spot on a console where two bolts should have been sticking out.

“As much as is practical, you try to get it as right as you can,” Okuda says.

Accuracy also meant keeping the same controls. The candy-colored buttons made sense to Sulu or Chekov, sure, but aren’t the most intuitive control system for modern gamers; still, changing these familiar buttons would break the illusion. So Votypka’s team used the original buttons, but give players the option of floating text labels for which button does what.

On our respective original Enterprise playthroughs, Okuda and I both played the helm officer – Sulu’s role – and, with a little coaxing from the Red Storm team, were able to fly the ship. Indeed, once I’d been playing for awhile and found myself in a dogfight with Klingons, I realized that the particular buttons I was mashing matched the ones I’d seen George Takei use on the ’60s show.

Okuda-approved

The illusion was fluid and complete; aside from a few cheesy sparking panels, both the Aegis and the Enterprise bridges looked and sounded like the real deal. At a certain point, even the VR controllers vanished in my awareness, as good control systems are meant to, and I began to think of the in-game hands as my actual hands. At the end of two successful missions, I tried to clap, but only ended up bonking two plastic controllers together.

“I absolutely take my hat off to the elegant solutions that David came up with,” Okuda says. “Even someone like myself who didn’t know the game, I could sit down, put on the viewer helmet, and then with some talking through with the Red Storm guys I could fly the ship, even though we blew up. I claim that’s not my fault.”

Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Release date: May 30

Developer: Red Storm Entertainment

Cost: $49.99

Rated: E

Platforms: PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift

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