Summer Lesson is a “VR Character Communication Demo” for Sony’s PlayStation VR headset by some of the same folks behind the famous Tekken franchise. The experience puts you in intimate proximity with young virtual women. After trying the experience for myself—and at moments feeling like a total creep—I realized that Summer Lesson is a great demonstration of VR’s ability to connect with us on a deeply human level.
I won’t pretend to know much about the culture surrounding games that fall into the ‘dating sim’ genre, or even if that’s even the ultimate intention of Summer Lesson. But one thing I do know is that Summer Lesson is the first game ever forced the feeling of being a creep upon me.
While the modern gaming landscape is rife with paper-thin AI comrades that function more as tools than actual people as you battle your way across the galaxy, Summer Lesson is about intimate interactions with AI characters and making you feel like there is a soul inside the virtual human standing next to you. And it does a damn good job, helped in no insignificant way by the power of virtual reality.
We’ve so far seen two settings and two characters in Summer Lesson: the bedroom of a high school girl and a house by the sea with a blonde-haired American girl.
The environments are as intimately detailed as your interactions with the characters. The Unreal Engine 4 based scenery is positively impressive, with a stylized look that still feels to approach photorealism, thanks to an emphasis on lighting rather than textures. The two scenes seen so far are littered with detail; the beach house is set against a wall of well attended sunflowers, as evident by the watering cans and unspooled hose laying across the yard.
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Donning the PlayStation VR headset for the demo (spanning 10 minutes or so), the scene unfolds with you as an active participant. The girls address you directly with dialogue that seems to indicate that you might be a tutor of some sort.
The exposition is driven entirely by the girls, with the player as a silent protagonist capable of interacting at certain times, agreeing or disagreeing when prompted by nodding yes or no, and by looking at certain cues around the environment. The attractive girls often take up positions within arm’s length, sometimes bending over or stretching in suggestive ways.
It’s all innocent enough, but the characters are imbued with enough life and personality to make me incredibly aware of my own personal space—and equally aware of when I was rudely encroaching upon theirs.
In the scene at the house by the sea, the blonde-haired American girl eventually walked over and sat right near me—closer than two strangers would normally sit next to one another. This suggested that I—or my avatar, I should say—had a fairly close relationship with the girl. But since I was merely a guest inhabiting the virtual body of that avatar, I lacked the pre-existing relationship that was implied between the two, and I was left feeling like a stranger sitting too close to someone unknown.
As the scene moved along, the blonde-haired girl got out a Japanese study book and asked me to clarify some language for her. To do this she got even closer to me, leaned her head over right near mine and asked me to take a look at the book that she now held before us both.
This was every bit as awkward as walking up to a stranger on the street and putting my face inches away from theirs. And it made me feel like a total creep—something no form of media outside of VR has ever done.
There I was, in VR, worried about having invaded the personal space of a virtual character, and yet all the same, unable to turn off that natural human instinct despite knowing full well that she was nothing more than ones and zeros.
In my experience even the most immersive, well directed movie can’t reach out and make you personally—the person sitting in the audience—feel this way. The very best a big screen movie can do is to portray a character on the screen as such, but that still leaves the audience disconnected. Even in (non-VR) games, where the player has agency in a virtual world, there’s still a chasm between the identity of the player and the character that the player controls inside the game.
It takes many layers of immersion to bridge that gap. At a basic level, the headset has to be good enough to make you feel immersed with relatively good graphics, tracking, stereoscopy, and field of view. Then, the characters themselves have to be properly scaled, believably animated, and interactive.
The girls of Summer Lesson are skillfully designed and effectively avoid the dreaded uncanny valley—that strange point somewhere between almost human and actually human where computer animated characters seem creepier the closer they get to looking ‘actually human’.
The girls convey a certain sense of being human even without the kind of blockbuster motion capture and animation you find in modern films. Their big emotive eyes have successfully captured an anime-like appeal without feeling unbelievable. The American girl’s voice is noticeably overacted, but that may be intentional; although Summer Lesson might feel more like Creep Simulator 2016, something that happens at the end of the demo (which I won’t spoil) suggests there may be more to the experience down the road than just ogling and the occasional nodding.
The incredible levels of immersion afforded by modern headsets like PlayStation VR can create these intimate human feelings like no media before. This is but one demonstration of virtual reality’s fundamental ability to connect with us on a human level, which will enable VR to convey personally emotional stories.