July 2, 2019
Walking the Titanic: recreating history with a VR experience
The three soon discovered they shared something in common—a fascination with historic ships like the RMS Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship that went to the bottom of the sea on April 15, 1912. Dewinkeleer and Hudak had even been working on their own models of the Titanic in their free time.
Lynskey proposed that they join forces on an ambitious project. “We decided to make a virtual reality experience where people can explore the entire ship, like a museum but with the engagement of a game,” says Lynskey. “You can take the voyage, talk to the passengers and crew, and experience the sinking in real time. And it just went from there.” Titanic: Honor and Glory is a combination virtual museum and whodunit game currently under development by the team’s newly-formed company, Vintage Digital Revival, where Lynskey is Creative Director. In an effort to recreate the Titanic’s interior and exterior as accurately as possible, the team has tapped historians, writers, artists, and collectors to amass a comprehensive collection of plans, photos, interviews, and other documentation related to the Titanic’s design.
While there are already many museums and films devoted to the ship and its sinking, Titanic: Honor and Glory is already the most comprehensive recreation, and will be the first project to represent all its spaces in detail.
Testing the waters with famous disastersTo bring attention to the project, Lynskey and his team first created a series of videos about sinking disasters including the SS Atlantic and HMHS Britannic, and then the Titanic itself. Each video runs the length of the actual sinking event from an exterior perspective, and includes sound effects and text overlays about the events, crew members, and passengers.
To bring these projects to life, Vintage Digital Revival was drawn to Unreal Engine for its visual performance and ease of use. Even with little experience with real-time engines, the team was able to get up to speed quickly. They ported their Maya models into UE4, where they animated the scenes and output each video in real time before adding music and sound effects in post. “This is the very first time any of these three disasters were ever animated in full from start to finish, and Unreal was the tool for this,” says Lynskey. “That’s pretty big.”
The videos have a large following of educators, historians, and even wreck divers preparing to take the plunge, in addition to curious members of the public. The Titanic’s full-length sinking video, which clocks in at around two and a half hours, has garnered more than 40 million views.
The success of these sinking videos can be attributed to more than historical accuracy—Lynskey’s experience as a filmmaker taught him how to create an emotional impact even while adhering strictly to the facts. The music, the water sounds, the crew’s panicked shouts, and even the screams of the victims were all carefully chosen to convey the gravity of these disasters while respecting the victims and their families.
This level of regard extends to the Titanic: Honor and Glory game. “We’re aware that we're dealing with the deaths of 1,500 people, and we're making a video game out of it,” says Lynskey. “We're working with descendants of both survivors and victims, and we have a tremendous amount of support coming in from them. This is a great way to keep their legacy alive.”
Part of respecting the victims and families comes from getting emotionally involved in their stories. In the game, the team plans to populate the ship with hundreds of historically accurate NPCs (non-playable characters). “You'll be able to interact with them, learn about who they actually represent, talk with them, and in some cases you get to build relationships with them,” says Lynskey. “They help you, you help them. And then when the ship is going down, you work with them.”
“Now you have experience of what they're going through, it’s going to be very emotional,” he continues. “You're going to essentially be seeing who lives and who dies.”
Recreating the Titanic for VRWith a project at the scale of Titanic: Honor and Glory, efficiency is extremely important. The game’s players will be able to visit all corners of the ship, and interact with CG characters based on real Titanic passengers. Every single room on the Titanic, from the bridge to passenger cabins to the boiler rooms, will be represented in the finished rendition, and players will be able to discover all the intricate detail that the White Star Line lavished on the ship’s interior.
The team develops and tests the VR experience on an Intel Core i7 system with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 graphics card. While the sinking videos run in real time without much tweaking, the fully detailed interior in the Titanic: Honor and Glory VR experience requires serious optimization to run at around 30 fps. The process includes a great deal of texture reduction, texture baking, and shadow baking.
For example, the ceilings in the Titanic’s first class dining saloon and D-deck reception room were covered in elaborate wood carvings. By first modeling these ceilings in high detail and baking the textures, they were able to replace the ceilings with flat, textured surfaces. Lynskey adds that with some recent engine updates they were able to start playing with occlusion, “which looks significantly nicer,” says Lynskey.
For the videos, the team relied heavily on Blueprints, Unreal Engine’s visual scripting language. “Blueprints are great,” says Lynskey. “In my core team, none of us are programmers. We're all just modelers and historians and Blueprints are very user friendly, so that we're able to pick them up and make these animations.”
But when it comes to the actual game, they are planning on taking advantage of Unreal Engine’s robust C++ API to do a lot of streamlined coding to get the optimizations they need to make these hugely complex scenes run in real time. They also have the option of creating their own completely custom build of Unreal Engine, since the platform’s source code is freely accessible.
While Titanic: Honor and Glory isn’t finished yet, Vintage Digital Revival has made available a downloadable demo version for playing on PC or in VR. The demo includes only about 4% of the Titanic’s interior square footage, but Lynskey says that they have about 80% of the modeling done.
The project thus far has been largely a labor of love, but the team recently formed a partnership with Los Angeles production house 5518 Studios to make game assets, including character builds.
Their new partner’s history and experience in game development has Lynskey excited that Titanic: Honor and Glory has the potential to evolve into a AAA game that encourages curiosity about not only the Titanic, but other ships as well.
“This started out because we wanted to know what it was like to walk the Titanic, to stand in some of its undocumented spaces,” says Lynskey. “If we just built the ship and let people explore it, some people would come. But with a story and game elements, we could potentially reach millions of people, giving them a learning experience they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
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