The Dawn Of Art: Chauvet Cave

3-star rating
PCVR, Quest
Art, Documentary, Education, Free, History, Travel
Comfortable, Roomscale, Stationary

Exploration in 1996 of a cave high on a limestone cliff wall in southeastern France led to the stunning discovery of what is now known to be one of the most important sites of prehistoric art in the world. Sealed off from the elements by a rockfall some 30,000 years ago, hundreds of paintings were found depicting animals both familiar and now extinct. Using radiocarbon dating we can estimate some of them are 36,000 years in age.

Recognizing its significance, and having learned that regular human presence can alter a cave's environment and cause irreparable damage to ancient paintings, the entrance was sealed off once more. Now access is granted occasionally and only to a select few. Those few include Werner Herzog, who directed the 2012 documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the subject.

Responding to continued public interest and frustration at the limited access to the cave, a museum was constructed and opened in 2015, just a few kilometers away from Chauvet Cave. The Grotte Chauvet 2. contains a faithful full-scale replica of the real cave, which can be visited on a guided tour.

Screenshot from the VR cave tour.

Begin the VR Dawn of Art experience by selecting the film rather than the tour. Opening on a river bank by the huge natural bridge known as the Pont d'Arc, you stand beside a fire some 36,000 years ago. Through themes of fire and embers, a poetic narration (that seems to be heavily influenced by Herzog) introduces you to the animals that early humans took inspiration from. You'll need one controller here, as you need to pick up a torch and light it in the campfire before proceeding into the cave. Stationary scenes are presented to you and you are invited to use the torch to light up the paintings within the cave.

Once the ten minute film is over you're free to select the cave tour, with a narrative that feels rushed when compared to the previous slow lyrical narration of the film. Disappointingly you're not free to explore the cave. Instead you may only move linearly between a sequence of locations illuminated by a bright light. At each location a guide - who seems to be talking so fast she must be about to go on a lunch break - will remark on what you can see, although whether you can see it or not depends upon which way you're facing and some paintings are faint enough not to be obvious. Beginning with the film prior to the tour helps you know what you're looking for.

Other technical aspects fail the viewer too. The cave tour uses a rudimentary teleportation approach to movement but fails to include snap-turning, making it difficult to enjoy a good seated experience. Also there are some poor control choices - we found that if we pressed any button other than the trigger during the tour, we'd be returned to the main menu and frustratingly have to start again from scratch.

In the cave tour you can only move from point to point.

All the elements are here for a great VR experience, but unfortunately the end result is lackluster. There's no sense of exploration and discovery, despite having a full 3D model of the cave at our disposal. We'd have loved to be able to roam around, get a sense of space and encounter the paintings for ourselves. Also the narrative misses out on describing anything about the location of the site, any modern day discussion of the cave's discovery and preservation, and the ways we can visit its replica today. We think it would have been better if the film and tour were to be combined into a single experience - beginning with an introduction, allowing free-roam of the cave using the firelight from the torch and presenting us with sections of audio narrative as we discovered something new.

✅ Good choice of subject for Virtual Reality.
❌ Let down by mediocre graphics, minimal interaction.
❌ Presents only limited information about the subject.

• YouTube: BBC video
• Wikipedia: Chauvet Cave
• Languages: English, French
• Facebook: Comment on this article

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