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Minecraft’s RTX beta is a look into gaming’s beautifully surreal future

When fake begins to look real

a shot of a palace interior with RTX on in the Minecraft with RTX beta Image: Mojang/Xbox Game Studios via GeminiTay, Nvidia

The future is here, but it’s probably going to take some time before it trickles down into mainstream gaming.

Playing the RTX beta for Minecraft requires an Nvidia RTX card — not the most affordable upgrade — and the game may not be a good indication of what to expect from ray tracing in the short term. Nvidia and Microsoft have been able to squeeze so many interesting uses of ray tracing into Minecraft because it’s … well, Minecraft.

It doesn’t take much power to render those blocky cubes, leaving plenty of computational overhead to focus on the ray tracing itself. Getting this kind of lighting fidelity into a game with the visuals and textures of a modern, more traditional game would likely take more processing power than you’d find in even super high-end systems.

That being said, playing the Minecraft with RTX beta is a very efficient way to mess with your own mind, which is something I’m sure no one is interested in trying on April 20. So let’s dive into what you get with the beta, and why fans who may not have an Nvidia GeForce RTX card should still pay attention to what’s going on here.

Why ray tracing in Minecraft looks so good

Ray tracing, boiled down to a simple explanation, is a method for treating light in games as it’s handled in real life. How light interacts with different materials and surfaces, and how that light then interacts with the rest of the light in an environment, is a complicated thing to model, requiring massive amounts of computational power.

That’s why ray tracing is currently only available on Nvidia’s RTX cards (which offer hardware acceleration for ray tracing), and why so few games — Control is one of them — make good use of the technology. You can find a much more thorough explanation in our primer on ray tracing, if you’re curious about learning more.

I installed the beta and played with the Nvidia-provided levels that were designed to show off what ray tracing can bring to Minecraft. It was a couple of hours before my overloaded eyes finally gave out and I had to take a break, but that initial experience was surreal for a number of reasons. Minecraft is a distinctive game — it’s a world made up of cubes, after all — and there’s nothing realistic about how that world shows up on your screen. I’m used to seeing it as a very obvious simplification of the natural world.

Minecraft never tries to be realistic; it’s always clear that you’re looking at something artificial, something designed to evoke basic structures and ideas. The building blocks of Minecraft don’t look like much of anything, so your imagination often fills in the blanks, allowing it to look like just about everything. That distance from reality, and the space it creates in your mind, is part of the game’s enduring appeal.

So what happens when you combine Minecraft’s built-in artifice with some of the most realistic lighting ever put into a video game? Strangeness.

The Digital Foundry video embedded in this story gives you a good look at some of the things that are possible in this beta, but watching a video doesn’t compare to playing it for yourself.

Seeing how the light plays off these surfaces, and watching the reflections and interactions of that lighting, goes a long way toward fooling your brain into thinking that what you’re seeing is real. This created a sort of mental tension as I played: I kept thinking I was looking at physical objects that couldn’t possibly exist, and that’s due to how well the ray tracing effects create a sort of hyperrealism. (After playing with the settings, I was able to keep things near 60 frames per second at 1080p with my laptop’s RTX 2070.)

a clip of walking into a room with colored panels in Minecraft running with ray tracing enabled
It’s an effect that’s hard to translate into a GIF, or even see through a trailer.
Image: Mojang/Xbox Game Studios via Blockworks, Nvidia

The light does exactly what you’d expect real-life light to do in these situations, creating a sort of uncanny valley that’s pleasant instead of unsettling. It feels like objects from the world of Minecraft were yanked out of the computer and placed in the real world somehow. My brain just isn’t used to seeing environments that are so clearly artificial react with light and shadow in a way that looks so real that it becomes almost startling.

Seeing how the light reflects off of, or is absorbed by, each material is stunning. The world of Minecraft suddenly seems to play by the visual rules of reality, and the effect creates a sort of aesthetic dissonance between the fake and the real that’s hard to describe, but fun to look at, even as my mind rebels against what I’m seeing.

But the impact of the materials themselves on the light in each room isn’t the real game changer here — the way the light interacts with itself creates effects that are just as interesting and beautiful. Walking down a hallway with colored light, and watching to see how that light spills over itself and mixes with the other colors in the hallway to create a rainbow effect on the fly, is spellbinding. This isn’t an effect that’s being baked in; this is real-time lighting being used to create a cascade of colors, each shade looking just as real as you’d expect.

a clip of walking down a colorful hallway in Minecraft running with ray tracing enabled
It’s a mesmerizing effect when seen in person.
Image: Mojang/Xbox Game Studios via Blockworks, Nvidia

This version of Minecraft is still in beta, and using one of the most powerful graphics cards currently available to make the fakest-looking game feel real in motion is more of a novelty for now than anything else. But after spending a few hours with this version of Minecraft, I’m more convinced than ever of ray tracing’s future in making our games look more realistic and more convincing. This fooled my eye in a way that I rarely experience, even in brand-new games with all the settings cranked up, and that makes me excited for the future.

If ray tracing done well can make Minecraft look this “real,” I can’t wait to see what this level of care can bring to other games — even as I’m nervous about what kind of hardware will be required to run it all at a playable frame rate.

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