Games companies are notoriously protective of their hottest properties, but film companies are even worse. Prior to the behind-closed-doors demo of Avatar we're told to hand in all electronic devices - mobiles, laptops, dictaphones, PSPs, Taser guns, the lot. It's a direct order from the movie people, according to the games people. Luckily, though, I'm still able to take notes, having dug around in the bottom of my handbag to find a pen and a piece of paper left over from 1998.
It all seems a bit excessive, especially since on entering the room we're each handed an electronic device. A pair of battery-powered glasses, to be specific. They're lightweight, comfortable to wear and could almost be mistaken for a regular pair of shades. Perhaps they are shades, there to protect our eyes from the blinding high-tech futureness of the 103-inch 3D television in the middle of the room. It's so big you could sleep on it, and it's so sexy I'd sleep with it.
But we're not here to see the telly; we're here for a first look at the Avatar videogame. The movie is being produced by Hollywood bigshot John Landau, who's even turned up to tell us all about it. (Later on I get to hold his Titanic Oscar, but that's another story.) Cameron came up with the concept for Avatar 14 years ago, but it's taken that long to develop technology good enough to bring his vision to life. Or so they say. Anyone would think it just took him that long to explain the plot.
In the interests of brevity, here are the storyline notes I scrawled on my piece of paper: "Man called Jake is paralysed from waist down while fighting a war without knowing why. Two blokes tell him estranged twin brother, who worked for mining corp on planet Pandora, is dead. Planet inhabited by 10-foot tall blue people called Navi. They can connect their ponytails into the backs of creatures and ride them (hairy USB cables?). Also there are Hybrids and Avatars, have human faces. Jake goes to planet, becomes Avatar. Finds out corporation is burning rainforest. Falls in love. Leads revolution. Etc."
The Avatar game is set several years before all that happens, however. The mining corporation is just beginning its attempt to turn Pandora into a mining colony. You choose whether to align yourself with the big blue tree-huggers or the rainforest-burning capitalists. Take the latter option and you'll get superior weapons and equipment. The Navi have to make do with longbows, maces, axes and the like, but as they're familiar with the environment they can use it to their advantage. Either way you'll earn "Effort Points" for your actions as the game progresses, and these can be traded for new gear and skills.
For the purposes of this demo, the Ubisoft chap has chosen to play as one of the corporation's minions. The first thing we see is a burly man standing in a jungle sporting camo fatigues and holding a gun. A familiar sight if you've played more than two videogames, but pop those 3D glasses on and it's a different story. There's proper depth of field and a real sense of the distance between objects in the background and foreground. Everything from your character's helmet to individual leaves curves and pops out of the screen, and the unique perspective draws you in. It's not quite as if you're really there; this is a videogame, and it's still 2009, so the visuals aren't photo-real. They're on the way, though, and it's impossible not to flinch the first time an enemy lumbers across the screen.
Especially since said enemy is a giant roaring mutant who appears to be the offspring of a hungry velociraptor and an angry parrot. This is just one of the weird creatures you'll have to fight off in Avatar - others include viper wolves, who can move at astonishing speeds, and a stegosaurus who has a head like a hammerhead shark. The shark-dinosaur is extremely powerful and we're shown how it takes your character, four of his mates and a lot of grenades to bring his giant frame crashing to the ground.
It's all impressive stuff; the level of detail in the jungle environment and the creature animations are particularly notable for being of an extremely high standard. However, because this is a third-person game, there's still a sense you're observing rather than participating - watching the character on the screen running around the jungle, instead of running around it yourself. Why not opt for a first-person perspective and cut out the middle man?
"There are advantages you get in third-person you don't get in first," says animation director Brent George. "Third-person allows you to better see how your character's reacting to the environment. First-person doesn't give you visceral feedback about what the character's going through; you can't really see the bigger picture because you're looking through their eyes. There are just as many positives to third as there are to first."
Besides, George says, it's not surprising there's a sense of distance when you're passively watching someone else play, rather than being the one in control. "It's so different when you play the game. It's sad people can't experience it here at E3, because the game's just not ready for that yet, but I guarantee you - it will definitely feel different," he promises. "As soon as you are engaging and able to control what the character's doing and where you're looking with the camera, it re-attaches you to the experience."
The other advantage of being in control, according to George, is you don't experience so much fatigue. After 15 minutes of staring at 3D visuals my eyes felt a little tired, my brain frazzled from processing so much information. I've experienced a similar sensation watching 3D movies, and I've never seen one of those that lasted longer than half an hour. Will our brains be able to cope with gameplay sessions longer than that?
"In my opinion, a lot of the fatigue you're feeling is to do with the fact you're staring at a 103-inch screen and you're right up close to it in a small room," George says. "But I know what you're saying - I've thought about this myself. We've been really worried about people's visual and mental endurance of the game. We have to be careful how much we move the camera; the camera's the key and we're working with it right now, trying to make it feel more immersive and organic."
Plus, George says, it comes back to the difference between observing and taking part. "I feel like there's a reason people feel fatigued when they're watching passively, like you were there. Watch any action game when someone else is demoing it and there's always a lot of camerawork going on, and it doesn't have to be in 3D for it to be exhausting.
"But when you're the one playing, it's a different experience. Because your brain's anticipating what's coming next, it's almost like your brain can keep up a bit better. But if you're just throwing a whole pile of information at it, it's so much to take in."
If it's too much for your brain you could always opt to play Avatar the old-fashioned way. George is keen to stress the game stands up as a compelling third-person action adventure even in 2D - "The 3D is more the icing on the cake." In any case, you'll probably need a new telly if you want the full next-gen experience. DLP (Digital Light Processing) TVs are already available but they're not cheap, and the 103-inch plasma we're leering at is only a prototype. It'll be a while before they hit the shops, let alone before they come down in price to an affordable level.
Still, there was once a time when cassettes were cutting edge, all TVs were standard definition and being able to both drive a car and shoot a gun in a game was considered revolutionary. In the future, will all videogames be played in full 3D?
"I don't think it's going to take over and be the norm," says George. "I mean, not all movies are made in 3D. But it's definitely an area that a lot of television manufacturers and software producers like us are interested in. Certain titles are better suited for 3D, so that's what's going to happen - you'll see a lot more of it, but not every game will be 3D."
Seeing as Ubisoft is leading the charge, can we expect to see franchises like Splinter Cell and Assassin's Creed going 3D? "I haven't heard any talk about that. But I'm sure in the future... I don't know. There's no official release of any information of that kind." George is treading carefully. "But who knows, right? I'd like to see it myself."
It will certainly be interesting to see how Ubisoft takes this technology forward and, in the shorter term, how Avatar turns out. This year's E3 has shown publishers are still striving to innovate when it comes to how we experience games, and there's still scope for new developments. Perhaps 10 years from now, we'll all be playing 3D games starring talking virtual boys with invisible colour-changing controllers. On PS4. In space.
Avatar is out this autumn for "all next-gen platforms".