Slow-paced exploration and letter-reading is a perfect fit for virtual reality
Amid the dazzling, spectacle-driven PlayStation VR launch this month, a collection of developers have already harnessed the power of virtual reality to do more than freak you out or put you in the Batsuit. They're doing something different: trying to tell intimate and human stories. For gaming, this is on-trend; over the past five years, some of the most important independent games have come from – and even defined – a genre known as "walking simulators," games where the simple act of soaking up narrative details from the environment constitute the bulk of your experience.
Influential titles like Dear Esther, Gone Home and the recent Firewatch have made millions and won awards by replacing standard run-and-gun action with first-person perspective exploration and investigation, often at a snail's pace. These games set the player loose in evocative locations, with few goals beyond deciphering character insights from Post-it notes, old letters and abandoned campsites, the forgotten flotsam of people's lives. Walking simulators offer an intentionally languid experience and the gentle pace and strong narratives offer a refreshing counterpoint to the usual blockbuster bombast.
So how does this budding genre translate to the new medium of virtual reality? Bound, from the Polish indie team Plastic, is perhaps the most impressive, and by far the most emotionally impactful. It begins with a pregnant woman strolling along a peaceful beach, flipping through a notebook of crayon drawings, each linked to a traumatic childhood memory. The sketches explode into an abstract polygonal wonderland, enveloping your entire view. A vibrant sea of three-dimensional cubes roils beneath your feet, while neon colored strands of seaweed sway below swarms of darting triangles.
The game's creative director, Poland-native Michal Staniszewski, cut his teeth in the PC demoscene, an international community of coding and art enthusiasts stretching back to the Seventies. These experimental roots show, because Bound doesn't have many contemporary analogues. It seamlessly shifts between layers of reality and memory, delving into the main character's haunting past through impressionistic freeze frames, turning intense emotions into vivid imagery. This abstractness works in its favor; it's part of a deliberate strategy Staniszewski uses to flip VR's limitations into advantages.
Bound could be the most transporting VR game yet.
"We thought that graphics on PSVR need to be abstract to be convincing" he says. "If something is almost realistic, then you think that it's fake. When something is abstract and not present in the real world you immediately accept it."
His theory holds up. Bound could be the most transporting VR game yet. Instead of noticing the tiny seams where the illusion falls apart – something even polished virtual reality games struggle with – you're more likely to find yourself enraptured by the surreal surroundings. The story, too, is abstract. Rather than explicitly chronicle a family's disintegration, the game shows you small, impressionistic slices of time: a nervous child peeking around a corner, a torn necklace, anguished cries. It's handled with such deftness that I didn't realize I'd mapped my own preconceptions onto the story's events until I discussed it with the game's director afterwards.
"The game is designed in such way that it is randomized and it does not blame any person," says Staniszewski. The concept was sparked by his own experiences and reflections as a new father. "Families are very fragile at the moment when kids are born," he says, "In many cases there are no responsible family members for the family break. It just happens…"
In his company's internal play tests he found that despite presenting a neutral story, "players who had similar situations in their lives were blaming the actual person that hurt them in the real world." It's a surprising demonstration of how the intimacy of virtual reality can mess with our emotions in the real world.
Loading Human: Chapter 1, another new game for PSVR, offers its own analysis of the human condition, albeit one that treats its lone female character with all the nuance of an Eighties Tom Cruise movie. You don a futuristic bodysuit to play the role of the suave bachelor Prometheus, working at an Antarctic research base 200 years in the future, alongside a flirtatious single woman named Alice. Over the course of your adventure you'll shave in front of a mirror using the PlayStation Move controllers, cook tacos, play vintage records, research high-tech physics to save your dying father, and wine and dine Alice. Eventually, she'll reward your heroic masculine multi-tasking with a kiss and a bubble bath.
Flavio Parenti, the creative director of Loading Human, is an Italian film actor by day (he starred as Michaelangelo in Woody Allen's To Rome With Love) and Loading Human is the result of a Kickstarter campaign funded in part by fans of his films. It's an ambitious first outing as a game director, and his enthusiasm for the field of VR is obvious. "I believe that achieving a true bond with a virtual character is one of the greatest challenges of the next generation in gaming," says Parenti. "People enjoy leading dual lives."
In its attempts to create a dual life for us to inhabit, Loading Human straddles the line between a walking simulator and a pared-down Nineties-era LucasArts adventure game. Unfortunately, it struggles to find a balance between its grand vision and the technology at its disposal. Because PSVR doesn't allow for room scale virtual reality – which uses multiple cameras to track your movements across a larger area – walking inside the game world involves standing stationary while using elaborate hand gestures with the Move controllers. It's a clunky solution and it proves so frustrating (and nauseating) you're better off using a traditional controller. This limits some of the immersion – not to mention the sense of manly accomplishment – you'd otherwise feel from handing your space-age girlfriend a virtual bottle of hair conditioner in the bathtub. Conversations with Alice and your aging father also falter: they vary between eerily authentic to unintentionally comic.
The game is at its best when it leans into its futuristic setting. In a later chapter you'll find a rec room where your character can enter VR training simulations with retro-chic laser aesthetics. And mind you, this is inside a game where you're already simulating archived memories of the main character. At one point, I counted myself climbing up – Inception-style – from four layers of nested reality back into the real world of my home office. If you can struggle through the clumsiness of the game's interface, the story's charms might win you over eventually. It wears its heart on its sleeve, with a romantic snow-blanketed climax and a visually imaginative cliffhanger that shoots for the stars, even if the game itself doesn't reach them.
Meanwhile, nDream's The Assembly has a much more modest scope and succeeds reasonably well at everything it sets out to do, while clocking in as one of the more lengthy games available for PSVR. It also shares a futuristic setting: an underground office filled with mysterious medical experiments, self-aware AIs, and deadly pathogens. The story's technological anxieties and pervasive sense of paranoia feel uncomfortably real when you're experiencing them wearing a virtual reality headset.
Not all the more common actions used in walking sims like Gone Home translate to VR. Rooting around in office drawers hoping to find passwords for another office becomes actual physical labor, and feels even less fun than going through file cabinets to prepare real world taxes. By the time you've logged on to your 10th computer terminal to read yet another blurry email (an unfortunate side effect of PSVR's limited screen resolution), you wonder why the game even needs VR at all.
The Assembly has flashes of late-game inspiration, though, most of them featuring its central protagonist, a scientist who faces complex moral choices about her family and her medical research. Interacting with holographic projections of infection rates across the world's continents or scanning your loved ones' brains for memories offer you a sense of time travel. The future may not have arrived yet, but you can at least visit it for a few hours in VR.
While the flaws of these early VR adventures are difficult to ignore their contributions provide a roadmap of sorts. Audiences may rightfully expect experiences with fewer rough edges, but if you approach these games with a charitable amount of curiosity and patience, the excitement of the design possibilities ahead becomes palpable. The walking simulator faces challenges on equal footing with its promise.
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