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When is a VR Game not a VR Game? When it’s Synthesis Universe

Categorising helps make sense of the world around us, usable in every facet of our lives, particularly helpful when talking about a subject, in this case, virtual reality (VR) entertainment. VR covers a broad spectrum of content, from videogames (first-person shooters (FPS), role-playing games (RPG), puzzlers and more) to edutainment and interactive experiences – like Vader Immortal: A Star Wars Series – for example. Yet there are some titles that skirt around several of these categories, fitting yet not fitting in equal measure. Synthesis Universe is one such title.

Because of this, I’ve decided not to do the usual VRFocus review even though Synthesis Universe has launched on Steam as a fully finished piece of content (sort of). This is more of a deep dive into what this musical piece is all about, how it skirts genres, and ultimately leaves me more puzzled at the end rather than finding a logical conclusion.

Synthesis Universe is the brainchild of solo developer OlivierJT who has been working on this since at least 2014 – which is when VRFocus first began reporting on it. Obviously a labour of love, over the years Synthesis Universe has appeared in a number of forms via screenshots and trailers; at one point it was even slated as a launch title for PlayStation VR (or Project Morpheus at the time).

This final incarnation which has now made it into the public sphere offers a wistful, performance art style experience which does feel its age. Offering purely gaze-based interaction in a surreal world twisting and contorting to each beat and rhythm, initially there almost seems like there’s too much going on as if this digital realm doesn’t want you to peer past the façade and see what’s really going on.

The beauty of Synthesis Universe is its marriage of harmonics and aesthetics, drawing your gaze in the right direction to keep the narrative flowing. Look away or actively avoid the core fixture that wants your attention and suddenly everything else becomes drab and uninviting. The music fades into a static hiss as if the world itself is displeased with you looking in other directions.

There is interaction but only in so much as opening a door leads you to another room, the world which you inhabit is controlled. Even with all the vibrant design, there’s still a cold bleakness to Synthesis Universe. As mentioned everything is gazed-based so even when there are times you want to reach out and touch something, you have no hands to do so.

Part music video part art installation which wouldn’t be out of place in a gallery, Synthesis Universe has dreams of grandeur, looking to become a VR opera. That appears to be the road on which it travels and may well become a defining piece in the history of VR once those other connections are made. Yet it can be a difficult ask for consumers at home happily bopping away to Beat Saber.

The best way to describe what Synthesis Universe offers at the moment is a foreword in a novel. You sit down get comfy and read the first page, intrigued to find out what comes next. Only then to be greeted with blank pages, the rest still to come. The developer teases plans for the next episodes such a deeper story and more characters yet there’s no clear timeline for when these could arrive. If we’re talking George R.R. Martin lengths of time then interest could wain very quickly.

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