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I didn’t know what to make of Paper Beasts when I heard about back at its reveal in April. Billed as an exploration game inspired by big data, or the unfathomably large data sets that can reveal unseen trends, the game promises to toss you head first into an abstract living world that has emerged from “the vast memory of a data server.” It sounded wild and mysterious at the time, but after playing the 20-minute demo at this year’s Gamescom, I got a much better grasp on what lays ahead.
I won’t mince words here: when a game’s primary claim to fame is “it’s all about exploration,” alarm bells automatically go off in my head. In some cases, ‘explore’ is really a code word for “there’s not much else to do besides look around.” Although games like this can be a great way to introduce people to the immersive prospects of VR in general, it does very little in the way of keeping butts in chairs.
From my time with the game’s first level, Paper Beast appears to be anything but boring; it seems to take its mission statement of exploration to heart, offering plenty of novel experiences along the one-way trip through the game’s narrative, which is partly driven by the world’s interesting assortment of dynamic and interactive paper-based lifeforms, and to a much larger degree to the constantly shifting environment around you that ushers you forward into new and interesting locales.
Created by Pixel Reef, a studio headed by the creator behind cult classic platformer Another World (1991) Éric Chahi, I was plopped into a PSVR headset and handed a pair of PS Move controllers without explanation.
With no tutorial as such, I find myself in a red tent with a boom box playing a saccharine J-pop tune. The tent waves dynamically in the wind, and the pop song comes to an end. “What do I do now?” I thought to myself. Lifting my controller, I notice I can lock onto hot points connected to objects in front of me. Motioning my hand towards the boom box, I drag it to my feet, which felt a bit like holding a 10 pound weight on the end of a fishing rod. Reaching my hand up to a corner of the fluttering red fabric, I yanked the much lighter fabric away, revealing a vast desert in front of me, and a towering giraffe-like beast standing on spiny legs of tightly crumpled paper.
Looking out over the horizon, I see the clouds are really a mishmash of fluffy alphabet soup. With only a few spare moments to take in the dune’s flowing sands, a strange crab-like creature appears over an embankment, rattling his tail suspiciously as he scuttles over to investigate the strange journalist, leaving in its wake a realistic sets of prints in the sand. His entrance is scripted, I’m told, but he’s fully able to amble around and correct himself when flipped over (or violently assaulted, which I didn’t do because I’m a friend to all of paper-God’s paper-creatures under the paper-sun).
Walking closer to me, my towering giraffe buddy bends his long neck to present me with a reddish orb, which snaps to the bulb of my left controller. With that, I’m given the ability to telelport and snap-turn. My spiny beast-pal slowly lumbers off over a dune, drawing my curiosity with him. Popping over the hill, I see a watering hole with a pack of smaller horse-like beasts eating little balls of—you guessed it—paper. Using my floppy laser beam-fishing rod powers, I pick up a ball and feed it to one of the sauntering animals as they slosh around the dynamically moving water.
Each of the horses have a number of hot points on them, and picking one of them up from the thorax reveals that they’re just light enough to lift up entirely. The towering beastie sets off again, this time between two rock faces, which open up to reveal a twisting canyon. Around the corner I see the first predator, a multicolored wolf-like thing which is locked in battle with an errant horse. Stealing the helpless prey from the wolf’s grasp and dangling him over his head, he eventually loses interest, and returns to his cave in obvious defeat. Majestic horse-bro now safe, I continue to follow my silent giraffe friend further.
Environmental surprises lay ahead that push me forward at a faster clip. A shallow lake filled with more idle horse creatures suddenly drains into a deep sinkhole, and within the blink of an eye an otherworldly tempest erupts from its basin, carrying with it chunks of earth, all of them in the shape of numbers. Rushing for cover, I zap down an adjacent pathway to find my giraffe standing near the mouth of a cave. In a last act of kindness, he drags a large boulder to seal me in. Demo over.
Besides a few guiding words from Chahi, who was seated beside me on the busy expo floor, the entire demo was non-verbal, both spoken or written. Taking off the headset, he tells me that the game’s narrative will continue to unfold like this, presenting the player with a linear path that’s studded with different creatures ranging from brash predators to springy little mammals made of ribbon. It’s not an open world, although clever art direction might make you think otherwise, as your attention is cleverly tickled to push you forward.
Although I left Pixel Reef’s booth feeling a little less perplexed at what Paper Beast really is, I still have some question that only a full playthrough will answer. Whatever the case, I was clearly charmed by the studio’s ability to not only deliver impressive and varied environments, but also loads of novelty that truly made me feel like I’d been transported into the living dreamworld that emerged from the dust of big data.
Paper Beast is set to arrive exclusively on PSVR sometime in 2019, with the possibility of a flatscreen version coming at some point post-launch.
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