One of the early, great promises of virtual reality gaming is an unmatched immersion in our game worlds. I’ll admit that through long stretches of exclusively ‘flat’ gaming, I have a habit of forgetting just how amazing these VR worlds can be. Part of it is a comfort thing, as a glasses-wearer the PlayStation VR is somewhat kind to me, but extended play can still present problems. Despite that, I never wanted to take the headset off while playing Paper Beast, the new game from Pixel Reef and Eric Chahi (Another World, From Dust). Product descriptions will tell you that Paper Beast is about exploring a ‘virtual ecosystem born from lost internet data’ – it’s far more than that though. It’s an experience, it’s art, and it’s the best thing to happen to the PlayStation VR in ages.
There’s no easy way to describe this game. The game opens with a computer interface, one that seems to offer to simulate the collapse of a massive star. After being promptly (and hilariously) asked to spend credits and sign up to a social network to earn your ‘quantum computing time’, you’re first fed through a strobing, acid-trip j-punk music video nightmare before finally appearing in a vast desert. In this desert, you’re greeted by a huge, skeletal quadruped seemingly made of paper. And, of course, you follow it.
Journeying deeper into the sands of this strange world, you’ll come across many more paper creatures, all of which live convincing lives and react naturally to your presence and the presence of other life. These creatures and their unique properties are the key to solving environmental puzzles to get you further and further into the world and closer to discovering what it’s all about. Interacting with them and figuring out what makes them tick is at the heart of Paper Beast, and it’s a joy that’s only heightened by the fact that it’s happening in virtual reality. The creatures are so well-crafted in both their AI and their physicality that they’re more believable than most ‘realistic’ depictions of animals in games, despite the very unrealistic and surprising things they get up to.
The world in Paper Beast carries a similar presence and, like its inhabitants, is a joy to interact with in the name of pressing forward and uncovering its secrets. Game designer Eric Chahi is no stranger to sand and water physics models, but the promise of something like From Dust has never been as fully realised as it is in VR. Moving from large desert plains, to cave systems, to rain-beaten cliffs while physically shaping the environment around you to progress makes for one hell of a journey and reinforces everything that makes exploring VR spaces great. When things do eventually start to get a bit strange, and they will, it’s all the more shocking and disconcerting for having already been so invested in this otherworldly place.
The thing that makes Paper Beast so engaging is the way that it immerses you in its world. Through VR, of course, but also through its worldbuilding, your interactions and through an important tool in any narrative game – memorable moments. From the first time one of the giant beasts lurches its head down to your eye level in attempted communication, to your first journey across the world in a paper balloon, the team at Pixel Reef clearly understand the importance of moments, and so Paper Beast is full of them. The intro in particular is one that will stick with me for a long time as one of the most bizarre and enjoyable things I’ve witnessed in a game, and like every other aspect it sets a tone that is somehow both wildly unclear and completely fathomable at the same time.
I’m not going to pretend I even understand all of the messages that Paper Beast brings to the table, and that’s okay. Simply existing in its world is thought-provoking enough without having to unravel what those thoughts actually are. By the time the three-ish-hour journey comes to an end, and what an end, taking the PSVR headset off feels like leaving a little world of paper-y animal friends behind.
If that’s too much to handle, there is also the prospect of returning in the form of the game’s Sandbox mode, which is literally that – a giant slab of sand in which to craft your own world. It’s the closest the game comes to aping Chahi’s From Dust, letting players sculpt the world with sand and water as they see fit, and watch as the flora and fauna they place react to the world and each other naturally. It’s a cool diversion, and although I struggled with some of the controls (mainly to do with the God Mode camera), I could spend ages messing around with it, seeing what unique interactions I could uncover.
Paper Beast is hard to explain, but it’s something that demands to be experienced. It doesn’t break the mold as far its contemplative, exploratory indie adventure trappings go, but it does so many unique, beautiful and surprising things within that mold that it belongs in its own space entirely. There are countless arguments about whether games deserve to be classified as art, but playing this game is the closest I’ve ever come to stepping inside an actual piece of art, being encompassed by someone’s creative vision and emotionally moved by it. This is what VR was made for.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation VR // Review code supplied by publisher