VR press demos are usually pretty awkward. You can’t see where developers are pointing you, you’re learning controls for the first time and you can’t hear instructions over your headphones. They’re messy to say the least.
Éric Chahi doesn’t want messy; he wants an experience. In his tiny Gamescom booth, the designer of Another World (Out of this World in US) has rigged up a microphone to be heard inside PSVR. When I’m playing his fascinating new game, Paper Beasts, he can walk me through each area, point my head in the right direction and explain the digital miracles I’m seeing before me. It’s like being on a virtual safari.
Paper Beasts is unlike anything else you’ve seen in VR. It takes the awe of something like a virtual dinosaur encounter from Robinson or Ark Park and puts its own spin on it. You explore a fully simulated animal ecosystem, formed from an abandoned data server left to dwell and create life of its own. It’s an exotic bit of VR exploration that roots you right in the middle of a nature documentary. Papercraft creatures roam the sands, drinking from puddles of water and even succumbing to predators.
In its first level, I’m shepherded by a massive, multilegged creature. It’s an intimidating beast, initially towering over me like a giraffe, with as many legs as a spider and what look like paper bones protruding from its body. It’s a little like it had been infected with the cordyceps virus from The Last Of Us. But it stalks the land with grace, turning those first fears into a warm sense of custodianship.
As I start to tail behind my new friend, big cat-like animals start appearing from across the landscape. They stop just in front of me to take a drink, but I can pick up paper balls to feed them like I’m in a petting zoo. Their heads attentively follow their food with all the focus of a cat watching a bird. You can toy with them, pulling their prize back and forth, but they eventually managed to catch me out and nip it from my hands as I teased.
Wonder turned to harsh reality, though, when a bigger, meaner monster — painted in a warning red — showed up to feast. Without hesitation, it leaped on its prey and started to chow down on one of my friends. Chahi told me I could save them by picking them up with the Move controller, but I instead chose to watch. Disturbing the food chain, digital or otherwise, somehow felt wrong.
Observing the world of Paper Beasts is an eye-opening experience, then. But it’s your participation in it that really delights. At one point my larger companion gets trapped in some reeds in the water and I have to cut them off. In a nod to Chahi’s From Dust, sand can be pushed around to make trenches. Doing so near a puddle causes water to trickle into canals, heading in a direction of your choosing.
This isn’t just a safari sandbox, though. Towards the end of my demo a digital storm kicks up, sucking in the land and spitting numbers into the sky. It’s all my friend and I can do to try and get as far away from it as possible. It’s clear that, as fascinating as this world is, there’s a touch of tragedy heading its way.
Needless to say, Paper Beasts has something to say about our relationship with digital information. I’m looking forward to exploring more of that discussion as I make my way through its world. Moreover, I can’t wait to just spend time immersing myself in its dynamic ecosystem at my own pace. Chahi and co are promising multiple levels, each with unique creatures to discover and environments to traverse. The game’s due for release on PSVR in early 2020.