The Maker Of ‘Another World’ Returns With A Data-Driven VR Experience
When Another World (or Out of This World, as it was known in the US) came out in 1991, it felt like a real game-changer, a release that made the player reevaluate what they expected from video games.
Sure, it was presented side on, and there was a lot of running from left to right and back again. There were enemies and allies, fearsome pitfalls and fantastical environments. But something about Another World was different. From its smooth rotoscoped animation to its then-amazing cutscenes, its compact but compelling story of an experiment gone wrong and HUD-free presentation, Another World was received almost like a sci-fi blockbuster bound for silver screens rather than a video game for the Amiga and Atari ST. It was curiously cinematic without forgetting its function as a game, and immediately earned classic status.
Fast-forward to 2019, and Another World's designer Éric Chahi is sat in a tiny room at Cologne's Gamescom trade fair, patiently talking me through his next game, another preconceptions-challenging project called Paper Beast, the debut from Éric's own indie studio Pixel Reef.
I'm strapped into a PlayStation VR headset, hearing both the game's warm, ambient sounds - composed by acclaimed Bristol musician Roly Porter (previously known as 50% of dubstep duo Vex'd) - and Éric's voice through my headphones, poking and prodding at surreal creatures and stepping forward into wild environments as I fumble my way through half-remembered questions.
First of all, what on Earth - or beyond it - am I looking at here? "The player is a VR user, who is dropped into this virtual world," Éric tells me. "It looks... Well, it's a simulation, but it's a natural world, too. Some of the animals are very exotic."
One of the first to come my way is a towering bipedal beast, which seems to be made of paper. That's the title explained, then. But this creature isn't roaming a world that looks much like our own. "So today, there is so much information, everywhere," says Éric. "There is a lot of pressure on us, as a result. So the concept of Paper Beast is: what if wildlife has emerged from all this data, from algorithms, from inside these servers. It's a world that no human has ever seen."
He directs my attention to the sky above: "There is this pressure of data, all data, on this world. So it erupts into this world, and the clouds have numbers in them, so it's always there. It percolates, across the whole adventure. It's very symbolic."
He's right - the clouds wrap themselves into recognisable numbers, and later there's a kind of geyser of data that explodes from the ground, spewing numbers all over the place. But why paper? If I'm in this server, I suppose, this virtual space born of data, why are the animals - more of which appear before me, some scuttling around like knee-high insects and others more like... horses, or antelopes? - so fragile, so thin and delicate?
"The animals look like paper - but paper is the support of information," Éric explains. "We write information, and data, on paper. And the beauty of real wildlife, that was actually my first inspiration. When you see animals moving, any kind of animals, there's something really fascinating and beautiful."
"What is really interesting is that this is wildlife that's come out of data that we've generated, but has emerged by itself," he continues. "It's really virgin. While in reality, we don't have this so much, these virgin places, because human activity has treated wildlife so badly, and damaged our ecology. The planet is in a difficult situation, because of human activities."
So Paper Beast is something of a meditation on how our relationship with data, with knowledge and both the consumption and collecting of it, has a corruptive effect on the wider natural world. Maybe? In my 20 minutes with the game, I can't say I get my finger wholly on the pulse of what it is that Éric really wants to say with his new game.
But given we're talking about a designer with Another World, Heart of Darkness and the wildly underrated From Dust to his name, I'm not ruling out the very real possibility of this being pretty special. And there's no doubt that Paper Beast makes you feel something. Detached from the everyday, with space to let your imagination free, truly immersed in another world in a way that none of Éric's past games have achieved.
Why VR, though? I mean, it makes some sense - you play as a VR user in Paper Beast. But it's a developing area of gaming, still, and probably not the platform to aim for, exclusively, if it's a big splash you're after.
"VR fascinates me," Éric says - and by now I've taken off the headset, and can see him beaming with enthusiasm for the medium. "When we started this project in 2016, it was a crazy time. Today we have something like three million, maybe four million PSVR owners, but back then that audience wasn't there. To have this feeling of space, to see these objects in front of you and really feel their size, to see these creatures, is amazing."
"VR is the best medium for this game," he adds. "You're a VR user inside the game's world, so it works well thematically as a VR game. Beyond that, Paper Beast is a metaphorical connection between an artificial, wide world where the player is exploring a place that isn't similar to the real world, but asks in a poetic way: what is real life? It makes you think about the associations between reality, and what's artificial."
Whether Paper Beast will do for VR gaming what Another World achieved for the action-adventure (and puzzle-platforming?) genre in the early 1990s remains to be seen - but I don't feel that Éric Chahi has anything to prove to anyone but himself. Can the gaming space, for all its breadth and depth, still facilitate his creative visions? That's the question that Paper Beast will answer, one way or another, when it comes to PlayStation VR in early 2020.
Featured Image Credit: Pixel Reef