Welcome once more to Teacups & 1UPs, a fortnightly-ish column in which I talk about games and pair them with tea. Last intallment was the first of my three-part special, where I talked about single player games at PAX Australia, and now it’s time for part two, which is all about games in a medium I’m particularly excited about: virtual reality.
I first tried VR last year at PAX Aus with the breathtaking Earthlight (which I returned to this year) and it was love at first sight. There’s something so special about stepping into another world and experiencing a narrative that encompasses your environment. So, of course, I jumped at every opportunity I was given to try out the VR games being shown at PAX this year.
A game about exploration and community, A Township Tale was the first social VR game I ever experienced. Its premise is simple: the player is thrust into a fantasy town and given free reign to do what they want, be it exploring the landscape or taking on roles within the context of the town. Each player can choose to work with or against others within the game, but survival may push people to depend on each other. You can take on a bunch of jobs such as mining, hunting, and more to build a thriving community.
The demo I played was pretty short, and, I’ll be honest, I spent a good portion of it trying to figure out how to juggle rocks. After laughing at my failed attempts with the rocks, my guide hurriedly tried to show me the archery as the timer ticked down to zero—archery in VR is always super fun, so of course they wanted me to at least try it. In my panicked rush to hit something before the demo ended, I dropped every arrow I tried to nock. Turns out that if you’re clumsy in real life, you’re probably clumsy in virtual life, too. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy what I played; I wish I could’ve spent more time in Township.
Art-wise, the world is bright and cute, and I’m fond of the somewhat cartoony textures—the gloves that represent the player’s hands remind me a little of how cosplayers texture their armour. The design lends a lightness and a friendliness to the world. It’s the kind of place I can imagine hanging out with my friends, with rolling hills and cute little mushrooms.
Township translated a lot of what I enjoyed out of games like Runescape (millennia back when i actually played the game) into an interactive three-dimensional space I could move around in. When I swung my pickax down into rocks, the controllers vibrated enough that I registered the feedback as physical—I actually had to be told to hit the rocks harder because I didn’t realise I was able to swing more. Or rather, I realised, my brain just wasn’t so sure about it.
Interacting with other players was another aspect of Township that resonated with my old MMO(ish) days. My guide (one of the developers) was helpful and friendly, and he used the grabbing motion of the hands as a gesture—which made me realise I’d never actually considered the ways body language could be used within a virtual space. The other player was a little more destructive, knocking my pick from my hands, which I thought was an accident—at least until he started trying to steal my rocks. Player models in VR always creep me out a little, with their weird floating bodies and spherical heads, but the unpredictability and sociability of experiencing a virtual world with other humans is weirdly exciting—assuming it’s a safe experience, which Township definitely was for me.
Speaking of safe experiences, I attended a talk at Game Connect Asia Pacific given by two developers at Alta, Tima Anoshechkin and Justine Colla, about creating safe environments within social VR. They spoke a little about implementing safety features when the player starts the game, and allowing the player to decide what they feel safe including in their play-space on their own. This topic is definitely something for another post, but it’s encouraging that Alta’s developers are seriously thinking about these issues as they create Township, especially since it’s a game so strongly built around the idea of community.
As for typical VR stuff, the locomotion in Township is parabolic teleportation, which isn’t my favourite method but does mean that I experienced no motion sickness at all while playing the demo. Honestly, Township is a pretty solid game, and it’s one I’d really love to play with my friends, if any of us actually owned VR headsets.
To pair: Lemon iced tea, extra lemon, extra sugar, and a little bit of mint. The kind of drink you want after a hard day’s work scavenging for supplies with your new neighbours.
Oh, Earthlight, the experience that made me fall in love with virtual reality. I was thrust into the body of an astronaut and thrown into space last year, and if there’s one thing I really want out of my time in VR, it’s being able to experience space in a way I likely never will in real life.
This year, however, I got to try their second demo, in which I was training for a space walk in a pool. The thing about Earthlight is that Opaque is trying to create a genuinely authentic representation of being an astronaut, which means that the gameplay is at times frustrating and tedious. Not necessarily in a bad way, but in a way that makes you feel like you’re doing actual hard work. You have to think about how you’re going to move, and moving around in a bulky spacesuit in low/no gravity isn’t easy.
Earthlight represents this in a way that feels as real as it can, Opaque goes to great lengths to deliver something that feels real, liaising with space agencies like NASA to do the best work they can. Opaque doesn’t make the game obtusely difficult for the sake of faux realism, everything is a genuine challenge to overcome, and once it’s over you can be proud that you know a little more about how it feels to be an astronaut.
Because you’re an astronaut in a low gravity environment like a pool, or space, you move by pulling yourself along handholds, not actually walking. The lack of non-diegetic locomotion means that, for me, it’s very easy to fully fall into the world and be engaged with the virtual space. This is helped by the use of the side buttons on the Vive controls to control grabbing with your virtual hands. It’s an action that feels a lot more natural for the grab motion than the trigger for me, and it works really well for Earthlight.
This is a very cool game, and one I definitely recommend checking out on its eventual release, especially if you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut. Follow Opaque on Twitter for updates, or check out the site! Opaque is working to get Earthlight on as many virtual reality platforms as they can.
To pair: Loose-leaf chai with star anise. Because stars. But also, just imagine looking out at the earth from above and sipping a sweet-yet-spicy tea.
Yet another game from Opaque, Genesis is a god game, which is exactly what it sounds like: you play as a god, reigning over small villagers who are trying to go about their day. Many VR developers quickly discover that if you give your players the chance to pick up an object and throw it, that is exactly what the player will do, even if they’re not meant to. Genesis welcomes this destructive nature, the exploding buildings and wiggling little people just asking to be picked up and tossed about.
Okay, that sounds a little morbid. And I guess Genesis did bring out the morbidity in me a little; I could hear the people watching me laugh in half-disguised horror as I hurled a tiny man over a cliff into infinity. His family will miss him—if they’re still alive, that is.
Really, Genesis is not unlike playing with your toys as a kid. Didn’t we all throw our action figures around, destroying their homes and setting fire to their—
Just me? Oh.
But in all seriousness, you really do feel like a god standing over the world, fire blazing in your hands. The village is literally below you, forcing you to crouch down to interact with any part of it. This gives you a sense of height, of power, and of actually having to do more than passively stand around and whack at things. Unfortunately, Genesis’ locomotion—grabbing the world to pull it towards you—made me a little motion sick.
Maybe for the best, there was only so long before the power would’ve gotten to my head.
Go check out the teaser trailer on the Twitter.
To pair: A spicy chocolate chilli, for a deity that can be at times sweet, and at times fully willing to hurl a fireball at the innocent.
Kept is exactly what I’ve been wanting to see in virtual reality games for a while: a game that’s gorgeous and atmospheric, one that plays with light and narrative to tell a story without words, but is strong nonetheless. In the demo, you are within a ring of stones in a strange, yet beautiful world, performing a ritual with runes and fireflies. It is about exploration, about beauty, and, I think, about death.
And it is gorgeous. The sound and art design are beautiful, transporting you to another world within the headset. It’s dark, but the colours are vibrant within the dusk, the flitting lights all the more vivid because of it. It’s a magical experience, a world I was reluctant to leave. I dawdled with the puzzles, spent far too much time slowly taking in every detail of the enclosed area I could walk around in. The environment so clearly expresses a narrative of being lost, of being somewhere ethereal and mystical. Kept captures what I love of my favourite non-VR indies and brings it into virtual reality, placing me directly within such gorgeous art and light.
Of course, I am endlessly in love with the idea of environmental narrative in virtual reality. Kept is a game clearly focused on crafting this, its developers wanting to tell an emotional story through their medium. I think S1TR is doing good things with this game, and with their experiments within the VR medium. I honestly just really want to play the game again.
There is some stunning art on the website, which is where this post’s header image is from, as well as a trailer with some of the beautiful music. Ugh, my heart.
To pair: A berry tea, specifically one with blueberries. Not only are blueberries an otherworldly colour, but their sweetness captures similar emotions to Kept.
The American Dream
A satirical game about American gun culture, The American Dream sits you in a little coaster cart and sends you on an educational adventure through a 1950’s world fair, where everything is guns. You’ll learn how to eat, clean, and do your job in a utopian world where firearms replace every other tool, including your hands.
The American Dream is shockingly funny and ridiculously fun, with slow-motion reloading to make you feel extra badass. As an American who doesn’t entirely consider herself American, this game was a great ride—it’s poking fun at the gun culture without actually being cruel about Americans. It’s so unbelievably absurd that it’s hard to take yourself seriously as you play. At some point, when you need to reach up with your mouth to eat something, you have to give up any pretense of self-consciousness about how you look to people beyond your headset, and just let yourself be part of this bizarre parody of our world.
Samurai Punk is a pretty cool company and I’m also quite fond of their multiplayer shooter Screencheat, so you should definitely check them out if you haven’t already.
To pair: As tempting as it is to make a joke about gunpowder tea, I’m going to have to go with that American sweet iced tea y’all always argue about. Why? Because I can’t help but associate the thought of it with America, and with the bright, sunny future The American Dream hopes for.