Teacups & 1UPs: Symphony of the Machine

Welcome once more to Teacups & 1UPs, a fortnightly-ish column in which I talk about games and pair them with tea. This post should be one about multiplayer games, but because I’m an idiot and managed to miss a game from my VR multipack last time, we’re getting a short mini special this week: Symphony of the Machine, developed by Stirfire Studios. Call this the PAX Aus multipack 2.5.

Yet another virtual reality game I picked up at PAX Australia, Symphony is a puzzle game about reviving a dead world. You find yourself before a tower in a lifeless desert, and upon entering the tower you discover that it has the power to control the weather. With only a little robot as a companion and guide, it’s up to you to restore balance to the world through weather manipulation.

Of all of the VR worlds I was lucky enough to experience over PAX weekend last year, Symphony‘s is perhaps the one I felt the most sorrow upon leaving. There was something so calming, so relaxing about playing the game, thanks in large part to the lovely soundtrack and puzzles that make you consider your environment, without being overly complex. Finding solutions to problems that look simple from the outside, but still require thought, is always more gratifying than I realise.

The puzzles are born from a beam of light that needs to be redirected to hit certain glyphs scattered about the circular room at the top of the tower. Each glyph represents a type of weather pattern like rain, or sun. When two are combined through a split beam, they can create different effects. You’re told what exactly the planet needs at a given time, and then it’s up to you to find a way to foster the right atmosphere, using reflectors and splitters to direct the beam of light. Walls pop up to obstruct the light, meaning you have to get a little creative about directing the beam in the right direction.

The puzzles aren’t hard per se, but they do require a spatial awareness I’m not used to actually using in my day-to-day life. They stretched my brain just enough to unstick me from the exhaustion of my real life, made me narrow my eyes with a frustration that comes of knowing you know the answer, but can’t quite make it work. They’re the good stuff, the puzzles that you hope become more complex so you can push your new understandings further.

So there I was, surrounded by the cacophony of PAX Australia’s showroom floor, dizzy from the noise and the lack-of-sleep adrenaline rushing through my veins. Except, with the HTC Vive headset slipped over my eyes, all of that was gone. I was no longer overwhelmed by the real world, no longer overheating in a large, dim exhibition center: instead I was somewhere beautiful, somewhere that needed me.

Again and again, I find it increasingly difficult to express just how much I can find myself pulled out of my real life by a good VR game. There’s the typical stuff—a headset that blocks out all other sound, the all-encompassing environment wherever you look—but there’s also a feeling that comes with it; a sense of being somewhere not here, of being elsewhere. A liminal space of sorts, neither here nor there, but wonderful nonetheless.

That’s what Symphony is. A small, enclosed space that is part of something much bigger, a larger world left to you to piece together and imagine. The hints of what came before prompt you to wonder how exactly this planet died, and the game drives you to fix what may have been a disaster brought about by those who came before—perhaps not so different from a game like Abzu. As you heal the planet, the plant within your care in the tower grows in reciprocation. An immediate reminder of your actions; of the existence of life, still, on a dead world.

I mean, it was a short demo, so YMMV if you ever play. But I loved what I saw of Symphony, and I wouldn’t mind more games like it, VR or otherwise. Initially created as a Global Game Jam game from the understandable theme of “rituals”, I think Symphony takes the idea of rituals and uses it to both provoke your mind and calm your nerves. For more info, check out Stirfire’s website.

To pair: cold brew jasmine tea. Jasmine has always made me think of growth and fresh life, so I think it’s fitting here. The scent of jasmine tea is soothing, not unlike the world of Symphony.