Eric Chahi is playing god again. Only this time he and his team at Pixel Reef have reached a higher form, not just creating another world or casting you as master over one. This time, he’s making life himself.
That is the promise behind Paper Beast, Chahi’s first game in nine years. When an immersive computing platform goes haywire, it sucks you into a living, thriving ecosystem of papercraft animals, given life by numbers and digits, leading you on a tour through a new kind of kingdom. To sell you on his ideas, of a believable ecological infrastructure and your place within it, Chahi would need a miracle. Fortunately, he’s playing god.
Paper Beast is, for all intents and purposes, a strange beast. It is a game that is always fascinating to behold, a 3+ hour exploration of virtual wildlife realized with compelling authenticity. Largely set within a vast desert, its creatures, ranging from the majestic to the more unsightly, are undoubtedly the star of the show. But, as much as you might expect otherwise, it is very much a game, with its underlying systems propping up some of the most organic (literally) problem-solving I’ve yet seen in VR.
It’s crucial to understand that Paper Beast’s virtual safari isn’t a simple menagerie of 3D assets and animations; its collection of critters is truly alive and often electric to interact with. I’m enamored from the word go, when I toy with two four-legged friends that incessantly snap and natter at pellets of paper food I hover over them. Sometimes they trip and stumble over each other in that way two dogs hypnotised by a bowl of chow might, sometimes they outsmart me and peck a bite from my grasp like a petting zoo animal feinting affection for rewards.
If it all sounds a little ‘high art’ that’s because, well, it is. This veil is an intentionally paper thin disguise for the nature of today’s digital dependency and the world that advanced technologies like VR and AI are hurtling towards. At times Paper Beast relays its concerns and considerations with a heavy dose of ambiguity, like the game’s stunningly tranquil ending — one of the most arresting I’ve seen in VR. At other times it offers more direct reference to films like 2001 and quotes from Elon Musk.
Paper Beast only has teleport locomotion and snap turning, which means it shouldn’t give you any comfort issues. The teleportation works great for navigating the game’s massive environments quickly, so don’t let the lack of smooth locomotion deter you.
Between this interlocking set of food chains and cautioning, you’d likely expect Paper Beast to leave gameplay as a distant third consideration. But in truth it’s an unexpected delight of a VR puzzler, surprisingly revisiting the journey Chahi started with From Dust in terms of land deformation and restructuring.
Each of Paper Beast’s six chapters builds on that concept in ways that are admirably in tandem with its digital ecosystem. Skittish bugs roll up piles of sand that you can pick up and then dash upon to floor to create mounds of earth that will help you reach higher destinations. In a sprawling network of caves you encounter one less-flattering animal that chomps into sand like its Lucky Charms and then spurts it out the other end as if its digestive system has immediately and very violently rejected them.
The game is in constant search of ways to capitalize on the characteristics of its creations, and it makes for a dynamic and ever-evolving experience unlike anything else you’ll see in VR. In fact, I’m astonished all of this could be achieved on PSVR; when its various systems are thrown at each other — as they quite often are — it becomes a fascinating technical showcase that holds up to intense scrutiny. Huge waves of water can slop around in a man-made ditch that an animal begrudgingly hoisting an item it’s tethered to can struggle through. It’s every bit the equal of the miracle of observing and interacting with its wildlife.
Impressive, too, are the game’s controls, which operate much like Virtual-Virtual Reality’s floating tether. Though it’s a shame not to be able to physically pet animals or truly hold food in your hand, this scheme does wonders for instilling a sense of weight, whether you’re slamming a mud ball into the ground or lifting a creature to safety. Finally, there’s a fun sandbox mode to play around with when you’re done, expanded by getting more collectibles. It doesn’t have much longevity to the overall package, but it’s an appreciated extra.
Paper Beast Review Final Impressions
With Paper Beast, Eric Chahi goes for a holy trinity of VR development. It is a game not content with just one miracle, be it the authentic, almost documentarian approach to a virtual ecosystem, nor the technical milestones such a feat requires. Even its set of puzzles somehow emerge as a remarkably natural extension of its core themes and systems, creating a cohesive and curiously precious VR game to be preserved and savoured. Though it usually comes with unintended pitfalls, Paper Beast proves playing god can be great from time to time.