You won’t find anything else in virtual reality that makes you think about technology quite like a project from Tender Claws does.
The latest work from the studio debuted on Oculus Quest 2 and Rift this week. One five-star review on the Quest store calls it “the Most Unique Game Ever” while a two-star review describes it as “one seriously weird ride.” Our own Harry Baker here at UploadVR decided not to pass a verdict on the game until its bugs are addressed, writing that it’ “might be Tender Claws most experimental and successfully inventive game yet. This is a game that understands and capitalises on the richness of VR as a medium, while remaining perfectly delicate in how it handles the format’s limitations. It is a fantastic blueprint for VR game design that elegantly handles the intersection of immersion, creativity, presence and variety.”
While we wait for that update to hit, we talked with Tender Claws co-founders Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman this week about the studio’s ambitions, its approach to VR design, and what happens when a metaverse shuts down.
Metaverse Shut Down?
Tender Claws made the original Virtual Virtual Reality for the Daydream platform Google was developing to rival Gear VR and Oculus Go. The project eventually got positional tracking support and new life on platforms like Oculus Quest, but for a couple years there VVR’s narrative — which sees the player doing gig jobs for artificial intelligences — made for a very compelling introduction to the medium. Where Job Simulator took a similar premise into the realm of playfulness and Accounting bent it toward loud humor, VVR is more than willing to give the player a tiny existential crisis with its gameplay.
VVR2, then, is seen by its creators as the last in a trilogy of VR and AR experiences addressing the medium itself, the first being the original VVR and the second being Tendar, also made initially for Google systems as an exploration of phone-based AR tools. In that game, players care for an augmented reality fish who floats around and can be fed “emotion flakes” grown from facial expressions made for the phone’s camera. After that, Tender Claws took a detour into live theater with The Under Presents, a groundbreaking experience which blurred the line between live and recorded performance in fascinating ways. Its offshoot, The Tempest, built on some of those tools made for The Under Presents, allowing a single performer to take a small troupe of VR headset wearing ticket-holders through some of Shakespeare’s iconic scenes.
Work on VVR2 started back when the original was completed, and it takes the exploration of artificial intelligences to an extended conclusion that can last more than 10 hours. VVR2’s script is more than 600 pages and the gameplay sees players puppeteering their own mechanized avatar around the metaverse like a VR version of Being John Malkovich. VVR2 asks the question, “When a metaverse shuts down, what happens to the avatars left behind?”
“The follow-up to Virtual Virtual Reality started with a couple ideas. One of them was this playful idea that instead of having free movement in VR, we would let you at any moment go inside your head and then drive yourself like a giant mech robot to the next space you want to go to and then retake over the body, a very unique kind of perspective shift that was super well suited for VR,” Cannizzaro explained. “We were looking at spaces like Sims Online or Club Penguin or briefly Altspace, some of these spaces that had real life meaning and significance and special places in a lot of people’s lives that were being shut down, and what does it mean to be making stuff or existing in technology when the pace at which technology changes and these things grow and pivot and shut down is so quick? We wanted to make a game about that. If VVR is you doing gig labor for AIs, in VVR2 it’s this utopia where humans and AIs are more seen as equals, and you end up merged and sharing this kind of collective mind with a bunch of different consciousnesses. The writing and the script is a lot less characters just talking to you, and more of these conversations and bouncing of ideas and backseat drivers.”
Gorman says they were “interested in the real life outpouring of grief and all this stuff that happens in the shutdown of online communities and why communities shut down,” and they decided to examine that space “so you know what the stakes are for uploading into your future social network where the public commons are owned.” Gorman asks: “What does it mean to live inside internally with characters as roommates versus navigating a world outside?”
While the original VVR has seen more than 1,400 reviews on Oculus Quest since release on that platform in 2019, the new game only has 37 ratings on that store at the time of this writing.
VVR2 is slated to come to Steam in March and we’ll have updates when the game does.