The (Other) Best VR Game of 2020

You don’t need me to tell you that Half Life: Alyx is the greatest virtual reality game to release this year. It’s no contest. Nothing else exists in VR right now that matches Valve’s level, encounter, and interaction design, as well as story, production value, art direction, and lasts even half as long. I’m skeptical if anything will for at least another year or two, and even then, there’s plenty of workshop levels to play.

Inevitably, as we approach the end of this hallway-full-of-broken-glass of a year, the annual tsunami of best-of lists once again casts its shadow over Game Discourse. Today, I’m here to use my infinitesimal platform to scream into the void that yes, Alyx deserves the hype, but I was just as moved by a smaller indie title that flew under most peoples’ radar.

Paper Beast comes to us from Pixel Reef, a French indie studio headed by Eric Chahi. Know-it-alls like me will recognize Eric as the creator of Another World or Out of This World, a legendary, influential action-adventure from 1991. Its lineage runs all the way down to games like Limbo, Little Nightmares, Rain World, and Ico — Fumito Ueda, Hideo Kojima, and Goichi Suda all cite the game as a personal favorite or strong influence on their own work.

What makes Another World and its children so special, in part, is its wordlessness. Nobody speaks to you. There are no text boxes, no explanations, no overt tutorials. The game’s manual gives you a backstory and the controls, and after a brief intro cutscene, the player falls into a stark, hostile, alien world, left to fend for themselves and discover organically how to survive. Some might be put off by its unapologetic difficulty, or the trial-and-error design, but plenty of award-winning modern games contain similar gameplay loops.

On the other hand, Paper Beast’s gentle generosity welcomes you into its striking world. Like Another World, the game has no narration, voiceover, text, or tutorials, save for the button assignments the game helpfully leaves on your controllers. The Alice in Wonderland-like framing device remains, as well — the player, though a vague miraculous accident of quantum computing, ends up in an alien world full of “wildlife, sprung from the depths of the internet.” To learn how to play is to observe nature: the game requires you to discover, watch, and understand the behavior of a variety of creatures and natural phenomena before manipulating them to solve puzzles. As you poke and prod at these creatures, they react naturally to you and each other. Their forms bend, stretch, tumble, run, fall, scrabble, and bite. The land itself even responds — some puzzles require you to to dig through sand or direct the flow of water.

You don’t touch these creatures, or the world, directly. Instead, you have a bendy, flexible, goofy tether that lets you push, pull, grab, attach, detach, fling, catch, tug, and tease the wide range of flora and fauna throughout the world. This telekinetic power commonly appears in other puzzle games as a solution to VR’s touch problem, but it works particularly well here to simulate the weight and physicality of objects and creatures. Not everything can be picked up, and moving certain objects requires finesse, although the game never pressures you into consistent precision. It’s fun to just fling these hapless things around. Watching them naturally react to your meddling in real-time VR can be hilarious. These mechanics feel like holdovers from a god game, as if the player’s godhood was somehow revoked, cast down to earth with little of their power left. Fitting, considering that Paper Beast takes place inside of technology the protagonist supposedly controlled.

Hapless thing being flung.

Puzzle solving forms the majority of Paper Beast’s three-hour main scenario, although its meditative pace allows for multiple non-interactive scenes that don’t break the exploratory forward momentum. Progression already requires active observation, so scenarios where the player only needs to watch don’t feel contrived, or out of place. The world so clearly exists on its own terms, outside of your experience of it, that even when you are solving puzzles, you occasionally don’t feel like you’re putting the world back together so much as interrupting it. These few setpiece moments are mesmerizing and titanic. The forces that pulled you into this internet desert continue to rend the landscape apart, shifting the balance of the world so dramatically that you begin to feel an affinity for these creatures as mutual victims of circumstance. All of you are in this together.

And that’s where Paper Beast begins to work its magic. The player’s relationship to the beasts, and how it evolves as you progress through the world, elevates it above the other heavy-hitter VR games out this year. The game mostly side-steps heavy-handed empathy bait — these creatures do suffer, but their pain carries the inevitability of a nature documentary. Circle of life, and all that. Mechanically, however, that suffering usually becomes your problem. If they can’t climb a hill, you need to help them. By using the beasts as tools to survive, you become part of the ecosystem, almost, forming a symbiotic relationship with your fellows.

What sells this more than anything else is the behavior of the beasts, and their presence, around you, in space. Every animation in the game is procedural — which means that instead of determining exactly how these plants or beasts should move in whatever situation, for example, each leg has a series of movement rules that determine where to place its foot in real-time. Flipped creatures naturally attempt to right themselves, slippery surfaces cause them to lose their footing. Instead of floating around like objects in a video game, they carry their own weight, at their peril. If you tug at them with your tether, they’ll try to keep upright — depending on their weight, they may even hold their ground. Everything has a level of elasticity to it that not only feels natural and playful, but otherworldly, elevating the common VR verb of “grabbing” into something special. The art direction reinforces the material nature of the world: flurries of paperlike strands appear as fur, lithe bodies of manifold origami structures exist alongside golems of warped, exotic tree branches. Simply being with these creatures in VR evokes wonder — these gorgeous living sculptures hold up under detailed inspection. Of course, they aren’t just sculptures: they have their own tasks they attempt to complete, they shuffle, snort, gulp, breathe, stomp, whine, growl. Sound design makes up half the illusion of presence, and here, Paper Beast demonstrates at least a triple-A level of mastery. Certain sounds feel like imitations or collages of existing animals, while others take more artistic license to keep the otherworldly feeling. The sheer volume of sound effects dynamically triggered around you in real time feels like nature, instead of a set background track imitating a natural atmosphere. While we’re at it — the music, composed by British producer Roly Porter and Japanese punk rock outfit TuShiMaMiRe hits. It serves the meditative, exploratory atmosphere, and knows when to stay out of your way, but man. It kicks the hell in during some honestly transcendent moments that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Without the beasts around, you feel the difference. The world itself appears gorgeous, vast, and sometimes, empty. The level design plays confidently with scale, shifting tenderly from intimate interactions to awesome expanses. The arc of your journey continues through days and nights, through caves, mountains, deserts, and more, evoking a wide palette of emotions: playful curiosity, grim perseverance, loneliness, joy, even fear. This game, believe it or not, doesn’t hesitate to surprise or even scare the player. Beasts will mostly ignore you, and you can’t die, but the power of this new nature and the unknowable force affecting it, especially in VR, realize themselves in bold and unnerving ways.

The environment stays consistent with the creatures: low-poly art styles translate well to VR because they avoid the screen-door effect. Bold shapes, colors, and lines playing in space give plenty to focus on without becoming blurry, or requiring close inspection to make out the details of a specific texture. Paper Beast has the best of both worlds: distinct materials and small details come into focus up close, but the geometry and color of objects stay legible at a distance. In VR, complex shapes look better than complex images. What’s even better than complex shapes, however, are dynamic ones: the paper-strand fur of the shuffling mole-dog creature, the sick tendrils spooling through caves, curtains that blow convincingly in the wind, odd patches of strange tall grass. The fact that all of these things behave individually with their own physics, in a VR game, is an accomplishment unto itself, even if they update at a lower rate than the rest of the game’s visuals. The same goes for sand, water, and other malleable parts of the world: piles of sand build and shift in real time, water bubbles, shifts, and flows over and through it, eroding the landscape. It’s easy for VR games to feel stiff, or static, like museums. Sure, you can pick up and throw some stuff, but rarely do they give this much of the environment over to the whims of the player. Paper Beast’s literal sandboxes feel revolutionary in comparison

(And how did I get this far without mentioning the skyboxes? They’re stunning. They look like the I-Spy books I used to read as a kid. They’re abstract, but also tactile. I look at them, and I can feel them. Y’know?)

Speaking of sandboxes, completing the game actually rewards you with an endless sandbox mode, where every creature, material, plant, et cetera, becomes available to you. Some stay hidden until you get certain collectibles, but thankfully, the game tells you where to look. Where other VR sandboxes feel like a tub full of Nerf guns in your parents’ basement, Paper Beast’s feels like a Zen garden from the year 3000. I’m not the type of player to spend much time on open-ended toys like this, but as far as toys go, this thing is amazing. If you thought the behaviors of the beasts in the game were complex, the new layers of reproductive requirements, and inter-species interactions the story doesn’t even allow for, broaden the game’s novelty. There’s plenty of stuff in here the main game never shows, and as your gardens grow, they evolve in surprising ways, taking on a life of their own as the ecosystems you create balance themselves naturally. The skeleton of a god game lies deep within Paper Beast, so giving the player the keys to the whole thing once all is said and done serves as a wonderful coda.

There’s so much I could say about the themes of the game, about what it might be quote-unquote “trying to say”. There’s plenty to read into, but nothing feels like a clear, bold-faced statement (with one notable exception). The game never tells you how to feel, but it’s clearly aware of the questions raised by its simulation, especially in the context of its story. Ultimately, Paper Beast speaks only the language of VR, and in so doing, proves its fluency.

I realize that’s possibly the goofiest sentence I could have written, but I don’t really know how else to say it.

The game creates its own world, with its own rules, and, to borrow a turn of phrase from a Disney DVD pre-roll ad, invites you on a journey you won’t soon forget. I unequivocally recommend this game, as a beautiful, dreamlike adventure through a convincing, bizarre world that constantly found new ways to surprise me. Its design is as playful as it is soulful. It takes everything that makes VR work and focuses on knocking those points out of the park.

The best thing I could say about Paper Beast is my only genuine criticism: I wished there was more of it. At times, the levels feel more like bowls of sand in a skybox, self-contained islands of life dotted across empty lands — although the technical challenge there isn’t lost on me. The sandbox mode proves the game has not exhausted its ideas, but maybe that’s alright. Eric and his team worked on Paper Beast for four years, and I can see where all those hours went. I only think to bring it up because even now, the stigma of the short game haunts VR. Not so long ago, early adopters waded through legions of two-to-three-hour one-and-done experiences. I was there, man. I understand! I refunded Vanishing Realms in 2016 out of petty, childish spite — I’d spent 800 dollars on a Vive, and I didn’t have any goddamn cash left over for games. The Gallery Episode 1 was amazing, but it was, like, thirty bucks for two hours! In the early days, tech demos and short bites formed the entirety of made-for-VR experiences, as developers sprinted to catch up with and understand the demands of the new medium. It’s beyond a reasonable doubt now that VR has a meaningful selection of notable games with meaty singleplayer content, so all I can hope for is the classic Steam review of “beat it in two hours game sux thumbs down” to eventually go extinct.

According to Steam, Paper Beast took exactly two-point-eight hours to finish on my first run.

I would have told you it felt like days.

This review is available in video essay form here.

Two weeks ago, I made a video without a script, so I didn’t see fit to post - but I took a bit of a solo vacation in VRChat, and edited together a little travelogue. I’m proud of it. You can check it out here.

Writer and designer of virtual worlds, games, and interfaces. (Also a professional voice actor!)