There’s only ocean as far as my eye can see. It’s a swirl of pastels marking the break of dawn. Overhead, I watch a flock of seagulls fly by. Under foot, I hear the crash of waves against rocks. It’s only then that I look down, and realize I’m standing on the ledge of a cliff.
Despite my fear of heights, this uninhabited island is serene. I glance to the right, and I see a dot waiting for me further up the mountain. I look at it for a moment, and I’m there.
Well, sort of. Truth be told, my body is sitting in the rocking chair of my son’s nursery, wearing Samsung's Gear VR headset, and trying the Android app Land’s End. It’s a new game developed by ustwo’s game studio, the same minds behind the breakout, Escher-inspired iPad hit game, Monument Valley.
"I think you know, the easy option for us after making Monument Valley would be to make Monument Valley 2, straight up," Executive Producer Daniel Grey told me earlier. "But I think we pride ourselves so much on creatively challenging members of the games team to be able to identify what our version of VR looks like."
A Gamble On The Long Con
Grey isn’t wrong. Monument Valley was a smash. Not only has it lived in the top 100 paid iOS games since launch, we even nominated it for a 2014 Innovation by Design Award. And when a game or movie studio has a hit, the key formula for success is to simply revisit the well. That’s why we’re on the thousandth Marvel movie, or why we see a new Call of Duty game every year. Media franchises snowball to create the predictable revenue so loved by Fortune 500-owned media companies.
But the Monument Valley team, including lead developer Peter Pashley and artist Ken Wong, decided to make a game for the fledgling world of virtual reality. While the public awaits the field’s most anticipated commercial launch next year with the Oculus Rift, it has designed and released Land’s End to run on Samsung's Android-friendly headset. In a best case scenario, Land’s End cannot make the untold millions at launch that would flow from a Monument Valley 2—not out of the gate, at least, as the hundreds of millions of iOS users vastly outweigh the handful of people who actually own this highly specialized and branded VR equipment.
Yet when I mention this, the team is unphased. "It gives us a chance to contribute to the development of VR as a medium," Pashley says, "and being able to blaze new trails is amazing." Trailblazing was a great way to retain the team's talent, too, I’m told.
Land’s End is a puzzle game—much like Myst—in which you hop spot to spot to interact with new, staged brainteasers. It’s built to be gorgeous and meditative, to allow the player to almost window shop their way through the game, never thinking about controlling it. What the Land’s End team is trying to accomplish—instead of outright commercial success—is a creative long con: Can they use this game to create some of the fundamental ways that people can interact with a VR world?
How Will We Live In Virtual Worlds?
Many bigger, better-funded companies are playing in this same experimental space. Oculus (owned by Facebook) has announced a pair of insane floating thumbsticks that give your hands a virtual presence in these games, and the HTC Vive will let you walk around a real room, while wearing a headset, even touching physical objects that are duplicated in the game. ustwo has a slightly different bet—that while those other proprietary modes of control may very well take off, there’s one interaction that all VR headsets will share: Your gaze. And so Land’s End is a game you can control purely by turning your head to look at things.
"[Gaze control] is the one thing that took us the longest to figure out," Pashley says. "We’ve been working on this game from this time last year. And the majority of that time has been iterating on level design, and the best way of letting the player interact with this world...you don't want people to feel like they’re using their head as a joystick."
The team’s first breakthrough was to eliminate the crosshair. While many VR games have tried head controls before, most rely on a centering reticle in the middle of the screen, like classic first person shooters. This reticle reinforced the joystick feel, and served to remind players that they were wearing a bulky VR headset, rather than becoming immersed in another world.
ustwo also built levels with classic attention grabbing techniques, like leading lines and placing things in silhouette, to pull your attention to the right spot. This means that while Land’s End lets you turn in your chair to appreciate the 360-degree view, as you absorb the horizon, you’ll naturally be drawn to the next stage of your journey. A glowing beacon—which you look at to walk to—just serves as confirmation and reinforcement of this core design.
Controlling The Puzzles With Sight
Solving the actual puzzles—which require you to connect constellations across rocks—requires two main gaze techniques, pioneered by ustwo. The first is what the company calls Starlines. You point your head at a notch in the rock, look to another, and the two are connected by a laser-like trail. Meanwhile, all sorts of little bits of visual flourishes reinforce the behavior, from slowly building sparks when you’re in the right spot, to a crescendoing electronic sound track as your gaze ignites the pixels. It’s satisfying and reassuring; It all just feels so good.
The second breakthrough was telekinesis. By holding your gaze on a giant rock (marked with a certain symbol), it lifts into the air. Moving your head drags it through the air, as if your neck is not a joystick, but a crane.
As I played through the 30-minute-ish demo, I was struck by how quickly I mastered these gaze techniques, as if I was an omniscient god rampaging his way through Stonehenge one rock puzzle at a time. But sometimes, the team did seem to push their own mechanics too far. Tossing a boulder caused me to do a very not good thing to my neck, when I tried to lob it across the screen with my head.
Other problems happened when the game will prompted me to turn my neck 90 or even 180 degrees in order to head down certain paths. The initial twist itself is difficult, but then you actually have to hold yourself in that position to keep playing down that path (because if you turn your head back, you can’t just recenter the game—you’re looking the wrong way). There were times I’d be almost climbing in my chair, twisting my neck and shoulders, in serious discomfort. I couldn’t help but wonder if the game were tested in swiveling office chairs, or maybe testers had played the game standing in an open room, rather than in domestic furniture where your body is rooted to cushions.
These moments fell short of Pashley’s goal, that he "wanted people to be thinking about what they were enjoying, rather than forcing them to go through any rote interaction." But that’s not to say that the mechanics themselves were completely broken. I think the game could be polished further, to promote a level design that lived more inside a 180-degree cone than a torso-twisting 360-degree circle. And if it were, the gaze would totally work—and maybe in more VR games than just Land’s End.
"Whether we’ve been successful in what we want to do or not will be more apparent in two to three years time, when we see what kinds of VR experiences people are making by then," Grey says. "Look at the catapult mechanic for Angry Birds. How many people have ripped that off?"