Most videogames are generally easy to categorise, falling into genres like first-person shooters (FPS), puzzles or role-playing games (RPG) for example. Occasionally however there are those titles which are really difficult to pin down, with no amount of screenshots and trailers helping to define the gameplay, only playing the damn thing unlocks its secrets. This certainly seemed to be the case when Pixel Reef announced its first virtual reality (VR) Paper Beast. After playing the experience at Gamescom 2019, far more questions have arisen than been answered.
Created by Eric Chahi (Another World, Heart of Darkness, From Dust), Paper Beast explores a topic very much at the heart of everyday society, even if most never see it, and that’s Big Data. Companies and governments around the world create, access, move, and distribute ridiculous amounts of data daily, and it’s this which Pixel Reef has reimagined into a living breathing digital ecosystem born out of lost code and forgotten algorithms.
Paper Beast is a quiet adventure, there’s no distinguishable narrative to speak of and the environment continues to evolve as you explore and meet the inhabitants. The demo started off by choosing one of three data points, transporting you to a desert realm with sweeping sand dunes and mountainous rock formations. As shown in the screenshots Paper Beast plays with an extensive colour palette, richly bringing the world to life with a gorgeous array of oranges, blues, pinks and reds.
The design is both striking, equally calming and bizarre, a careful look at the clouds reveals the puffy formations that are in fact numbers and letters, remanence of that lost code floating around. Gameplay was very simple with the only interaction at this point being able to pick stuff up and move it around. If you’re in a toy store then great but in Paper Beast you’re in a vast open wilderness, the only objects to interact with are the titular paper creatures born out of all this data.
Each one is seemingly unique and does its own thing. The first which stomps up is a towering beast resembling a cross between a spider with its many legs and a giraffe with a long slender neck. Way too big to pick up smaller creatures begins to appear, scuttling across the sand or walking majestically like a horse. These can be interacted with, grabbed by several points including head, shoulders and legs. Throwing one of the smaller ones of into the distance didn’t seem to annoy it, happily wandering back to say hello.
This then opened a quandary, what was there to do. Pixel Reef certainly wasn’t interested in using tried and tested mechanics when it came to challenges or quests. Having said there was no distinguishable narrative that doesn’t mean to say there wasn’t one. The lead was the giant beast, following it into a rocky area with plants sprouting from the sand and a few creatures which it began to fight. That happened next was simply awesome, for all intents and purposes a black hole began forming in the ground. As it grew larger, swallowing the smaller animals, it began to spew thousands of pieces of paper into the air creating a sand storm of what could have been deadly paper cuts. It was an assault of sound and visuals on the senses which became enthralling.
By the end though, that first question ‘what is Paper Beast?’ still remained largely unanswered. Paper Beast is a delight of design and imagination, beautiful to look and puzzling to experience. Hopefully, the final version will develop those interactive elements rather than purely being an elaborate art piece. Whatever happens Paper Beast is going to be one of the more intriguing VR titles to emerge in 2019.