Being an indie virtual reality (VR) developer isn’t the easiest path for anyone interested in making videogames, especially when you’re completely solo. Yet that does offer an opportunity to make something unique to you, your life and your influences. Which is exactly what Martin Wheeler has done with PlayStation VR title Separation, a bleak atmospheric experience that’s both a puzzle solver and a step into his psyche.
Separation takes place in a world somewhere between a dreamscape and post-apocalypse, a wasteland devoid of life, littered with the remnants of ancient technology. There’s little explanation as to why you’re here or what this place is or was, apart from the occasional whispered story snippet. It evokes a harrowing sense of isolation with snow-covered mountains and ominous structures looming through the fog, eerie in its silence.
This feeling never really lets up throughout the entire time, and while it can be powerful and serene at times when some of the beautiful ambient music kicks in Separation can also become a little grating. Separation has one speed and one speed only, a slow amble that wouldn’t go amiss during a leisurely Sunday afternoon stroll. There’s obviously a benefit to this, making for a more comfortable experience as smooth locomotion is the only option. That does mean, however, that wandering the environment can take time – most of it – and patience. Designed to be peaceful with a meditation like quality, allowing time to contemplate and take in the vistas, the gameplay does become somewhat bland and repetitive as the experience progresses.
Rather than walking around these snowy landscapes aimlessly, there is a thread which guides you, a beam of blue light which travels between crystals. It’s these crystals which you need to manipulate, altering their position to continue the sequence. While there’s no hand-holding at any point during Separation with you mostly left to your own devices the puzzles never pose too much of a challenge, offering more of a break between the casual strolling around.
There are sequences which involve a boat and a balloon, offering some variance in how you get around. It can be quite relaxing sat on the boat meandering through the calm waters but unlike titles such as Journey for Elysium which want to make you part of this, Separation doesn’t. There’s a lack of connection between the player and Separation, mainly due to how this interaction with the experience works. The DualShock 4 controller does have its place in VR yet the inclusion of motion controls may have helped elevate the title, aiding that sense of being inside this world, instead of being a spectre pressing the interact button every so often.
As such the sentiment being portrayed doesn’t always connect and therefore Separation isn’t so much a journey for you as it was for the developer. Dealing with the loss and depression of a family member, Wheeler has etched these emotions into the experience for better or worse. Lonely statues are hidden away containing Sorrow artefacts to collect, while the singular use savepoints can only be used by picking up a monochrome rose.
Seeing that Wheeler created Separation by himself over a period of four years is an impressive accomplishment, especially considering the subject matter which inspired the experience. The atmospheric visuals and soundtrack are what carry Separation, reminiscent of titles like ICO. However, it becomes a little too monotonous and at times the emotion the title tries to portray feels indistinct as if it has lost its own way in this vast open landscape.