One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
So many video game world I’ve experienced were inspired by the aesthetic of cinema, and mostly by a fairly narrow range of movies: Star Wars, Aliens, James Bond, the Lord of the Rings movies and these days obviously the Marvel behemoth. Which isn’t a bad thing: I’ve greatly enjoyed inhabiting movie-inspired pastiches of New York and Los Angeles, I’ve had good times fighting my way through space stations, mansions and snowy castles. I’ve been wowed by the worlds that games create for their spectacle, but mostly it’s a familiar kind of awe: this is the best-looking Nazi stronghold or Death Star-alike I’ve ever sneaked through, this feels just like Blade Runner‘s futuristic Los Angeles or like Peter Jackson’s version of the Mines of Moria.
It is rare that a game world feels truly different, unexpected and surprising.
Sadly, some experiences lose an essential element if they’re put into words. Paper Beast, a game by the French developer Éric Chahi that is best played in VR, may well be one of these. It puts you in a surreal world, made up – at least I think so – by digital detritus, lost code and deleted data, a world populated by creatures that recall real-world animals, from elephants and turtles to crabs and hyenas, but they are made of thin strips and geometrical shapes of some paper-like material (hence the name), looking like origami animals come to life.
Obviously, there’s a question to be had about what is truly different. The worlds I’m using to describe Paper Beast – origami animals, thin strips of paper, elephants and turtles – are familiar. But Chahi and his team of programmers and artists combine and present these with an eye for the strange and unique. The familiar elements ground the world of Paper Beast, but the juxtaposition is alien. This is not like the common video game takes on familiar tropes: a game might place me in something very much like a Bond villain’s megalomaniac hideout and I might recognise it as a particularly stylish evil dude HQ, but it’s all iterations and gradual improvements. This game’s villain hideout and that game’s space station are rendered with more fidelity than those in games one year ago, or five or ten years. But finding myself in a desert beneath an alien sky, looking up at what might be a prehistoric beast five times my size made up of coloured sheets of paper: that’s not something I’ve experienced before, it’s not something I can judge based on all the other paper beasts I’ve met. The beast slowly craning its neck to get a better look at me isn’t the latest in a long line of origami creatures I’ve encountered. The gun-toting baddies in a shooter, on the other hand, are variations of all the gun-toting baddies I’ve annihilated in the decades ever since I started gaming, and the same is true for the worlds they’re put in.
The gameplay of Paper Beast is relatively slight: as the world you share with these creatures is threatened by some sort of cataclysm (which may be nothing more than some user emptying the Recycle Bin on their desktop), you’re usually tasked with guiding the creatures from one place to another, avoiding obstacles and other, more aggressive beasts that like nothing more than turning their fellow origami animals into paper shreds. It is largely a contemplative journey, interested more in exploring a strange yet strangely familiar world and marvelling at its sights than in action or even combat. As you progress through this world, Paper Beast evokes a sense of sadness and loss as you cannot stop the cataclysm from happening: at best, you can shepherd a few of the world’s creatures to a new place where they will be safe. Its tone is poetic. It is only once you reach the end credits that Chahi makes an explicit statement as to what Paper Beast is about: “Special thanks to Earth, our living spaceship.”
It’s a striking moment: the words appear as you’re looking across a grey, barren landscape into the starry sky and at what you’ve left behind. But it is the kind of moment that can never work as well in writing as it does when you’re actually there, looking out at the familiar globe in the far distance. I don’t think it’ll work nearly as well outside VR either: there is a difference between looking at these images on a screen and being enveloped in them, which Virtual Reality makes possible. All of these things – the desert, the cataclysms, above all the paper beasts: they have a presence and take on a tactility in VR that you rarely find in more familiar, more realistic sights on a conventional display. And as surreal and outlandish as they may seem at first, these sights are capable of reminding the player of the fragile beauty of our real world. I have been wowed by many a big-budget action game in the last few dozen years, but it is the longing look back at the home that once was at the end of Paper Beast that I will remember for far longer.