Review for Paper Beast
Note: Since time of writing, a flatscreen version of this game has been launched for PC as the "Folded Edition." This review deals only with the original VR release.
Given how closely connected adventure games are with interactive storytelling, and because of my personal preference for a strong central narrative, I can probably count on one hand the number of games that have left me honestly nonplussed, scratching my head in wonderment and asking, “What the hell am I playing?” Well, add another one onto that tally, because Eric Chahi (Another World) and Pixel Reef’s virtual reality adventure Paper Beast isn’t just a non-traditional game, it’s high up on the list of biggest head trips I’ve ever played. It presents something absolutely unique while riding a roller coaster of emotional highs and frustrating lows, all the while refusing to – nay, downright laughing in the face of – providing guidance or explanation of any kind. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s certainly guaranteed to be an experience unlike any other you’re likely to ever have again.
Paper Beast doesn’t concern itself with such a conventional concept as “narrative.” There are a number of isolated moments that probably count as story beats in and of themselves, but there’s no overarching tapestry that connects them other than what you, the player, come up with for yourself. The game is best approached with a moment-to-moment sensibility, experiencing the different set pieces it throws out and making of them what you will. Still, as the curtain parts to unveil the first official scene (literally – you start out penned in on all four sides by red velvet drapes, with your first task being to use your chosen controls to rip them down and reveal what lies beyond), there are a few basic facts that can be gleaned.
The game is set on a desolate, alien world, filled with stark natural landscapes but barren in the sense that there’s no sign of civilization anywhere. The seven chapters chronicle a journey through these distinctive environments, filled with jagged cliff faces, arid deserts, mountain glaciers and impossibly large crystalline growths jutting toward the heavens. Wherever you look, there are new breathtaking and puzzling sights to behold, like enigmatic letters and numbers being spelled out in the heavy cloud formations, and stars falling out of a dazzling night-black sky in one level. It’s all visually very impressive, but it also serves to drive the point home that you are a nothing but a tiny speck against such powerful imagery, a stranger in an increasingly strange land.
But at least you will not be alone in this world. Along the way you will encounter a virtual ecosystem of origami-like animal creatures – some predator, some prey, some peaceful behemoths, some just following basic instinct to fulfill simple biological functions without any apparent intelligence involved. While most of these creatures aren’t particularly interested and won’t accost you or stand in your way, you must make use of their innate biologies to forge a path forward. This is where the game’s puzzle solving manifests, and it’s some of the most organic I’ve ever seen, woven right into the actual world design.
The goal is generally to move through each area, whether that means making your way through an obstructed cave, up to a tall ledge, or past an impenetrable wall of choked grass. Sure, there’s an occasional twist on the formula, such as devising a way to transport a reel-to-reel tape recorder from one end of some later areas to the other, but the core objective always remains the same. To that end, Paper Beast’s control system – a standard VR teleportation movement system with a flexible laser-like pointer that extends from the on-screen control pad (in my case a PlayStation DualShock controller) that acts like a fishing rod – allows you to actually pick up objects and even smaller creatures and move them where they’re needed most. A sandworm, for example, can be carefully positioned so that it’s actually clearing a path for you as it ingests sand in one orifice and pumps it out of the other. (Update: The non-VR "Folded Edition" release works essentially the same way, except with free-roaming 3D movement and camera control via the keyboard/mouse or analog thumbsticks on gamepads.)
That’s not to say that all puzzles have simple or obvious solutions. In fact, despite the interactive possibilities being, for the most part, somewhat limited in this largely desolate world, one or two later levels make it quite tough to work out how to proceed. In one particular area it seemed clear to me that I needed to find a way to shepherd several mid-sized creatures – which I simply named wildebeest, as the world’s open-endedness encourages you to interpret its denizens any way you want – across a sandy dune to a lone tree standing on the far side. The trouble was the strong wind gusting across the top of the ridge, continually blowing the beasts backwards, them being made of paper and all. I knew the solution must have something to do with the large wind-resistant hard-shelled bugs slowly crawling through the environment, but how exactly to achieve my goal ended up being quite a tough nut to crack.
This handily brings us to what is arguably the most interesting aspect of the game: its menagerie of arts and crafts creations. Apart from the ones already mentioned, there are a number of other creatures living here, some that appear to be based on familiar animals and others that are completely novel creations. Both the creature designs and the game world itself benefit from impressive physics and animation, portraying their papery properties in completely natural ways. Strips and ribbons snap audibly in the wind and visibly react to animal movement. One particular creature resembles nothing so much as a loosely assembled pom-pom of papier-mâché strips, and its shuffling movement looks and sounds much like a tumbleweed readjusting its position.
One of the most enigmatic inhabitants is the colossal majestic animal I simply called “Paper Beast” due to its recurring presence from the first moment of your journey until the credits roll. Of all the game’s fauna, this gentle giant appears to actually acknowledge your presence, and I immediately interpreted its lumbering gait as a benevolent invitation to come and follow, and that all would be well if I just stuck with it. Again, there’s no actual communication, not so much as a single word, but my brain assigned meaning to the body language I was seeing, which was most likely the designers’ intended outcome.
The expressive creature designs, brought to life by lifelike animations like head tilts and deliberate pauses to assess a situation, also helped me form a sense of connection and purpose with them: I took a liking to the big beast and immediately placed my trust in it; I felt duty-bound to intervene whenever I saw a peaceful grazer being targeted by a predator. As this world would have surely alienated me otherwise, I’m glad I found this door “in” emotionally, because it eventually let me experience an absolutely marvelous moment of raw emotion. Rounding a corner at one point, I saw a sandy stretch of desert ahead of me. In it, my friend the Paper Beast was slowly – even slower than usual – trudging its way toward a nearby watering hole. Unable to pick it up and push it ahead due to its large size, I settled on teleporting next to it and keeping it company on its trek to the water it so desperately needed. As we went on, I noticed to my horror that with each step we took, the water dried up a little, shrinking down first to a puddle and then continuing to get smaller. The instant we finally arrived, the last of the water disappeared, and I watched and listened in helpless dismay as the big creature next to me gave a deep, regretful sigh and collapsed on the now-dry ground, unable to muster the strength to go on.
That particular moment has seared itself into my memory for a long, long time to come. The deep sorrow I felt just then spoke volumes about my level of engagement, and it’s an example of how the sound design further brings the world and its creatures to life. The curious whickers, aggressive growls, and sundry squeaks, squeals, and snuffles lend the creatures lots of character without the need for verbal communication.
I wish I could say that same level of personal investment was something the game managed to achieve throughout, but there are plenty of times when the experience is brought down by fiddly controls. Paper Beast has all the quirks of any physics-based engine, making placement of items and creatures an approximate science at best, with the added drawback that swinging objects and creatures around a three-dimensional space on what’s essentially a fishing line is often not nearly as accurate or simple to gauge as it needs to be. The rather laid-back atmosphere that doesn’t rush you into accomplishing your tasks quickly does help a little, with the full game time taking maybe around five to seven hours all told, but that doesn’t make some of the individual tasks themselves any more enjoyable to wrestle with.
However, by the time it’s over it’s not your struggles with the controls you’ll remember most, but the wonderful weirdness that shines through at many points along the way. Before the first chapter even begins, you participate in a digital prelude, cast in the role of an observer in what I can only describe as a psychedelic music visualizer, watching as shapes form and dance all around you to the funky stylings of all-girl Japanese rock trio Tsu Shi Ma Mi Re. Much later you’ll come across a little valley with red velvet curtains at either end. As you stand and wonder what you’re meant to do next, a parade of creatures led by a papercraft elephant emerges from behind one curtain, pulling the aforementioned reel-to-reel player along, belting out more J-Rock, and slowly makes its way past you and through the opposite curtain. The list of quirky flourishes like this goes on but playing the game for yourself and experiencing them is far more impactful than reading about them. I am still completely unable to comprehend their underlying meaning, if any, but that didn’t keep my jaw from hitting the floor in astonishment and wonder anyway.
Paper Beast is…well, a strange beast any way you look at it. It manages to evoke strong reactions with some expertly crafted emotional set pieces and it’s certainly not lacking for painstaking detail, particularly where its origami creature designs and world physics are concerned. (The inclusion of a sandbox simulation mode that lets you play around with the game’s flora, fauna, and weather conditions to see how they interact offers strong proof of how much effort was put into creating a believable ecosystem.) Unfortunately, it also evokes frustration due to its finicky controls and one or two puzzles with sudden difficulty spikes, though the seamless integration of even the most confounding obstacles into the game world is laudable. In the end, the appeal of the game’s strange and alien nature will be the determining factor in whether it works for you or whether it’s ultimately something that sounded better on paper.