I had no idea what was waiting for me in Paper Beast. I followed none of the pre-release information save that the game was from the mind of Eric Chachi, whose seminal work Another World (or Out of this World, depending on where on the planet you’re from) was one of the many games that shaped a significant portion of my game-playing childhood.
When I strapped on the headset to start the game, greeted by a glitching futuristic computer that insisted on having me engage with a VR screensaver accompanied by a rocking tune by Japanese pop punk band TsuShiMaMiRe, I still hadn’t formed an idea of what to expect.
When the computer simulation dropped me into an alien desert later on and a large otherworldly creature – a bit like a bramble giraffe with spider-like legs – walked up to me as I surveyed the dusty arid land that was empty save for pastel blue rock formations, I still had no idea what I was in for.
After an origami crab-like creature sauntered up, I followed it through the dusty dunes; the cerulean sky perforated by peach-coloured clouds and punctuated by the pointed pastel slabs of bedrock. For a while I just stood and stared. I came across a pair of beasts that (to my mind at least) were dog-like, and I watched them frolic in the water, feeding them crumpled bits of paper. There’s an incredible fluidity to the animation of these paper beasts that makes you feel like you’re a native explorer in a living and breathing alien world. There’s a breadth of both flora and fauna to encounter and even manipulate.
Paper Beast isn’t one of those explorative games where you just look around as a passive observer either. Though there’s not an awful lot you can do in this weird world you’re in you can – using either a DualShock 4 or a pair of PlayStation Move wands – influence the world of crafted cut-out and crumpled paper critters and plants. You can guide particular animals using lures, use other ones who eat away at the ground for terraforming, and use others still who slough off the sand to change the landscape, allowing you to proceed further.
It’s a game that gives you no explicit instructions (or instructions at all, really) and has you figure out what to do on your lonesome, where to go and how to go about doing everything through organic and environmental puzzling, with simulated sand and water, and fire and ice as particularly impressive highlights. Some of those puzzles are asinine, while others veer off into the needlessly abstruse. Twice I was confronted by head-scratching conundrums that I only solved through sheer, dumb luck. Paper Beast is an otherwise impressive showcase of both tech and thoughtful design.
I don’t want to get too much into the nature of the puzzles, what’s happening in this bizarre, surreal and alien world, both familiar and otherworldly. I don’t want to talk about the clouds of paper numbers and symbols that seem to make up the dirt, sometime whirling around in great big vortexes. To do that would rob players of their own experiences.
Now that it’s all over, I honestly have no idea what it is I’ve played. What I do know is that it was a beautiful and contemplative experience. As with games like Journey, there’s an awful lot of desert, and an awful lot of time spent feeling alone, with pockets of other living creatures to break up the moments of isolation.
And now, as we’re gripped in a global pandemic that’s focused on isolation and feels like the beginning of a world-ending event, it made me think about the state of the planet, and how we’re going to rebuild. What you take away from Paper Beast might be something else entirely.
Paper Beast is another one of those games that seems like it could only really work in virtual reality. It doesn’t really do anything that couldn’t be done outside the medium, but its magic – this living, breathing, mouldable world – imparts a perpetual sense of wonder that can only really come alive inside of a headset.
It’s a short experience that clocks in at just a handful of hours. It’s padded by a sandbox mode that lets you interact with the world and its creatures at will, while giving you a few collectibles to track down. It’s a worthwhile experience, but one that ends up being highly personal, and for some, that feeling might not come at all. I didn’t have that same resonance with Journey – where personal situations, thoughts and feelings elevated the game’s impact. Here, I had one of those moments, making paper Beast, for me at least, a profound experience.
Last Updated: March 30, 2020