While the possibilities for virtual reality in gaming are fairly far from limitless, there's certainly plenty of scope, and excitement, for what the wholly enveloping medium can provide in terms of interactive experiences. This year alone I've engaged in explosive space battles, taken part in futuristic Wipeout-like races, explored secretive underground bunkers, stuck my face into pterodactyl nests and been terrorised by a disturbingly photo-real ghoul-like figure with an attachment to knives – all with a headset strapped to my face, mostly from the (relative) comfort of a chair.
Land's End, by London studio ustwo, the same team that put out the mobile hit Monument Valley in 2014, is perhaps the most wonderfully relaxing, invitingly meditative VR experience I've had yet. While Capcom's horrifying Kitchen (covered in detail here) represents the closest any VR title, be it a commercial proposition or a tech demo, has come to replicating my nightmares on a screen mere millimetres from my pupils, Land's End is all of my dreams of flying over fantasy landscapes made as real as they're ever going to be. It is sold, if you will, as a "VR adventure", and while there's gameplay to it – light physics puzzles need solving in order to progress, joining dots to open new pathways and (invisible) beams of light that you travel on through the air – it's not a challenge. It's supposed to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of gaming skill or previous VR exposure.
The scale of these puzzles fluctuated across the development of Land's End, as ustwo's director of games Neil McFarland explains: "There are game elements in it, but we didn't have them in there for a long time during its production. We wanted it to be a pure experience, but we found that we lacked something to keep people engaged, so introducing slight gaming elements, and finding the right balance, is what we've really been doing recently. A lot of the initial time was spent on the experience, and making sure people didn't throw up."
I spend something like 15 minutes making my way through a slice of Land's End – far from the complete game – and don't feel the slightest bit nauseous. It's created for use with Samsung's Gear VR, and doesn't require the use of a separate controller – you simply focus on a point to go there, or on an object to grip it in order to move it by moving your head. I play it while sat on a spinning chair, and every time I fly between outcrops or peaks I do a complete 360-degree turn, looking down at the sea, back at where I've been, up at the seagulls soaring overhead. Visually, this is not the most realistic VR title you'll ever see, but its aesthetic works perfectly, landing somewhere between Monument Valley and Journey to feel at once welcoming and somewhat alien. The music is also like ustwo's mobile puzzler, gentle drones and chimes steadily adding to the overall ambience, bubbling beneath the scraping of rock against rock and the sound of waves. There's a story hinted at too, with shadowy figures appearing at two junctures of my session – but like Monument Valley, that aspect of the game probably won't be clear until its credits roll.
'Land's End', trailer
"We want to provide a good VR experience," says artist Jonathan Topf. "I feel there are a lot of other people pushing VR into areas that it doesn't really work, whereas we took a step back and thought about what really worked on the platform. It's what we took from Monument Valley. That game was designed to work on an iPad. It wouldn't work as well with a controller, and there's a reason why it's not been ported to other platforms – it's designed for touch screens. So this is about designing something that just fits the medium, and evokes the feeling of a presence in a space."
Another of ustwo's talented artists, David Fernández Huerta, expands on the point: "We're at a stage now where we can be one of the first to establish a language for this new medium; but the medium is so immature that we've had to start over a few times, to make the most of the opportunity."
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McFarland confirms that the team did indeed scrap everything and start again on Land's End a few times in pursuit of achieving a goal of utmost accessibility. "To make something that is accessible is close to all our hearts," he tells me. "We'd take the game home with us, or have dinner with people and pass the headset over, and it's amazing to see people respond to this for the first time. And it's also great to be able to give them the headset without explaining what you need to do – what you need to shoot, where you need to go. With Land's End, it's just: here, try this. My mum had a go with it, and she was fine."
Land's End is unmistakably an ustwo production. It just feels like the work of the same people who shaped Monument Valley and its subsequent Forgotten Shores expansion, from its ease of playability – where Monument was all taps and swipes, this is simply stares and sweeps – through to its look, and the palpable physicality of the moving objects in the environment. It's the next album from a favourite band, sharing DNA with what came before it but categorically its own thing, too.
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The studio didn't need to move into VR, and the team certainly had its doubts – "We didn't sign on straight away," says Topf, "as there's too much pride here, I think, to not want to put out something that isn't going to look good against all the other things we've done" – but from what I've seen, what I've moved so sweetly through, it's a risk that's paid off. Naturally, Land's End won't reach as many players as Monument Valley did, due to it being a VR product, but it's far and away the most instantaneously appealing virtual reality experience I've encountered so far.
"We wanted to make something that you can talk about when you go home," says Topf. "Sometimes it's fun to nerd out, and sometimes it's nice to do something that you can share with anyone. And that's as big a reason as any for us to do something different each time." Different, Land's End certainly is, but it's nothing to get uncomfortable over. You won't throw up. Your eyes will be opened. And it's the sort of game, or experience, or adventure, which should encourage those who are yet to give VR a chance to explore more of what this rapidly emerging platform for games, movies, tourism and more has to offer.
Land's End is released for Samsung Gear VR on October 30th. Official website here.
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