One of the most remarkable things about Monument Valley, the mobile puzzler from Ustwo, was how it managed to lure in people who don’t play games. Its intuitive controls and beautiful, MC Escher-inspired worlds made it the rare blockbuster that almost anyone could play. And now the studio is looking to do the same thing in virtual reality. On October 30th, Ustwo will release Land’s End on Samsung’s Gear VR, an exploration game that maintains many of the same principles of Monument Valley — stunning art, accessible controls — and transports them to a 3D space.
“The thing we wanted to do, is to bring our way of thinking to VR,” explains Peter Pashley, technical director at Ustwo Games. “We find that a lot of people who are making VR experiences are kind of making quite traditional games. I wanted to make sure that our branding was represented in the early days of VR.”
Land’s End was first announced last October, and was originally envisioned as a three-month project. The team started out simply by sticking a VR camera into Monument Valley, thinking that just looking around that world might make for a compelling experience. But they soon learned that VR is a very different medium. "We quickly realized that there was this whole new language to be developed," says lead designer Ken Wong. For instance, the impossible architecture of Monument Valley didn’t make sense in a 3D VR world, where players could control what they were looking at, ruining the illusion.
In the early portions of the game that I played, it keeps much of the tone of Monument Valley — including the flat-shaded art style and a deep sense of mystery — but it’s a very different experience. Land’s End takes place across a series of islands, which you explore by following a set path. Wong describes it as "like a hike, where someone has gone ahead and plotted the best trail throughout this landscape." The islands are deserted, surrounded by gently crashing waves, with strange architecture dotting the landscape. You can explore at your own pace, and, as in Monument Valley, there are moments of wonder, like when you slowly drift across the sea between two islands, floating quietly among the birds.
It feels like Monument Valley, but the process of designing it was very different. "It’s the difference between painting and sculpture," says Pashley. Whereas each level in Monument Valley was a single screen, giving the developers complete control over what you see, Land’s End is a 3D space meant to be explored. "In VR, you can’t even really think of it as a screen, what you are in is a place," explains Pashley. "So it’s kind of like large-scale sculpture."
Land’s End is also unique in the way it controls. In these early days of VR we still haven’t settled on the right way to control games in a 3D space, with companies like Oculus and Valve offering different options. Land’s End gets around this conundrum in a simple way: it doesn’t have controls. The game doesn’t use an external controller or even the Gear VR’s touchpad. Instead, you interact with the world by looking at it. To move to a new spot you simply gaze at a point for a brief period, and you’ll move there automatically. The puzzles use this in different ways. In some, you simply look at objects in the right order to open up a door. In others, your gaze is a sort of telekinesis, letting you move blocks and other objects around. The game never has to explain how these things work; I picked them up almost immediately, with just a little bit of experimentation.
The decision was made not only to make the game approachable to everyone, but also to maintain the illusion that you’re in this world. "Our prime aim with Land’s End was to create an experience where you felt like you were in a landscape, and where you felt immersed in that landscape," Pashley explains. "We’ve always felt that having an external controller, or having to think about anything in the real world, takes you out of that experience." Wong adds that, like the single-screen aspect of Monument Valley, adding these kinds of restrictions can have creative benefits. "We thrive on those sorts of limitations," he says.
I’ve only played through the first two chapters of Land’s End, but it feels very different from not only most current VR experiences, but most games in general. It’s about exploration, yet it’s guided, and its challenges are simple but still rewarding. It’s more about being in a place and experiencing its wonder than overcoming challenges. The complexity slowly ramps up in the early stages, with later puzzles having you connect beams of light while moving blocks around, and I’m excited to see where things go from there.
With platforms like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR (formerly Project Morpheus) yet to make their commercial debut, we still haven’t seen the defining VR experience that will sell non-enthusiasts on the technology. With its approachable gameplay and inviting landscapes, Ustwo is hoping that Land’s End can be that experience.
"You look at how Super Mario Bros. was the game on home console, or how Tetris was the killer app for Game Boy, and everyone remembers Myst as being the game that showed the potential of CD-ROM," Wong explains. "It remains to be seen who’s doing that for VR, but it would be wonderful if Land’s End fulfilled that."