The video game industry loves a good pastiche. At best, this gives us projects like noir shooter Max Payne and the Twin Peaks-inspired Deadly Premonition, which blend straightforward homage with self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking commentary. At worst, it’s an excuse for bad writing. Wilson’s Heart, an adventure game released today for the Oculus Rift, teeters in the space between. It’s a blend of mid-20th century horror touchstones, particularly The Twilight Zone and Universal Monster movies, delivered with a striking black-and-white visual style. But like many virtual reality studios, Wilson’s Heart developer Twisted Pixel starts something it can’t quite finish — and produces a good game that could have been great.
Wilson’s Heart has one of the best, most ambitious setups that I’ve seen in virtual reality. Set in the 1940s, the game begins with aging military veteran Robert Wilson (voiced by RoboCop’s Peter Weller) waking up in a deserted hospital after an operation. As the player attempts to figure out what’s going on, mysteries start stacking up. What is the Necronomicon-like journal in the hospital director’s office? Why have rooms started rearranging themselves? Why does a murderous teddy bear keep popping out of paintings? And why did Wilson’s heart get replaced by a glass sphere with supernatural powers?
To get to the bottom of these questions, players must explore the hospital in the VR equivalent of a point-and-click adventure game, but with virtual hands and teleportation instead of a mouse, keyboard, or traditional controller. You’ll search for keys, witness disturbing events, and solve simple puzzles, while periodically fighting otherworldly creatures that block your progress — with either your new heart or a variety of improvised weapons, ranging from a power drill to your own virtual fists.
Unlike most VR adventure games I’ve tried, I never found myself handicapped by the unusual control system in Wilson’s Heart. This is one of the first titles that feels truly adapted to its medium, with virtual reality elements that are integral but not too gimmicky, and controls that almost always feel like a natural extension of my hands. The game uses standard VR fighting skills like throwing, slashing, and punching, but each fight includes some element that makes it feel unique. Its systems are nicely physical, but not too tiring, and checkpoints make death a minor setback.
Wilson’s Heart gives you a linear sequence of actions to take, not a series of branching choices — but there is a remarkable number of different things to do. The best puzzles combine physical interactions with magical realist storytelling exercises. In one of my favorites, you use the sphere’s various capabilities (like attracting metal) to expose a series of paintings, then pick up a child’s drawing and look for images that will solve a problem in it. This is dream logic in the best possible way: none of it is realistic, but you understand exactly what you’re supposed to do.
As Wilson moves forward, he encounters the hospital’s remaining residents, who all seem to be hiding something. There’s evasive fellow patient Kurt (voiced by The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan); aloof staff member Bela (Spiderman 2’s Alfred Molina); golden-haired child Lucy (Bubble Guppies’ Bailey Gambertoglio); and occult expert Elsa (Daredevil’s Rosario Dawson), who promises Wilson a way out of his increasingly strange situation. Players won’t be selecting conversation options or determining these characters’ fate, but interactions with them play a major role in driving the plot.
By fiddling with radio dials and paging through comic books, you can also find mini-stories within the game, which start as funny diversions — like the soapy romance comic Love is Nice, which Wilson will voice his disdain for when you pick it up. Soon, these begin to reflect the warped world of the hospital, as it becomes difficult to tell what’s real. By the end, they’re breaking the in-world fourth wall.
But no matter how solid these basic elements are, the game spends too little time developing their full potential. I’m a mediocre adventure game player, but I solved a lot of puzzles in Wilson’s Heart without even thinking about what I was doing. Every fight might be unique, but most involve repeating one short pattern of actions for several minutes. Some fights require specific moves that are found by trial and error, which means dying over and over trying to figure them out. I finished Wilson’s Heart in around five hours, which — while it’s comparable to short non-VR adventure games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent — isn’t nearly long enough to explore its world or mechanics.
The most frustrating problem with Wilson’s Heart is how badly it drops the ball on its premise. At first, the game amalgamates so many suspense and horror tropes that it seems to transcend them. Among other things, you’ve got an eerie hospital that doesn’t obey the laws of physics, a bestiary of Universal Horror creatures, an army of humanoid shadows, and a murderous children’s toy, none of which seem connected by anything other than their weirdness. One or two at a time would be cliche; in bulk, they’re so nonsensical that it feels like an interesting explanation must be coming.
This incongruity is accentuated by random anachronisms. Characters use distinctly post-1940s idioms, and some cultural artifacts also seem imported from later decades. (I think I even spotted a version of the 1970s “Hang in There” cat on one wall.) If this is intentional, it’s a fascinating setup for some creative metafiction in the style of Sanitarium, a 1998 point-and-click game that feels very much like Wilson’s Heart. It establishes a setting that feels unreal even when it’s not explicitly supernatural, like a world that’s been reconstructed from somebody’s imperfect memories of 20th century kitsch.
Unfortunately, if that’s what the creators had in mind, it never amounts to anything. In its final sections, the game turns into a dull, cliche, and confoundingly simplistic monster movie. It handwaves away the messiness that made it interesting, including one of the game’s core mysteries, which is dismissed with no meaningful explanation. Where I’d hoped Wilson’s Heart was a clever subversion of generic horror tropes, it turned out to be simply repeating them. This is particularly evident in the radio dramas, which are blandly “disturbing” twists on wholesome children’s shows and sitcoms.
Wilson’s Heart is one of the best narrative virtual reality games I’ve ever played, but to leave it at that would be damning with faint praise. It’s a game that’s worth looking at even outside VR circles, for its interesting mechanics, aesthetics, and core concepts, not to mention its solid voice cast. I just wish it had matured into something more than a mash-up, or was given space to play out its best ideas. If VR continues an upward trajectory, maybe we’ll get the perfect cinematic adventure game in another few years. It’s a shame it won’t be Wilson’s Heart.