Before running the quantum computer you must tab through a user agreement that asks, among other things, if it can use part of your neural network while you sleep. Upon registering your responses the computer sets about its quantum calculations and a pop-up text appears on the screen asking if you’d like to play the SwirlyBeat music app while you wait. Trust me, you do.
Clicking on the app transports you to your own private party: a small room festooned in confetti and streamers, pulsing with light and Japanese rock music. On the floor are rocks that can be grabbed and tossed using either the DualShock or Move controllers. As the song fades, a glitchy sound rings out and the environment goes dark. Then, in a wonderful transition, you find yourself standing on a narrow patch of terrain, surrounded on all sides by curtains, listening to the song from the music app coming from a reel-to reel player on the ground. Pulling aside the curtain reveals that you are standing underneath a dinosaurlike creature whose skeletal frame appears to be made out of spools of paper. Surrounding you and the creature is a desert whose bright colors and flat surfaces are like something out of a Dali painting. A little later you’ll be in an elevated spot, overlooking a message scrawled in the sand: “this is not a simulation.”
I’m reluctant to say much about the ensuing journey because one of the elements I most appreciated about “Paper Beast” was that I had no idea what to expect from one moment to the next — something I seldom experience in video games. That said, I don’t think it’s ruinous to say the game involves observing the different paper beasts you encounter. You learn their goals and motivations and can then manipulate them for what are, generally, mutually beneficial ends. Although ultimately innocuous, some of the solutions to the game’s puzzles are still deliciously twisted. For example, one puzzle requires players to dangle the young offspring of a family of crabs out of their reach, prompting the adult crabs (inadvertently) to help out another band of desperate creatures.
The beasts themselves are a treat to watch. Their abstract forms complement the game’s colorfully refined, low-polygon environments. Admittedly, I felt a bit like a psycho tossing some of them about and compelling them to do my bidding, but I promise not one crab was harmed.
“Paper Beast” is an inspired game that makes as good a case as any for the relevance of VR. Don’t be surprised to see it on the year’s best list.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.