Monument Valley’s Creators Just Made a Stunning VR Game
There may come a moment after you’ve entered the surreal world of Land’s End when you realize you never want to leave. For me, this moment came right at the beginning, when I found myself on a sandy beach staring at a pink, undulating sea. The water lapped at my feet, while jagged cliffs and seagulls loomed overhead. It’s beautiful and serene. If you could live in a sunset, this may be what it feels like.
You must leave eventually, of course—you have to eat and drink and work and, you know, generally exist in the real world. After all, as immersive as Land’s End feels, as much as it feels like some form of the real world, it’s only a game.
Land’s End is the first virtual reality game from Ustwo, and it arrives October 30 on Samsung Gear Headset. With its logic puzzles and ethereal palette, it’s reminiscent of the studio’s wildly successful Monument Valley. But while Monument Valley focused on the sharp, isomeric geometries of M.C. Escher, Land’s End has a softness, a texture, and an obedience to physics that seems particularly well suited to a 3-D experience.
Like most early VR games, Land’s End is in many ways an experiment designed to discover what does and doesn’t work in the medium. Ustwo’s Ken Wong, Peter Pashley and Dan Gray spent more than a year developing the game, with many stops and starts and do-overs along the way. “It took a long long time to reinvent all these fundamental things about how you move around a world and how you interact,” says Wong.
Things like navigation took some toying with. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to let people move around these worlds in a way that felt kind of almost subconscious,” says Pashley. You make your way through the levels by glancing at “lookpoints,” shimmering spheres of light that burst open and propel you forward when you look at them. The motion is slow and controlled; it feels almost like a moving sidewalk at the airport.
In the course of development, the developers also learned what people don’t like. It can make people sick to incline or decline too quickly, for example. Another interesting observation: “Humans don’t tend to tilt their heads back very often, especially us city dwellers,” Pashley says. “If you ask users to do that, it’s like putting them through an exercise routine.” To avoid this, players rarely need to focus their gaze on anything above eye-level.
That being said, you do spend a lot of time moving your head in Land’s End. In fact, you don’t use your hands to navigate or interact with the game’s levels. Instead, you use your gaze and the movement of your head. Many of the game’s puzzles, for example, are solved by unlocking pathways with a “starline,” a glowing beam of light that travels along your line of sight. It can be awkward at first, especially if you’re accustomed to keyboards, controllers, and similarly tactile modes of input. But it’s fun once you get the hang of it.
You must unlock these puzzles to proceed through the game, but central to the experience—right down to the interface through which you play—is the act of simply looking around. The point of Land’s End is to explore the five levels, not merely progress through them. On one hand, each stage is about getting from one place to another, but it’s also about experiencing the beauty one discovers in between.
That beauty feels familiar, despite its unnatural haziness. Wong explains that it’s this dissonance between familiarity and bewilderment that makes virtual reality so compelling. “It’s not like you’re going to Italy or Iceland,” he says of the game’s landscapes. “But they’re reminiscent of real world places. Perhaps it is our Earth, but it’s several million years ago, or several million years in the future.”