It's been a busy weekend for me. (Did I mention that NarraScope 2020 is now open for early registration?) However, I have to catch up on new Cyan announcements too.
Numinous Games and Cyan Ventures have announced that they're publishing Area Man Lives. It's a VR-only mystery set in a small-town radio-drama world.
AML is a new take on an unfinished Numinous project called Untethered from a couple of years ago. Untethered was announced as an episodic VR experiment in late 2016. (It was an exclusive for the Google Daydream, a VR headset which made no impression on my memory or, I expect, on anybody else's.) Funding dried up a couple of years later and Untethered was shelved after delivering just two episodes.
Now they've hooked up with Cyan's publishing arm to rebuild the project for Quest, Rift, Vive, Index, and probably other VR sets. It's scheduled for this year -- presumably as a complete game, not episodic.
The game site is up, along with an in-character KQVR Radio site. (Which mentions a contest, and Cyan is never averse to a few ARG-ish shenanigans, so you might want to start poking around.) The press release is also good for a grin.
This announcement resonates with a couple of notes in the current indie game scene. The quirky-small-town setting immediately calls Kentucky Route Zero to mind. KR0 was also episodic, and its interludes included a VR experiment and a community broadcast studio. But it looks like AML has an entirely different tone and take on Americana, of course.
I'm more interested in the VR-only aspect of the project. As I've said, VR doesn't do that much for me. I've been to a couple of VR parties and tried some games but I've never felt the urge to buy a headset.
The modern VR boom (or bubble, depending) is now five-ish years old. All this time it's been a niche market. "Premium VR games" ship for both headset and flatscreen because there are so many more flatscreen gaming machines out there. I'm not talking about the undeniably popular VR-rhythm genre (Beat Saber and clones), but the adoption of VR into established genres like adventure gaming. Cyan's recent projects -- Obduction, Zed, and the upcoming Firmament -- have made the decision to support flatscreen. So did the KR0 interlude I mentioned. I played them all on my regular Win10 box. Thus, I haven't had any reason to buy a headset. And that's why I never played the original Untethered episodes.
Is that now (finally, some would say) changing? I've heard that the Oculus Quest is the first VR headset that's sold enough units to actually count as a market rather than a market niche. I noticed that Fireproof Games announced a new VR-only game in their The Room series, which I love. Half-Life is getting a VR-only title. And so on.
As you might expect, my feelings are mixed. Do I have to buy new hardware to experience games that don't feel any different (to me) than a flatscreen version? (Except that my head is sweaty and I can't drink.) That's not a gaming revolution; that's just forcing me to dehydrate and subsidize the hardware companies. It's forcing me to subsidize Facebook, if the Quest is the model that wins out. That's real close to handing the keys to your gaming revolution to the face of actual real-world evil.
On the flip side, I've always loved game design that's tightly wrapped around its UI affordances. That's what was great about The Room series: it perfectly imagined the first-person adventure game built for touchscreen. The interactions are exactly those you want to perform on an object before you that you can touch; its puzzles are those you want to solve with those interactions; its environment is that which suits its puzzles.
The hand controllers of modern VR are a new affordance. I'm sure you can build a game around them. I'm interested in these new games. But, again, the headset is expensive and unpleasant for no benefit. (For me, playing at home.)
Maybe we should be thinking about separating the controller and headset. Could someone make a twin-handset controller that plays VR games on a regular Windows box? I suppose Facebook/Sony/Valve have enough platform lock-in to prevent that. Oh well.
Anyhow, this has drifted pretty far from the original announcement. Look, new game coming from Numinous/Cyan! Late 2020! Or maybe 2021, because schedules drift! I might play it! Or maybe I'll wait and see if they change their mind about the VR-only.