Inside the head inside the headset.
VR has sent me to interesting places before – piloting starships, climbing mountains, even into cartoon shows I like – but I’ve yet to encounter anything that elicited a Keanu-esque “whoa” – at least, not until I dove into Charm Studios upcoming game FORM.
My demo started innocuously enough – I was in a fairly standard laboratory with high concrete walls, corrugated metal ceilings and equipment trapped somewhere in time between the late 1970s and today. Then, after a few “get comfy” tasks acclimating me to my virtual body, I was hurled into one of the strangest, most intriguing virtual spaces I’ve seen in any VR experience yet.
The core concept behind FORM is that the majority of the game takes place within the subconscious of your character, Dr. Devin Eli, a scientist with an uncanny ability to visualize theoretical patterns as geometric forms – essentially, he can “see” ideas and patterns in things that others would probably miss. As a result, this creates a visualization of the inner workings of his mind that seems to function like some sort of massive-yet-impossibly-intricate machine. Huge structures in broad expanses funnel into claustrophobic chambers full of strange gears and mechanisms in the blink of an eye, then explode back again in another. I watched every structure appear and disappear, construct and destroy itself, all while standing slackjawed inside my headset.
It’s about cool-looking stuff that does weird things – and the story and the gameplay exist to support that.
The various puzzles I encountered – from having to arrange strings of runes into specific patterns, to locating components and building a mechanism that fits into an even more complex machine – were similar to other VR simulators I’ve experienced (pick this up, rotate that, insert it here, etc), and despite the obscure design of each section, none felt foreign or overly difficult. “It’s a surreal environment,” says Charm’s Managing Director Alan Jernigan, “And the success of the design is in how well we managed to contextualize all this stuff that you see in non-contextual environments.”
Every puzzle and device, each a series of complex shapes and moving parts, contributed to the larger idea of operating the mind like a machine. They were intuitive, but at no point did I feel like I was being guided through each section. “It’s about cool-looking stuff that does weird things,” Jernigan says, “And the story and the gameplay exist to support that.” While I’d usually balk at the idea of putting aesthetic over substance, the star of this show is the artistic interpretation of human consciousness, which both the design of each task and the story that was briefly hinted at appear to serve well.
Planning to release the full story over three episodic chapters, the first is due out sometime this summer on HTC Vive and the last is planned to release around the start of 2018. We played our demo using the Oculus Touch controllers, which will apparently work with the Steam version, and there are plans for a formal Oculus release shortly after it’s initial launch. The goal is to have it eventually released on all major VR platforms – including PSVR – but it will only initially be released on PC. I hope FORM does make it to more affordable platforms sooner rather than later, as it looks to be one of the more intriguing VR experiences coming out in the near future. I know I’ll eagerly be jumping back into its bizarre and beautiful world – whenever that may be.