Super Hypercube shares only its basic rules with N kabe, the Japanese TV gameshow in which contestants contort their bodies into increasingly unnatural shapes in order to fit through cutouts in a series of rapidly advancing Styrofoam walls. The hilarity of the TV show format, exported across the world as Hole In The Wall, is largely lost in translation in Kokoromi’s stylish and abstract brand of virtual reality, which mimics the analogue special effects, lens flare and retrofuturistic user interfaces of evergreen chic reference points such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Xanadu.
Here, in esoteric space, you’re rotating clusters of blocks, rather than gurning humans, and the soundtrack is one of a building electronic chorus rather than a screeching gameshow crowd. The principles, nevertheless, remain constant. Using the PlayStation controller’s triggers you must rotate the blob of blocks across two axes in order to make it fit snugly through the wall. Move your head to micro-align shape with hole, adding a physical element to the mental manoeuvring. Fail to find the perfect placement and it’s game over.
This was the first game to emerge from gamma3D, a 2008 game jam organised by the collective Kokoromi, which counts among its number Fez developer Phil Fish. The jam hoped to encourage people to create games in which stereoscopic vision had a meaningful impact on gameplay. The earliest version employed anaglyphic stereoscopy, a kind of 3D effect accessed via 1950s-style red-andblue-lensed 3D glasses. Kokoromi continued to dabble with the demo, creating custom glasses that allowed players to move their bodies, as well as see depth in the world.
The game continued to develop with each new drip of technological advance, first adding motion camera control and now, in what is clearly the game’s ideal pairing, VR headset control. “Since our original game had basically the same core interactions as VR, and was designed for that context from the ground up, the translation process came rather easily,” Kokoromi’s Heather Kelley explains. “The real challenge for us has been taking a solid core game concept that was designed to be a local, five-minute experience, and expand it to make it something with a deeper system that grows with the player as their skill increases.”
The team’s solution has been elegant. Each time you squeeze through a gap successfully by moving your head, a new cube adds to the cluster, adding both difficulty and a score multiplier. The cube’s configurations are random too, preventing the rote learning of patterns. As is the current fashion, the game will feature a daily challenge, with all players tackling a one-time-only game generated from an identical seed.
While the design and delivery platform are a natural fit, the team has had to learn the new rules of VR development quickly – especially as they hope Super Hypercube will be a PSVR launch title. “Small things like UI and HUD design turned out to be trickier than expected,” Kelley says. “Lots of little things you would normally have taken for granted now have to be reinvented. Is the HUD attached to your head or can you look away from it? Is it fixed in space or does it move? Is it really small and up close, or really big and far away? Before, it was just an overlay you would apply to the screen. Now it’s a physical object and you have to consider its position in space, in relation to other objects.”
There have been more traditional kinds of design issue to fix, too. “As we’ve been testing the game we’ve put it in front of some really skilled players who were able to find holes in our design implementation,” Kelley says. One tester was able to figure out the rules for how new cubes were added to the cluster after each victory and use this knowledge to build a giant wall of cubes. “We fixed that, of course,” Kelley notes. More surprising is the way in which the physicality of interaction becomes key to the game’s appeal. This is a game that would seemingly work outside of VR, yet moving your head to peer around the clusters in order to better understand their shape has become an essential part of its appeal.
“Things you would normally have taken for granted have to be reinvented”
Heather Kelley of the Kokoromi collective