Jeff Min­ter’s quest to in­duce trance states in play con­tin­ues in VR



The apoc­ryphal Poly­bius arcade ma­chine was said to in­duce am­ne­sia and bouts of night ter­rors. It’s some­thing of a relief, then, to find that de­vel­oper Jeff Min­ter isn’t in­ter­ested in repli­cat­ing any of the ur­ban leg­end’s defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics in his PSVR game of the same name, and is, in fact, work­ing to avoid in­flict­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress al­to­gether.

Which is prob­a­bly why Poly­bius feels so com­fort­able to play, de­spite our early fears af­ter see­ing the first videos of this psychedelic con­glom­er­ate of retro arcade aes­thet­ics and farm stock thun­der­ing past at what ap­peared to be an en­tirely un­rea­son­able speed. Strapped into the HMD, how­ever, and sur­rounded by Min­ter’s sur­real vi­sion, the ef­fect is one of trance-in­duc­ing re­lax­ation.

That’s not to say it’s devoid of chal­lenge. While Min­ter tells us he’s di­alled down the dif­fi­culty for early show­ings, there’s still plenty to do. Any­one who’s played his ear­lier work should set­tle in quickly: hold X to fire a stream of lasers while you move left and right across var­i­ously shaped path­ways, avoid­ing or de­stroy­ing ob­sta­cles as you go. Here, though, rather than en­e­mies com­ing to you, you’re per­pet­u­ally mov­ing for­ward into the level. Some stages see you ro­tat­ing around the in­side or out­side of a cylin­der, oth­ers are ‘U’ shapes with im­pass­able edges, and still more trace gen­tle curves across the screen.

Each sur­face is pop­u­lated by a riot of colour­ful things to shoot, in­clud­ing bounc­ing polyg­o­nal balls, bright red obelisks, and crea­tures that look sus­pi­ciously like Space In­vaders. In among them, a pair of dot­ted lines trace an op­ti­mal (though also op­tional) path through the noise punc­tu­ated by gates that look like a pair of tusks set into the ground. Each one you suc­cess­fully pass through will pro­vide a lit­tle kick of speed un­til you’re hurtling along at an un­nerv­ing pace, while gi­ant bounc­ing pills of­fer up score bonuses and powerups – in­clud­ing one that sets ev­ery­thing into slow mo­tion for a time. Your score mul­ti­plier is di­rectly tied to how fast you’re trav­el­ling, and clip­ping the sides of gates or any in­de­struc­tible scenery – which is in­tro­duced with greater fre­quency as you move into later lev­els – will re­set your speed to what feels like a com­par­a­tive crawl and cost you one shield, the equiv­a­lent of a life. While there are some sub­tle vari­a­tions to your main weapon (one sees your bar­rage split into two streams, the first of which fires di­rectly in front while the other re­acts to the ge­om­e­try of the level by curv­ing across in­clines), we strug­gle to no­tice it chang­ing much dur­ing our demo. This is partly down to the fact that most en­e­mies burst with a sin­gle hit, mean­ing that you feel pretty pow­er­ful from the out­set. Min­ter doesn’t want to cre­ate too much fric­tion, how­ever – the game is at its best when you’re flow­ing through its rapidly chang­ing col­lages, and los­ing speed re­calls the dis­heart­en­ing jolt of hit­ting the track­side in the orig­i­nal Wipe­out.

This sense of un­bounded pro­gres­sion is un­der­scored by a sec­ond type of gate, also in­tro­duced in later lev­els, that throws you into the air for a sec­ond or two. You’ll score more points for ev­ery­thing you de­stroy while aloft, and each hit will briefly re­duce your rate of de­scent, keep­ing you air­borne for longer.

Poly­bius doesn’t make any par­tic­u­lar game­play case for VR, and it can be played on a TV screen, too. But the plea­sure of be­ing en­veloped by Min­ter’s ir­re­press­ibly cheer­ful dig­i­tal nar­cotic is such that us­ing a head­set just feels like the right thing to do. With Rez, PSVR has al­ready given new life and con­text to one trip-ped­alling au­teur’s work, and with Poly­bius the process looks set to re­peat.

Swear down

The leg­end of the Poly­bius arcade ma­chine in­cludes the no­tion that the game was built to in­flu­ence play­ers be­haviourally, trig­ger­ing some­thing within them by us­ing sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages. Min­ter’s game also fea­tures sub­lim­i­nal mes­sages, but they’re be­nign and not par­tic­u­larly well­hid­den. How­ever, he tells us that in an ear­lier build they were much harder to spot, and as a re­sult he had to point out some colour­ful lan­guage to Sony’s QA team. In the in­ter­ests of keep­ing things fam­ily-friendly, he has since re­moved any­thing that might have caused of­fence.

Rather than en­e­mies com­ing to you, you’re per­pet­u­ally mov­ing for­ward into the level

De­vel­oper/ pub­lisher Lla­ma­soft For­mat PS4, PSVR Ori­gin UK Re­lease 2017

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