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Thursday, June 20, 2024

'Tentacular' Is the Only Game That Does VR Right

I love virtual reality. Whether I’m watching my 8-year-old paint on a rock wall in Horizon: Call of the Mountain or playing air hockey with a coworker 2,000 miles away, I have never lost the sense of wonder that comes every time I slip on a headset and instantly drop into another world. But this relatively new medium is still struggling with growing pains—mainly that there are few games that take full advantage of the form.

Most of the games I’ve tried seem intent on creating momentary experiences rather than full, rich games. This is understandable—I, too, gasp when I find myself kayaking in Antarctica instead of standing in my living room—but as my colleague Eric Ravenscraft has pointed out, this is still more of a demo than a full-fledged form of media consumption that people who aren’t reporters want to spend money on.

So far, I haven’t come across anything with the combination of action sequences and compelling storyline that keeps me hooked like Witcher 3, The Last of Us, or even (gulp) Call of Duty. Dodging bullets and snatching guns in Superhot is fun, but it gets repetitive without a cathartic denouement. After an hour in Beat Saber, we always end up just chatting in the lobby, which might as well be a Zoom.

But I think I’ve finally found a game that makes the headset worth it. Tentacular was released for the Meta Quest 2 and SteamVR headsets last year to rave reviews. I’m now about halfway through on the PlayStation VR 2. This tender game about a sea kraken has sucked (pun intended) me in.

Here I Am

The difference is immediate. When you start the game, you’re not suspended in blackness, nor are you a bodiless, anonymous ghost floating over a landscape. There are no disorienting unrealities around you—no weird floating hands, no hearing footsteps without feet.

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Instead, you are firmly grounded in a time and place. There are waves rippling around you, orange cones to indicate the boundaries of where you can go, and tiny little people on the island of La Kalma talking to you. Why are the people so tiny? Well, because you’re an enormous sea kraken. But to these people, who saw you grow up from an adorable, teeny-tiny kraken, you are just a person. And now that you’re 16, it’s time for you to get to work.

Being a kraken makes you the ideal person to clear away rock slides and assemble tall stacks of shipping containers. You have some advantages—you’re immensely big and strong—but you also have some disadvantages, which is that you don’t have hands. Instead, you have long tentacles with suckers on them.

This is not as frustrating as it might seem. After all, this is the way that your body works in real life (if you were a kaiju in real life) (please let no kaiju be reading this). You can stick or unstick things with your suckers. The base of your arms is stronger and more stable, for bigger items, and the tips are smaller but a little harder to control precisely.

This is so much more real, and more engaging, than most VR games’ phantom climbing or phantom swordplay, which still feels to me like eerie pantomime. Sticking and building with your tentacles is full of feedback that feels completely real. If you try to pick up something huge with the tip, your tentacle streeeeeeetches until it unsticks and thwaps someone right into the sea. Plucking one hapless, tiny volunteer for a building experiment by sticking the delicate tentacle tip directly to the top of her head is also weirdly satisfying.

Building a Mystery

Each level involves a sort of 3D building puzzle. You can replay levels or move between the story line and free-play arenas. It’s incredibly easy to navigate—there’s a little house with a lever behind you to navigate to and fro, and if you can’t solve a puzzle, there’s a little dude always standing by who offers encouragement, drawings, and tips. If you look up, cameras, other levers, and sometimes people drop down out of the sky. But right now, I’m not spending that much time playing with all the different props because I’m just enjoying the writing.

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Look, I get it: Reading is boring. I can watch endless cut scenes (I call this a TV show), but in a game, it’s hard to wait for the exposition to roll through so that I can get back to shooting things and blowing things up. Tentacular does give you the option of using the O button to rapidly click through dialog. But every time I slowed down, I caught something sly and funny, like a villager shrieking “Mommy!” when I accidentally shot a cannon at her.

That’s the secret of an addictive game. Even as you have the satisfaction of solving different puzzles, of learning how different machines work, and how to use slingshots and cannons, there are also characters that I care about. Even as a kraken, I have a sister and a silly mentor whose career I’m invested in. There's a mayor who cares about the townspeople. I have a career that depends on me learning how to use a demagnetizer, and a mystery to solve!

The PSVR 2’s comfort also makes that much easier to achieve. I love the accessibility of the Meta Quest 2 (getting it set up and switching between users is much easier), but the PSVR 2 is just much, much easier to wear. The headset’s balance is better. I don’t feel like I have something huge and sweaty hanging off my face, and the controllers are much more comfortable and stable, better able to cope with Tentacular’s tactile challenges.

If you’d asked me what VR experiences I would like most, I would’ve assumed it would be something like flying in Population: One or creeping around killing aliens in Half-Life: Alyx. But experiences that are based in reality always have some indication that they’re not really measuring up, whether that’s trying to draw a bow when there’s no resistance, climbing when you can’t use your legs, or meeting a coworker with a broken microphone in Horizon Worlds, who's gesturing violently, yet mutely, at you to take off your headset and get back on Slack. 

It’s hard to find an experience in virtual reality that makes you believe you really are somewhere else. Playing Tentacular is the closest I’ve come, thanks to the vividly imagined cartoon land, which doesn't try to simulate the real world, and dialog that sounds like it was written by a real (and funny!) person. I’m really enjoying being a kraken.

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