“You are Bess, a young pilot flying with your father when you crash into a mysterious fortress that emerges out of the clouds,” the description for Wayward Sky, a $19.99 launch game for PlayStation VR, explains. “Your father kidnapped and plane in ruins, you set out to explore the fortress and rescue him.”
It’s story that is explained in the game’s opening minutes. Soon after, you’re using your Move controllers, or a DualShock 4 if you don’t mind giving up a bit of interactivity, to point Bess toward where she should go, or to jump down to her size and interact directly with different elements of the puzzle.
It’s a whimsical combination of almost feeling like you’re playing with tiny action figures, only to sometimes directly “touch” the different elements of the puzzles in the game as you explore the floating environment.
I first played Wayward Sky in the hallway of the first Oculus Connect two years ago; game director Chandana Ekanayake walked me through an early demo of the game, which at that point used a gaze-based navigation system. You looked at where you’d like the character to go, and then tapped on the side of the headset to get her moving.
Ekanayake gets motion sick easily in VR. Creating a movement and interaction system that was comfortable for as many people as possible always important to him.
Wayward Sky was already a charming, aesthetically cohesive game at that point, and apparently Sony agreed. Ekanayake was invited to see a demo of the PlayStation VR and impressed by the technology, and in turn Sony was impressed with his prototype. Uber Entertainment was also not in a position to fund the entire game themselves — it had a team of seven working on the game during the height or production — so the external funding was welcome.
“It’s an exclusive, is what I can say for now,” Ekanayake said. “Yeah, it’s an exclusive.”
The game was rebuilt from the ground up when it moved to the PlayStation VR, while also being redesigned for motion controls. You can play with the DualShock 4 controller, but the real fun comes in when you can use the Move controllers to directly manipulate the puzzles in the game. You can turn gears, push buttons and pull levers to open the next section of the game. It’s a charming, inviting take on some of the basic puzzle ideas from the Myst series.
Creating a game for the PlayStation VR that would be a launch title had its own challenges. The game was built in the popular game engine Unity, which was often updated for better VR support. Sony, for its part, was in the process of finalizing the PlayStation VR hardware itself.
Wayward Sky was developed while every aspect of its construction, from the technology that powered it to the technology that determined how the player would view the game’s world, was in flux.
“You’re just in a constant panic attack,” Ekanayake said, laughing.
“This is my 20th year in game development, so I’ve been through a couple of hardware launches,” he continued. “They’re doing the best they can, we’re doing the best we can, [and] we know if you’re going to sign up for a launch, things are going to be worked on as they go. There are a lot of unknown known quantities, I guess.”
PlayStation VR, as a platform that the public is now using, is only a day old. Virtual reality in general is only a few years old. Ekanayake admits to knowing very little of how players would want to approach the game, so they tried to keep the puzzle design a bit on the easy side.
“We don’t know how long people are going to be comfortable wearing a headset,” he said. “I had no idea. So we decided to err on the easy side of the puzzles, to get experience and so people can see the whole game and have a good three hours, essentially. But being part of the world is the idea. I didn’t want anyone to get stuck on a puzzle and put the game down.”
The PlayStation 4’s “social screen,” the widescreen image that’s shown on the television so other people can see what the player is doing through the head-mounted display, also changed a bit of the design. They found that people loved watching others play, and would try to solve the puzzles with them. Wayward Sky wasn’t meant to be a social game, but it became one almost as a pleasant side-effect of Sony’s VR technology.
But just because the overall game is easy doesn’t mean it’s simple. “There’s some real hidden stuff I don’t think anyone has found,” Ekanayake said. I was delighted by a few of the hidden interactions I found as I played through the game with my kids. They had a great time yelling out things for me to try.
But there’s only so much we can talk about in articles like this, or even in the mixed-reality trailer Ekanayake shot for the game. It shows a bit of the player’s scale within the world, and how they’ll play with some of the puzzles, but it pales in comparison to the act of actually putting on a headset.
“It’s really hard to get across how magical VR is to people who have never put on a headset, still,” he said. “I hope that changes now that PlayStation VR is widely out there. People think of VR like it’s just another screen, but the feeling of being able to touch things in the world using a motion controller while you’re in the space and feeling like you’re in the center of the world is really compelling when done right. I’m really excited to do more VR games.”