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Wilson’s Heart review

So far, virtual reality's main argument has been exotic placement. My Oculus Rift situates me on the peak of Everest, the moons of Saturn, the depths of the Pacific. I crane my neck, mouth agape, to suck in the sights I might otherwise never see.

As yet, it hasn't done much to advance narrative forms, such as video games. This is the challenge for the second wave of VR products, a problem that the likes of Valve and Oculus are determined to crack.

Wilson's Heart will, I think, go down as a significant marker on the road to great VR stories. But it's a long way from being the destination. If it were a standard video game, it might fairly be described as thin, frustrating and gimmicky. But as a VR game, it offers something fresh. It makes me feel like another human being. This is the essence of fiction.

Entirely rendered in delicious monochrome, Wilson's Heart takes place in a vast hospital in the late 1940s. I play as Wilson, a patient who awakes to find himself shackled in a semi-destroyed ward. He'd been admitted for heart surgery, but things have evidently not gone to plan.

Wilson explores the hospital encountering other lost humans as well as a menagerie of schlocky monsters and mythics. This is a world swept up in trashy post-War movies about vampires, werewolves, zombies, sea monsters and more.

I teleport from one location to another, following easy-to-follow silhouettes provided by the designers at Twisted Pixel. Each new position is a tiny puzzle in which I look for useful things, or figure out how to use those useful things in order to open a door or otherwise progress.

Although the game is named for Wilson's heart, it's his hands that are the real stars. The game is designed explicitly for use with Oculus Touch controllers, left- and right-handed devices that simulate hand movements. Almost all the puzzles demand that I move my hands in different ways. And so I push, pull, point, swing, swipe, stretch, throw and grip. It is, essentially, one long demo for Touch's multibutton capabilities as surrogate hands in a virtual world.

Most of the puzzles are extremely simple. The inventory system allows me to store certain items like a screwdriver, rubber gloves, keys, a hammer. The appropriate tool is presented to me whenever it's required.

Wilson's hands are beautifully aged, papery and vein-crossed. But when the game goes awry, they have a habit of turning in upon themselves, like some horrible cartoon. These are the sort of problems that might be expected from a new form of entertainment and, while frustrating, they do not overly diminish what is an enjoyable and varied experience.

As Wilson moves through the hospital's rooms, he meets with other characters. There are long sequences in which character and exposition are explored via dialog, over which I have no control. These staged moments are entirely satisfying because the feeling of talking to people at eye-level is convincingly simulated, and the characters are fascinating, varied and played superbly. I found myself reacting to them with my own hand gestures, even though these have zero impact on Wilson’s Heart.

When I talk with these people, I don't feel like I'm actually in a hospital, escaping monsters. But I do feel like I'm in a really great mystery weekend someplace cool. This consciousness of being a part of a group of people is startlingly engaging at eye-level and full-size. I find myself experiencing strong feelings for these characters, a strange sort of kinship I rarely feel for tiny characters on normal-sized screens.

Wilson himself is an agreeable and amusing companion. He's world-weary, in the way of old men. He understands that life is incomprehensible and vaguely disappointing. Nothing bothers him unduly. If he's confronted with Hell's own minions, he's likely to sigh and offer nothing more than an "oh, great, just what I need," as if he's just received a jury service notice.

There are a few minor jump scares, but nothing too unpleasant. Wilson's Heart is in the business of telling a story and creating an atmosphere of dread, rather than leaning on cheap shocks. For this, I'm grateful. When puzzles require thought and concentration, it's good to know that I haven't got some ghoul standing over my shoulder, waiting for me to turn my head.

The monsters, when they do appear, are lovingly wrought, and clearly designed by people who love old horror movies. There are tons of callbacks to black-and-white B-movies and post-war comic-book culture.

Part of the supernatural mystery Wilson is trying to uncover is his own mutilation. His real heart has been replaced by a magical device that gives him certain powers in very specific situations. This is a game design device that allows me to do battle with monsters by using the heart as a range device that I throw or point at enemies or at puzzles.

These boss battles sometimes take a while to master, as I grapple with each new physical mechanic, a new way of throwing or pointing. But they are simplistic and somewhat repetitive tests in timing. Once the hand movements and enemy patterns are understood, they are really pretty dull.

This frustration is compounded by the designers' insistence in making me wait for some narrative preamble to play out each and every time I make a new attempt. Few things are more enraging in video games. This makes the boss battles a lot less fun than they ought to be.

Wilson's Heart is more significant than its mere self. It reveals a path towards the significant storytelling opportunities that virtual reality game design faces in the years ahead.

But its own merits are worth celebrating. It lays a convincing and entertaining narrative world over a varied and enjoyable set of physical puzzles. It's funny and scary. Its characters and environments are engaging. Its use of hand-based puzzles is thoughtful and satisfying, and despite some minor bits of frustration, this is the most fun I've had with a physical game in years.

Wilson’s Heart was reviewed using a pre-release key provided by Oculus. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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