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Bounce uses virtual reality to perfect the physics puzzle genre

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The ending will blindside you

Steel Wool Studios

As much as I want to tell you, I can’t spoil the ending to Bounce, a VR physics puzzle that launched in November. It is pure creative genius, cackling at you as you stumble through its puzzles to arrive at a storyline shocker that only the sharpest and most skeptical eye could even vaguely predict. Fewer than 3 percent of those playing this virtual reality puzzle game have seen it for themselves.

Bounce comprises 50 mind-bending levels. The good news is the user gets to place the tools for solving each level by hand, kneeling, squatting or standing on tiptoes if necessary. The game is made by Steel Wool Studios, a team of designers hailing from Pixar, Lucasfilm, Intel and other big names. I visited their hotel suite at GDC 2017 ostensibly to talk about a virtual reality space exploration game and was instead shown Bounce first. It was delightful, and made me seriously consider buying a VR headset (Bounce supports the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift).

In Bounce, the user must guide an energy ball from one end of a room to a capture point at the other, using a toolkit of ramps, trampolines, chutes, conveyor belts and other constructions to get it there. The ball has a name, D1G-B (Digby) and some semblance of a personality. The user’s natural sympathy for a cheerful inanimate object is ultimately used against them in Bounce’s narrative arc.

Steel Wool Studios

Physics puzzles are a staple of two-dimensional gaming platforms, particularly mobile devices; to actually see and manipulate the tools in the first-person perspective was rather profound to me. Every time the player tests out a design, Bounce leaves a ghost trail of D1G-B’s trajectory, to help in setting up the next piece of the puzzle to get him home.

The early puzzles span simple, squared-off rooms and are reasonably easy to complete. Run a ramp from the energy ball’s drop point, set up some backboards behind the goal, and press go. Bounce doesn’t punish experimentation; players can try placements repeatedly and see a ghost trajectory of where the ball travels. It does reward fast thinkers, and those who use fewer pieces and take less time to accomplish the goal. That translates to a higher score (jn the form of a three-star appraisal at the end of each round which should be familiar to those who play 3D puzzle games).

Beginning around level 10, though, the spaces get larger, and Bounce requires users to redirect D1G-B around corners, down hallways, or ascend to higher levels to reach the goal. The toolkit provided for each level gets the user there, but damn if it isn’t daunting how to do it, or how much time it will take to do it.

The ability to squint at, manually rotate and evaluate, in three dimensions, my Rube Goldberg contraption was the difference-maker. It’s one thing to guess at the angle of attack in something like Angry Birds. It’s quite another to squat in front of a half-pipe and line up where the ball will roll out and how to angle the trampoline it hits. “One of our testers, I came into the room and saw him laying down on his back, looking up,” said Jason Topolski, co-founder of Steel Wool, folding his hands across his chest for effect. “He was really trying to figure it out.”

Many physics puzzle games can be jettisoned as inscrutable or unreasonable in their demands, thanks to the limitations of a 2D space. Bounce provides the means of a close-up inspection, movable by hand, to make the goal. Trial and error is required throughout. Some of the levels I saw couldn’t be completed on the 10th try, much less the first.

Steel Wool co-founder Andrew Dayton said his studio isn’t purely a VR company, but they seem to have nailed the true appeal of the technology with Bounce. Virtual reality isn’t always about putting a gun in the user’s hands and allowing them to dodge and shoot in real life. Sometimes its best use is giving a user a close-up and high manipulable view of a puzzle. The feeling of control and understanding in Bounce was fantastic.

The results felt legitimately earned, and that made Bounce’s narrative, and conclusion, as stunning and laughter-filled as anything I’ve played since Portal.