There are some bombastic titles about to launch with PlayStation VR that will have you flying through space, controlling a neon-lit tank or driving cars at over 100 miles an hour. However, there are those doing things a little differently for Sony’s headset, including indie developer Secret Sorcery – a team of former Sony Evolution devs – whose tactical god game Tethered will have you thinking about VR in a completely different way.
Managing Director Scott Kirkland said,”After 20 years in the games industry, 16 years at Sony Evolution – I was one of the founders of Evo – we were working on some prototypes, but we kind of knew we weren’t going to get to make them as a racing studio. So a small group of us jumped out – a leap of faith – and we wanted to make something super comfortable, super different in VR, and Tethered is what that was.”
Placing the PlayStation VR headset on, you’re met by a beautiful Studio Ghibli-esque diorama, where you control the life and death of your Peeps; cute goblin-like creatures that follow your every command. As a Spirit Guardian, you’re sat atop a cloud looking down on the level, each of which is a floating island spotted with various resources, with the aim being to collect spirit energy by successfully growing your settlement and keeping your worshipers happy.
Scott said, “We thought, why not put the player in an environment that’s totally different to what they can experience? Because in VR you’re in that world, and so you should make it something fantastical, something that really makes the player feel incredible, that gives them powers and lets them do stuff that they can’t do in the real world.”
“A VR god game just seemed like an awesome thing to do in VR,” he continued. “We also focussed on comfort as well, so we have a cloud-hopping mechanic, but we don’t want to subject players to acceleration or decelerations, we want it to be a comfortable experience. Early adopters of VR, we don’t want to upset them, so let them just look down on our beautiful islands, look at a different cloud, press the X button, and cloud-hop there instantly.”
The first thing that happened in the opening level of our hands on was the descent of an egg from the heavens. You have to tether the sunshine in order to help it to hatch, which is as simple as looking at an object, holding down X, and then looking at where you want it to be linked with before releasing. In turn, the sun drifts across and shines on the egg, hatching your very first Peep. These cute little creatures are your people, and without them you can’t collect any of the much-needed spirit energy or build up your settlement.
“We’ve gone out of our way to reinforce the [emotional draw],” Scott explained. “So if you look at a Peep, they’ll track your head. As you move from side to side, they’ll watch you, if you shake your head from side to side they’ll mimic you, so it really builds that rapport.
“Or you can just mercilessly abuse the Peeps – you can build a temple, upgrade it to a Martyrs Hall, get lots of eggs, hatch them all, send them all to the Hall, and then you combine the weather, tethering the rain cloud to the temple, and then it’ll electrocute them all and convert them into spirit energy. It’s nice if you’re just looking for enough spirit energy to get you over the line to complete the level, and if you’ve not got any scruples it’s a really fun way to do it.”
You can assign different jobs to your peeps, turning them into heroes (soldiers), farmers, woodsmen and miners in order to become as efficient as possible at collecting resources or fighting enemies, with their role altering their clothing so you can differentiate between them in a pinch. You can also tether various objects to them, so tethering a peep to a rain cloud gives them a speed burst, while tethering a snow cloud to one grants them a cool suit of armour, and the sun gives them a ranged fireball attck. Overall it’s a nice mechanic and one that works particularly well in VR, working on the intuitive nature of simply looking at what you want to interact with.
During the daytime, you’re aiming to gain peeps, grow food and collect resources and expand your settlement, but at night is when the monsters come out. Different slug-like enemies beset this particular level, with your peeps rushing to finish them off before they destroy your resources. Different enemies will go after a particular resource so you have to be very careful if your strategy relies on the one that they’re after. Losing peeps in the heat of battle was heartbreaking, but they’ll also take a drive off the side of the island if you allow them to become depressed; either if they’ve been ignored by their deity for too long, or grown too hungry. They’ll even look up at you before they end it all, just to hammer home the emotional impact. It’s pretty brutal, in a delightful way.
The art style is phenomenal and I found myself hopping from cloud to cloud just to look around the island. Having aimed for a stylised look has absolutely paid dividends here, and it’s amongst the best looking and most consistent VR titles I’ve seen so far, despite its indie roots.
Scott explained, “Most of the games we’d work on previously were 30hz for one eye, but VR is 60hz so twice as much work… we’ve had to inject our own secret sauce, squeeze a little more out and just get the most out of it. We’ve had a few people say ‘how have you managed to have such a solid 60z frame-rate and such a beautiful environment?’ and it’s just from passion, hard-work and applying what we know as best we can.”
The sound also plays an integral part in the game and adds hugely to the overall immersion, with some serious talent involved with it. “On the audio side we’ve worked with Kenny Young who was the audio director at Media Molecule and the guy who wrote the music to Tearaway, so a super talented fella. We invited him up to the studio and he played the game and loved the prototype and said he wanted to work with us. He’s written the most beautiful music for the game, and it’s super different between each level.”
It’s safe to say that it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for Secret Sorcery to arrive at this point, but hopefully things are easing up a bit now. Scott said, “Around March-April time Sony came back to us and said, ‘would you guys like to feature in our E3 press conference?’, and we were like, ‘er… yeah, that’d be awesome!’ so we polished our builds up, and myself and the creative director went over to LA and found ourselves side by side with Batman and Resident Evil in the VIP press area. From a year before, being cap in hand, looking for some cash, trying to fund our project to ‘This is Secret Sorcery, they’ve got Tethered, a magical VR strategy game,’ we were so proud of getting there in that time.”
For anyone set to pick up a PSVR at launch, prepare to make room on your list for Tethered. Its unique take on the tactical god game is shaping up to be something genuinely special.