It’s difficult to properly categorise Paper Beast as an experience. Listing and discussing its elements doesn’t really convey what it feels like to play, as the game is filled with a constant sense of wonder and discovery. It never holds your hand, it doesn’t ever tell you what to do, it just leaves you to find your own way through its incredible world.
It’s a VR game where you use little ecosystems made of paper plants and animals to solve puzzles. With two move controllers, one for moving around the world and the other for interacting with it, you teleport about the level subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, influencing the animals who interact with the world in a way that allows you to move on.
A very early example is one particularly chaotic mass of paper ribbons that looks a little like an origami dog. After you’re guided into a cave during a particularly impressive sand storm, you find yourself trapped inside with this small creature that can dig through sand. So you follow this creature through, watching as it digs enough space in the sand-filled cave for you to pass through.
The sand is simulated, which means as the paper dog digs a hole the sand shifts and moves around until it settles. It’s deeply satisfying to watch. The most impressive part of Paper Beast is its physics engine. Both sand and water are simulated here and it is a sight to behold – I’ve experienced nothing else like it on the system. Sand slides down the sides of large dunes, water streams through gaps and sloshes around in an incredibly convincing way and it’s simply stunning.
There’s also a sandbox mode that gives you a large floating island to experiment with the physics and creatures, or build an idyllic beach complete with sand-gathering papercraft crabs. It’s very relaxing, at least until you activate a tornado or a sandstorm, though you’ll have to find some of the more interesting elements in the game’s regular levels to unlock them.
It’s through a combination of these creatures and the sand and water physics that you will solve puzzles. They can be a little obtuse, but usually if you wander around a bit you’ll notice a hint in the environment that demonstrates a crucial new element. Your first real puzzle sees you using crabs that gather sand into a ball, and then dropping that ball to create a big enough pile of sand to continue, but they slowly get more complex, and the final goal of each level is to get all your origami creatures to a tree so it can grow and drop fruit. Then, all of the creatures eat, sprout balloons, and float away.
This is all thoroughly surreal, but the game is very up front about how weird it’s going to be when it opens with a Japanese rock/pop VR music video where you can learn how to interact with things by throwing them around, or shortly after when a creature forms out of the song’s tape. The surreal feeling quickly turns to fascination as you fumble your way through. Sometimes it does feel like fumbling, as the puzzles can be unclear, particularly early on when you’re still new to it and the lack of guidance feels a little frustrating. Once you adjust, however, the idea of explicit help feels like it would be out of place.