I recently purchased a PSVR headset and a couple of games from a friend who wasn’t really using it, and was keen to spend a good amount of time with a new technology that I’d barely touched before, excited at the new types of spectacle and sensation this still-new medium would offer. I knew some of what to expect — I’d had a go with an HTC Vive before and experienced both the grand spectacle of lying, scaled to the size of a giant, across Central Park while flinging the Sun across the sky in Google Earth, and the somewhat gimmicky but undeniably fun arcadey thrills of Fruit Ninja and the countless shooting galleries that litter the storefront. What I’ve enjoyed most about VR so far, however, wasn’t experiencing this grand scale or intense action, but something I didn’t expect — the comfort and familiarity of small settings.
One of the first games I picked up when I brought the headset home was Moss, the debut offering from some ex-Bungie folk who were enticed away from AAA development by the potential of VR. The game tells the adventure of Quill, a heroic young mouse in a world of medieval mammals and enchanted ruins strewn across a forest floor (as a fan of the Redwall books growing up, this was right up my alley). Quill’s journey is framed as a literal storybook tale, with chapters of the game broken up by interludes in which you turn the pages of an old tome inside a deserted cathedral, while a narrator fills in the story over characterful illustrations. While the setting and structure lends the game a charm and intimacy from the get-go, it struck me most in the level design. Each chapter is separated into discrete dioramas (traversing a ruined gatehouse, strolling through a small town built into some tree roots etc.) which you, as the ethereal ‘Reader’, oversee and guide Quill through, contending with a light mix of combat, puzzles and platforming. I instantly loved moving through these small, discrete sections. The feeling of scrambling through lovingly detailed patches of undergrowth, absorbing each inconsequential but unique vignette of the world, immediately evoked a nostalgia for hours spent rooting through gardens as a child, getting to know each corner and hidden den intimately.
This effect is largely achieved through game’s scale, and is also captured brilliantly in games like Pikmin 3 (a game which marvels as much at the complexity and beauty of tiny ecosystems as it does the discarded remnants of human technology) and the Unravel games, which have you carefully clambering your way through rusted garden sheds and over treacherous puddles. Part of this DNA can also be seen in Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, a puzzle game where each level is designed around small, manipulatable dioramas, which often need to be examined in detail to find every last secret. Treasure Tracker was a very deliberate move by Nintendo to remove the sense of mobility and power exemplified by Mario, and present a more humble and limited character as the game’s protagonist, thus forcing you to engage with each square foot of each level rather than zooming past it with a long jump. This diminutive, less powerful lead character gives it yet more in common with Pikmin, Unravel and to some extent Moss — characters which fit the slower, smaller pace of their respective games. Another PSVR highlight, Astro’s Rescue Mission often manages to combine the joy of traversing through the hidden nooks and crannies of a miniature toybox with the more agile and expansive exploration of a 3D Mario game, providing a platforming experience that feels new, and shows how smart Sony were in positioning Astro as a new headline mascot for the launch of the PS5.
However, the joy found in soaking in these confined, intricate areas, many of which you will pass through and never revisit, reminded me of an ostensibly completely different game, an epic story told on a much grander scale: Final Fantasy VII. Full disclosure: FF7 is my favourite game of all time, and it came out right in that nostalgia sweet-spot of my early school years. I never actually played it myself originally, just watched my brothers take turns with the controller while I tried to keep up with the dialogue and story as best I could. The thing about the three mainline PS1 Final Fantasy games (FF7–9) that sticks out most in my memory (other than perhaps Uematsu’s timeless scores) are the pre-rendered backgrounds. While these games each had an explorable, 3D overworld, any time you entered a town or dungeon, your characters’ 3D sprites were transposed over a handcrafted, static 2D backdrop. This gave every single explorable room and street in these games a unique feel and dimension, which would not be exactly repeated anywhere else in the game. While every Final Fantasy game has its strengths and individual charms, the earlier games on NES and SNES with their repeated 2D textures, and later games with fully-modelled 3D environments just don’t capture that sense of familiarity with the small, discrete spaces that you’ll visit time and time again. The bizarre room with an item machine in Midgar’s Wall Market is instantly recognisable, yet almost entirely inconsequential, in a way that other games in the series could not capture in quite the same way. One of the highlights of this year’s long-anticipated Final Fantasy 7 Remake is how it recognises that these spaces, which could easily have been overlooked, are seared into the memory of thousands of fans, and recreates them with surprising veracity.
A notable element of both Moss’ and Midgar’s handcrafted areas is that they are both presumably the result of technological limitations. Modelling the whole of Moss’ world, or even a whole chapter, into a single navigable space would no doubt have been a substantial challenge in VR, but by separating up small chunks of the forest floor, no movement from the player is required, and you can just focus on what’s in front of you. Similarly, when Squaresoft decided to move from Nintendo’s consoles to Sony’s new Playstation when producing their first game of the 3D generation, it was largely because they did not want to compromise on the grandness of the story they were creating. Telling that story in 3D environments would have been impossible at the time (the game was on three discs without them!), and so most of the game was set against flat but characterful vistas, more like a backdrop to a stage play than a sprawling CGI landscape in a Hollywood blockbuster. Often, your imagination had to fill in the gaps, which rather than distancing you from what was on the screen, ended up bringing you further in. What is that strange robotic claw littering the ruins of Midgar’s collapsed Sector 6? The game never draws attention to it, so it’s up to you to decide. (In this case, the Remake perhaps zooms in a little too much, expanding an intriguing background detail into a clunky and unnecessary mini-game.)
While the exponentially increasing budgets, computing power, and console memory that companies like Ubisoft and Square Enix now enjoy can produce grand open worlds that would previously have been impossible, I do think something has been lost with those limitations — grander does not always translate to greater. Of course, the work of 3D environmental artists is vital, and is currently responsible some of the most gorgeous games ever produced, but the games which capture those handcrafted microcosms so well are often found outside big-budget triple A development. Some prime examples come from the developers just mentioned; both Square Enix’s Bravely Default series and Ubisoft’s Child of Light both do an admirable job of creating unique corners of their worlds where you can really feel the artist’s brush at work. Many games in the indie space are also filling in these gaps as well — Team Cherry’s hand-animated masterpiece Hollow Knight captures much the same feeling of respite when resting at a secluded stagway station that you get when checking into the inn at FF7’s Kalm. Each station bench, much like each inn in FF7’s Gaia, feels largely the same, but just unique enough to give a distinct sense of place.
It should be noted that great work has been done in the modding community in the past few years to upscale the admittedly low-res pre-rendered backgrounds from FF7,8 & 9 using AI (the Remako, GUM and Moguri mods respectively) which breathes new life into those old towns and taverns without stripping them of their charm (and which I wish SE would adopt or emulate in some way for their current ports of those games!) If you want to play these games for the first time, these mods might be the best way to capture the wonder I felt exploring those worlds in my parents’ attic in the late 90s. It may just be the age at which I first played those games, or the amount of time I’ve spent in their worlds, and while I’m excited for the vast, beautiful worlds that next-gen will bring, I will always have a fondness for that feeling of walking through an obscured alley, or a gap in the trees, watching the screen slowly fade to black, and waiting to see what awaits on the other side.