The first thing I do, naturally, is stroke the bird. The animal’s eyes close in pleasure and it rocks a little, back-and-forth, as I rub along its back and tickle under its chin. The little chirps and tweets are delightful. I’m standing in a hotel room wearing a VR headset, and my fingers are stroking air, but in my head is a whole new world.
Luna is a game that seems built for VR, even though it began life as a ‘normal’ game. Created by Funomena, a Californian developer founded by two ThatGameCompany veterans, the game is due soon on PC and VR and describes itself as "a magical fable about restoring life to a storybook world."
Explaining what you’re up to risks making Luna sound underwhelming, because it’s a bit like describing going on a beautiful nature walk. Those flowers and mountains and grand vistas are only meaningful through your own eyes; the thrill of discovery is personal. Elements like trees or lilypads can be placed around Luna’s bowl-like environment and then made bigger or smaller, a tactile process of pulling things out to different lengths and widths.
The half hour or so I played slowly shifted scenarios and gears, from ‘fixed’ puzzles like connecting together constellations to more freeform play. The latter began awakening a long-dormant pleasurezone which, on closer examination, was all the joy I found in Okami – a game that, for my money, would be a hundred times better without all the combat and RPG stuff. Okami had that amazing concept whereby, after fixing a problem in a particular area, the washed-out landscape would explode into bloom, flowers bursting from the ground as the camera panned. It feels amazing, and the way Luna’s landscapes respond to your touch both captures something of this and makes it more intimate: shoots suddenly growing where you’ve just tapped is, to say the least, a striking feeling. And one you immediately want to repeat.
As all of this implies, one of Luna’s great achievements is making you forget you’re in there. All VR games achieve this at some level, but the illusion can be broken so easily and often is. It’s not even about the technology letting it down, an unloaded texture or a skipped frame, so much as the player’s willing suspension of disbelief, giving yourself over to the creation and working to be a part of it. I’d tie this in to my favourite soapbox opinion on the tech, which is that developers working on translating traditional genres are not working with what VR is good at.
There is this aspect of VR where many titles choose a disappointing kind of reality to make virtual. Sci-fi shooters, racing tracks, horror… we’ve seen it all before. There’s another aspect of traditional gaming, however, that VR can really tune into, and that is the joy of discovery and invention. Luna’s goal is not to show off how clever its designers might be, nor is it really about challenging or being excessively demanding of the player. Instead this game is packed full of surprises for curious fingers to unwrap, layer upon layer, and focuses on responding to your touch.
I enjoy the gentler experiences. I love stroking Luna’s bird, and watching it respond. I adore pointing out parts of the landscape and watching it in some way come to life under my touch, like I’m some small god doing the same for others. It all makes you realise what a complete distraction most of gaming’s usual structures are. In Luna the worlds eventually unfurl into what you could call puzzles, but they’re intuitive and simple to work out – which is completely fine by me. The fun is not in identifying a constellation but in taking 10 seconds to draw it, then seeing the stars pop to life.
Perhaps this is something to do with the shape of the environments, but Luna didn't resemble a storybook to me as much as it did toying around with one of those gorgeously elaborate ships in bottles. You can look at the latter and, very easily, slide into a focused state of consciousness where you’re just noticing more and more detail on the ship, musing on how it was constructed to get in there, and forget about the world outside the bottle. Time passes, unremarked. I remember a great deal about Luna, but I couldn’t tell you much about the rest of that day.
VR remains an emerging technology, with current headsets lacking the form factor (and price) that will eventually see its widespread use. In the case of Luna, it’s unfortunate that more people won’t get to experience its calming, generous style through such enveloping technology. There’s something at the core of this experience which feels bound-up with the future of video game VR, and makes me very optimistic about where it’s heading. Luna’s a place full of wonder, designed to give the player the joy of discovery and make them feel good. In a word, it's bliss.