Sony’s PlayStation Vita marks a leap forward in imagery: what we see on the small screen we hold in our hands is as striking as what we see on high-definition televisions and almost as real as the world around us. So it’s strange that one of the best games to take advantage of the handheld’s capabilities–the only game that was really designed for the device–looks like a miniature papercraft cartoon.
Tearaway, which launched in December for the PlayStation Vita, has been a critical success for creator Media Molecule. That’s no surprise: the developer also gave Sony’s PlayStation 3 console one of its most iconic brands, LittleBigPlanet. Both games inspire creativity in gamers. But Tearaway, which takes place in a visually striking world of paper, is unique for how integrated its story is with its platform, and for its fourth-wall-breaking game mechanisms which create a new, hands-on kind of immersion.
“We were initially planning on making a much smaller project, but it gradually grew out of control as we fell more in love with the world that we were creating,” Dave Smith, the co-founder and technical director of Media Molecule, tells Co.Create. “The creative process was really just to hold an early prototype Vita in our hands and imagine what might be fun to do with it,” he says.
Media Molecule’s ideas inspired the studio to create a game that maximized the Vita’s hardware capabilities–the device features a back touch-screen, microphone and dual-facing cameras. Players become the center of the game’s universe and help its characters (Iota or Atoi, depending on gender selected) on a quest during which they are encouraged to create things that are used in the game and can be shared IRL. In Tearaway, players really become part of the game–fingers “break through” the back touch panel of the handheld and into the game world; through the device’s microphone and camera, players’ voices and pieces of their living rooms become part of the game’s virtual playground.
“We have drums in Tearaway that you encounter early on,” says Smith. “When [the characters] Iota/Atoi stand on them, you slap the back of your Vita to vibrate the drum and throw your messenger (character) into the air.” Smith also describes a sequence where pressing buttons on the Vita activates paper replicas of them the game. “This creates some confusing interactions where you press X to jump over an enemy but then cause a big X button to catapult you into a lake of glue.”
If that sounds like it breaks immersion instead of deepening it, that’s because it does–in a way. What’s different is how Tearaway puts players in the game: by reminding them that they’re still separate from it even as they assume an integral role. “We didn’t want the player to feel as much fully immersed in the game but more feel deeply entwined with the game,” says Smith. “This all reinforces the central theme of your paper messenger trying to literally escape into the real world to deliver you a message. I think this also fits the way people tend to play on mobile consoles as you’re probably being distracted by the real world anyway while playing, so you might as well acknowledge this from within the game.”
That’s also why Media Molecule considered using the Vita’s GPS feature. “Thematically, this sounded great as it would then make your Vita into a device that punctures into this sprawling game world, in the same way that your fingers seemingly physically puncture into the game world,” says Smith. “So if you visited the Tower of London, you could perhaps see challenges that other players had left there for you. In short, the idea was to make something like Foursquare combined with Diablo, but cute.”
Doing so proved an immense technical and creative challenge, and it would have diminished an essential element of Tearaway. “The intimate relationship between you and Iota/Atoi was being lost in such a large and undirected environment,” says Smith. The team experimented with a lot of other ideas, less than half of which made it into the final game. “You need to go through the pain of getting that idea out of your head and into something you can literally play with,” says Smith. “It’s creatively liberating to have the attitude of trying out a load of things and expecting to throw most of them away.”
Better immersion all depends on what type of experience you’re trying to create, says Smith. Higher-quality sound and graphics would improve a driving game, but emulating the human body’s movements is more difficult, even with new technology. And if the ways of interacting are limited, then it doesn’t matter how visually accurate the world is.
Maybe that’s why Media Molecule’s game works so well looking the way it does.
“Getting good tactile interaction into games would be a massive step forward, but I don’t know how to achieve it without unwieldy robotic exoskeletons or plugging cables into your brain,” said Smith. “We might have a long wait ahead of us!”