IS IT POSSIBLE for a “sexy” VR game to be boring? Summer Lesson does its damnedest.
Released at the launch of PlayStation VR exclusively on the Japanese PlayStation store (which you can access from any PS4 if you want to), Summer Lesson falls, from a purely mechanical standpoint, into the “simulation” game genre—you’re the tutor of a high school girl who’s preparing for an exam, so you choose from a menu of lesson options in hopes of boosting her statistics high enough so that she comes home with an A at the end of the week. But really, it’s about spending time in virtual reality hanging out with that ne plus ultra of Japanese erotic archetypes, the girl in the sailor uniform.
As interested as I am in novel VR experiences, there’s a baked-in element of creepiness to this scenario that’s hard to write around. Your student Hikari Miyamoto isn’t said to be underage, although the game doesn’t say that she’s 18, either. What is seen as mundane in Japan may not be elsewhere, which is why I sincerely doubt we’ll see this game appear here. That said, I think the lessons that it teaches about up-close-and-personal contact with a “person” in VR are something that should be taken seriously.
I found Summer Lesson to be fascinating when I tried the initial demo at last year’s Tokyo Game Show, especially as proof that the smallest hints of intimacy can be extremely powerful in VR when your brain is telling you that a real human being is a few inches away from you. This experience is certainly present in the full version of Summer Lesson, although the game they’ve wrapped around it is so simplistic, repetitive, and ultimately boring that it’s not likely to have much of an impact beyond that brief novelty.
To wit: the gameplay of Summer Lesson. Pick a vague “lesson plan” (math, logic, history, etc.) from a menu, looking over at a chart of Hikari’s progress to see how that lesson will affect her stats. Enter the lesson. You’re sitting on a chair in her room. She greets you. Scene fades out. Fade in: She’s working on something at her desk, and you can pick from a variety of options. Should you take notes, open the window, cheer her on? You don’t experience doing any of these things, because the screen fades out again, and suddenly we’re at the end of the lesson. Now it’s time to select a piece of random small talk from a few options: What are your friends up to today? What do you do for fun? How was the lesson? Rinse and repeat six more times, and the game’s over.
Every now and again, there’s a bonus scene that replicates the close-and-personal experiences in the demo: You and Hikari listen to music via the same pair of earbuds, for example, or various other excuses to have your face in closer proximity to hers. But even this content is aggressively recycled as well. The idea is to play the game over and over again, building up Hikari’s learning stats bit by bit to eventually get the highest grade on the exam by the end. But this means sitting through the same scenes again and again (or just skipping them).
I know what at least some percentage of you are wondering. What happens if you decide to be a complete jerk? At one point, I was sitting in such a way that my field of view intersected with Hikari’s face slightly—and the entire screen quickly faded to black. The game was still running, but my vision was cut off. Turns out, this is exactly what happens when your face intersects with Hikari’s body in any way. Move your head downward to look at her from any other angle, and she presses her hands to her skirt and says, “Don’t look!”
Let me tell you: It had taken more than a little bit of self-convincing to move my head around, even though it was only to see what her reaction would be. I knew it was a videogame. But I still had to remind myself that I wasn’t looking at a human being. And after all that, to be chastised, rather than having the screen fade to black? I snapped upright in my seat.
Beyond what we can learn about intimacy in VR from it,Summer Lesson is a pretty boring one-note game. Here’s something to ponder: What if it wasn’t? What if this was an engaging, well-designed game packed with content? What if you were deeply engaged with its world, and then one of the characters offered to share earbuds with you? How would that change things? Summer Lesson is fascinating because it raises these questions, although it falls far short of providing any answers.