When PlayStation VR debuted last year, it started strong. By virtual reality standards, the hardware launched alongside a solid lineup of games. There were trippy musical shooters, intense concert simulators, and thumping rhythm games. They helped push the headset to nearly a million units sold. But in terms of worthwhile game releases, things have slowed down considerably since launch. Two recent releases make a good case for dusting off the headset.
One is a collection of colorful toys set in whimsical worlds. The other drops you into a unsettling series of psychological experiments. They may look different on the surface, but the pair share a pleasingly tactile take on puzzle games and a sense of what works (and doesn’t work) in virtual reality.
Gnog is what would happen if you took miniature toys like Polly Pocket and Mighty Max, and turned them into elaborate puzzles. Each level takes place inside the head of a different creature (hence the name Gnog, like noggin), which is cracked open to reveal a tiny, diorama-like world inside. The levels are small, but full of things to fiddle with; there are buttons, switches, levers, and knobs to twist. Whimsical animations and sound effects accompany most actions, rewarding experimentation. Flipping a switch could cause a song to play, while opening a drawer might unleash a butterfly. You don’t know what can be interacted with until you move the cursor and feel a subtle vibration.
Each “head” has a different theme; they can get a little strange. The first level has you guiding (well, trying to guide) a butterfly into the mouth of a giant frog. Later stages see you fixing a smashed-up spaceship and helping a composer write a song from within a giant synthesizer.
Gnog doesn’t tell you what to do; you piece it together by playing with each level’s various doodads. Sometimes it’s admittedly frustrating, and you have no clue what to do. But Gnog’s relaxed pace and lack of any kind of fail state help to relieve the stress. It’s charming and colorful, playful and warm. It’s hard not to love it, even when it’s being a little too cute or vague.
Gnog is available as a standard PS4 game (and is coming later to iOS and Steam). It works just fine without VR — but the experience shines with a headset. The outside world fades away, and your focus becomes this singular, beautiful object floating in space.
Much like Gnog, Statik is a VR puzzle game about manipulating objects. But where Gnog is light and cheerful, Statik is grim and moody. At the outset of the game you wake in a research facility, both of your hands trapped in a strange box. The device is somewhere between a giant Chinese finger trap and some sort of retrofuturistic contraption. Sitting in front of you is a man with a blurry face, a lab coat, and a clipboard watching your every movement, occasionally taking notes and commenting.
What he doesn’t do is provide instruction. The lab is meant to test your observation skills, leaving you to discover how to proceed. Each level features a different kind of puzzle box trapping your hands. In one you create shapes using a series of interchangeable discs, in another you manipulate both a cassette player and a rotary phone dial to find passwords.
Statik is one of the smartest controller-based VR games I’ve played. While your hands are occupied with the many buttons of a Dual Shock 4 in the real world, your virtual counterpart is flipping arcane switches and buttons with both hands trapped in a similar position.
Statik also uses the immersion of VR to make hints feel more natural. You can’t just focus on the box that has imprisoned your hands. Each level — which take place in different, seemingly cookie-cutter rooms in a drab office facility — is filled with subtle hints at how the puzzle boxes can be solved. You might see a motivational poster with some familiar shapes that hint at how to utilize a specific device. Colorful objects around one room reveal the order to button prompts.
PLAYFUL, BUT ALSO A LITTLE CREEPY
Tucked between the clues are bits of environmental story: as you look around you’ll spot plenty of cameras, silent figures behind two-way mirrors, and strange objects covered by tarps, that hint at the institute's real motivations. Statik even throws in some levels that provide no challenge at all, but help build out the world. At one point you have a polygraph machine strapped to your hands, and you’re forced to choose whether abstract images make you happy or sad. Statik’s overall vibe feels like a more sinister take on Portal; playful, but also a little creepy.
As with Gnog, things can get frustrating, especially when the game throws timed challenges at you. One level flashes a series of codes on giant monitors, and tasks you with decrypting them in quick succession. If you fail, you have to start over. But for the most part, the puzzle boxes are a nice balance of challenge and mystery, and they give you lots of time to organically discover — or stumble across — the solutions.
Puzzle box games are nothing new, of course. The Room series on mobile has long shown how great these experiences can be with a touchscreen. But VR adds a layer of focus and tactility that benefits the genre. The physical nature of the puzzles in Gnog and Statik, combined with the immersion inherent with VR, means that these complex objects in front of you feel almost real.