The question of “Are games art?” has been asked long before the indie renaissance. However it comes up more frequently now that more games attempt to explore the idea. Indeed there are many games that take their inspiration from various other forms of artistic expression, reinforcing the idea that at least some games could be considered art. Bound draws inspiration from the abstract art movement and modern dance, combining them into a kind of surreal platformer. I have to admit to putting this one on the back burner for quite some time due to its release being so close to many AAA titles. Whilst I don’t think this needs to be on everyone’s must-play lists I am glad I went back and played it as it is one of the more interesting experiences of last year.
You play as the unnamed princess of a blocky, abstract world. There is a monster that is destroying you mother’s kingdom, wrecking havoc on everything. Your mother charges you with finding the saviour, the only one who can save your world from this monster. All of this however is just a retrospective view of the real world, a surreal reflection of the events that happened in your childhood. The metaphors used throughout this game are your way of dealing with those events and what that means for your future is up to you to decide.
Bound is visually stunning; its utilisation of simple geometry and low-poly modelling at a grand scale giving it a style that’s not like any other. The environment reacts to your every move with your footing shifting uneasily at your feet and a sea of cubes undulating around you. It takes some getting used to as the twitchy environment is reminiscent of other games where that would form part of the challenge. Bound instead takes a much more relaxed approached to platforming and so the jittery terrain is simply a visual aspect, nothing more. Surprisingly even with the extremely busy visuals Bound manages to stay at a near constant 60fps even on my last gen PlayStation 4 hardware. As someone who has the hardware to see the difference I can say it’s most certainly appreciated.
At a game play level Bound is a relatively simple platformer with generous edge detection that will stop you from falling off the edge (most of the time). Initially most of the challenge comes from figuring out what you can interact with and what you can’t. This stems primarily from the busy visuals which make it hard to discern one thing from the other. There’s rudimentary combat, insofar as you having to perform certain dance actions to protect yourself from various threats in the world. Other than that Bound focuses heavily on the audio-visual experience, reminiscent of similar titles like Journey or ABZU.
The platforming is pretty straight forward once you’ve figured out the basics. The edge/hit detection is pretty generous, often saving you from an otherwise fatal fall. However it’s not complete foolproof and the princess will fall to her doom if you do mess up badly enough. There are, of course, the standard set of issues that come with 3D platforming such as it being really hard to judge distances. It also doesn’t help that the camera controls get taken away from you every so often, sometimes locking them in a position that’s not at all conducive to playing properly. There’s also some secrets to be found around the various worlds of Bound however with the jittery terrain it can be a little hard to find the clues to get at them. I only found one in my play through and I was pretty sure I was looking in all the right spots.
Bound’s short length mean that it’s biggest flaw, it’s repetitiveness, isn’t too much of an issue. After 2 levels or so you’ve basically seen everything the game has to offer mechanically and all that’s left is the audio visual experience. Don’t get me wrong, that was enough to carry me through to the end of the game, however it does mean that the developers idea of playing this all the way through in one sitting is probably a little ambitious. Sure you could do it, but I don’t think it would improve your overall experience of the game.
The story of Bound is one of reflection, an abstract representation of a woman’s childhood. In the beginning it’s not completely clear what’s going on, mostly due to the heavy use of metaphors and surreal visual imagery. However it starts to make a lot more sense as more real world scenes are revealed to you. Since the majority of this story is told abstractly though it’s hard to empathise with the characters beyond a rudimentary level. This means that the ending, which is driven by a single choice by you, is somewhat hollow in its execution. Compared to the audio and visual aspects of the game it’s a little bit of let down honestly and a well executed story could have taken this game from good to great, no question.
Bound is an interesting foray into the ever blurring lines between games and art. The combination of surreal, abstract art with modern dance makes for an experience that very few games even come close to providing. It is however very rudimentary at a game play level, the platforming providing little challenge apart from the usual tribulations that come from 3D platformers. The repetition and hollow story mean that Bound fails to achieve the same greatness that similar titles have making it a good, but not great, game. If these kinds of games appeal to you the Bound is certainly worth playing however, for your run of the mill gamer, it’s probably best left to the Let’s Play crowd.
Bound is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours.
The $599 price tag of the consumer Oculus Rift was off putting to many, including myself. It’s not that we expected the technology to be cheap, more that our expectations were set at what we considered a much more reasonable level. I wrote at the time that HTC and Sony would likely rush in with their own VR headsets swiftly afterwards, likely a much lower price point, to take advantage of the Oculus’ more premium status. I was right on one count, HTC has since announced theirs, but at the higher price point of $799. It seems that, at this stage in the game, there’s no way to do VR on the cheap.
Whilst the two products are largely comparable in terms of raw specifications, having the same screens for each eye and both providing the same level of “sit down” VR experience. However the Vive pulls ahead of the Oculus in two respects, the first of which being the inclusion of two hand tracking controllers. The current version of the Oculus includes an XboxOne controller with their Touch controllers due out sometime later this year (at a currently undisclosed price). However what really sets the HTC Vive apart from the Oculus is the inclusion of two Lighthouse tracking base stations which allow the Vive to do full body tracking in a 16m² space.
These two additions explain the price gap between the two headsets, however it also shows that there’s a floor price when it comes to VR headsets. I had honestly thought that both HTC’s and Sony’s offerings would come in at a cheaper price point than the Oculus however now I’m not so sure. Sony may be able to cut some corners due to the stable hardware platform they’ll be working with (the PS4) however I don’t think that will make it that much cheaper. Indeed looking at the current specs of the PlayStation VR shows that the only real difference at this point is the slightly lower screen resolution (although it does support 120hz, superior to the Oculus and Vive). With that in mind we’d be lucky to see it much, if at all, below the $599 price point that Oculus set last month.
So for Oculus debuting at the price point that they chose might not have been the disaster I first thought it would’ve been. Oculus might very well have developed the Model-T of VR that everyone was hoping for, it just ended up costing a lot more than we’d hoped it would. For many though I still feel like this will mean they’ll give the V1.0 VR products a miss, instead waiting for economies of scale to kick in or a new player to enter the market at a cheaper price point. This will hamper the adoption of VR, and by extension titles developed for VR, in the short term. However after a year or two there’s potential for newer models and the secondary market for used headsets to start ramping up, potentially opening up access to customers who had abstained previously.
For myself I think I’ll have to wait to be convinced that the investment in a VR headset will be worth it. I bought a Xbox just so I could play Mass Effect when it first came out and, should something of similar calibre find itself on any one of the VR platforms, I can see myself doing the same again. However right now the relatively high price point coupled with the lack of enticing titles or killer apps I’m not really willing to make such an investment in a V1.0 product. I, as always, remain willing to have my opinion changed and, by consequence, my wallet opened.
The Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign showed that there was a want for virtual reality to start making a comeback. However the other side of that equation, the ones who’d be delivering experiences through the VR platform, weren’t really prepared to capitalize on that. There are numerous reasons for this but mostly it comes down to consumer VR still being a nascent industry with the proper tooling still not there to make the experience seamless. Unfortunately it’s something of a chicken and egg problem: standards and tooling won’t fully emerge until there’s a critical mass of users and those users won’t appear until those standards are in place. This is why the high price of the Oculus Rift consumer model costs far more than its sticker price.
Many looked towards the Oculus Rift as the definitive VR headset, something which Oculus has obviously taken into account when designing it. Whilst I, as an early adopter of many pieces of technology, may appreciate the no-holds-barred approach for devices like this I know this limits broader appeal. Whilst this is sometimes a good strategy in order to get your production line stood up (ala Tesla when they produced the Roadster and then the Model S) the Oculus already had that in the previous two iterations of the dev kit. I think what many were expecting then was the Model T of VR headsets and what they got instead was a Rolls Royce Phantom.
However Oculus is no longer the only name in the game anymore with both the HTC VIVE PRE and the PlayStationVR headsets scheduled to come out in the first half of this year. Both of these are targetting at much more reasonable price point, although they admit that their headsets are not as premium as the Oculus Rift is. Whilst Oculus’ preorders may have surpassed their expectations I still feel that they alienated a good chunk of their market going for the price point that they did. For those who balked at the Oculus’ price the other two headsets could prove to be a viable alternative and that could spell trouble for Oculus.
Whilst Oculus won’t be going anywhere soon as a company (thanks entirely to the Facebook acquisition) they will likely struggle to cement their position as the market leader in the VR headset space. Indeed the higher price point, which according to Oculus is the bare minimum they can charge for it, won’t come down significantly until economies of scale kick in. Lower sales volumes means that takes much longer to come into effect and, potentially, HTC and Sony could be well on their way to mass produced headsets that are a fraction the cost of the Oculus.
In the end it comes down to which of the headsets provide a “good enough” experience for the most attractive price. There will always be a market for a premium version of a product however it’s rare that those models are the ones most frequently purchased. Oculus’ current price point puts it out of the reach of many, a gap which HTC and Sony will rush into fill in no short order. The next year will then become a heated battle for who takes the VR crown, showing which product strategy was the right one. For now my money is on the cheaper end of the spectrum and I’m waiting to be proved wrong.
Nokia was once the king of the phones that everyone wanted. For many it was because they made a solid handset that did what it needed to do: make calls and send text messages. Their demise came at their inability to adapt to the rapid pace of innovation that was spurred on by Apple and Google, their offerings in the smartphone space coming too late, their customers leaving for greener pastures. The result was that their handset manufacturing capability was offloaded to Microsoft but a small part of Nokia remained independent, one that held all the patents and their research and development arm. It seems that that part of Nokia is looking to take it in crazy new directions with their first product being the Ozo, a 360 degree virtual reality video camera.
Whilst Nokia isn’t flooding the newswaves with details just yet we do know that the Ozo is a small spherical device that incorporates 8 cameras and microphones that are able to capture video and sound from any angle. It’s most certainly not the first camera of its kind with numerous competitors already having products available in this space but it is most certainly one of the better looking offerings out there. As for how it’d fare against its competition that’s something we’ll have to wait to see as the first peek at the Ozo video is slated to come out just over a week from now.
At the same time Nokia has taken to the Tongal platform, a website that allows brands like Nokia to coax filmmakers into doing stuff for them, to garner proposals for videos that will demonstrate the “awesomeness” of the Ozo platform. To entice people to participate there’s a total of $42,000 and free Ozo cameras up for grabs for two lucky filmmakers, something which is sure to attract a few to the platform. Whether that’s enough to make them the platform of choice for VR filmmakers though is another question, one I’m not entirely sure that Nokia will like the answer to.
You see whilst VR video has taken off of late due to YouTube’s support of the technology it’s really just a curiosity at this point. The current technology strictly prohibits it from making its way into cinemas, due to the fact that you’d need to strap an Oculus Rift or equivalent to your head to experience it. Thus it’s currently limited in appeal to tech demos, 3D renderings and a smattering of indie things. Thus the market for such a device seems pretty small, especially when you consider there’s already a few players selling their products in this space. So whilst Nokia’s latest device may be a refreshing change for the once king of phones I’m not sure it’ll become much more than a hobby for the company.
Maybe that’s all Nokia is looking for here, throwing a wild idea out to the public to see what they’d make of it. Nokia wasn’t exactly known for its innovation once the smartphone revolution began but perhaps they’re looking to change that perception with the Ozo. I’m not entirely convinced it will work out for them, anyone can throw together a slick website with great press shots, but the reaction from the wider press seems to indicate that they’re excited about the potential this might bring.
It’s strange to think that just over 2 years ago that the idea of VR headsets was still something of a gimmick that was unlikely to take off. Then enter the Oculus Rift Kickstarter which managed to grab almost 10 times the funds it asked for and revamped an industry that really hadn’t seen much action since the late 90s. Whilst consumer level units are still a ways off it’s still shaping up to be an industry with robust competition with numerous competitors vying for the top spot. The latest of which comes to us via HTC who’ve partnered with Valve to deliver their Steam VR platform.
Valve partnering with another company for the hardware isn’t surprising as they let go a number of personnel in their hardware section not too long ago although their choice of partner is quite interesting. Most of the other consumer electronics giants have already made a play into the VR game: Samsung with Gear VR, Sony with Project Morpheus and Google with their (admittedly limited) Cardboard. So whilst I wouldn’t say that we’ve been waiting for HTC to release something it’s definitely not unexpected that they’d eventually make a play for this space. The fact that they’ve managed to partner with Valve, who already has major buy in with nearly all PC gamers thanks to Steam, is definitely a win for them and judging by the hardware it seems like Valve is pretty happy with the partnership too.
The HTC/Valve VR headset has been dubbed the Re Vive and looks pretty similar to the prototypes of the Oculus DK2. The specs are pretty interesting with it sporting 2, 1200 x 1080 screens which are capable of a 90hz refresh rate, well above what your standard computer monitor is capable of. The front is also littered with numerous sensors including your standard gyroscopes, accelerometers and a laser position tracker which all combine together to provide head tracking to 1/10th of a degree. There’s also additional Steam VR base stations which can provide full body tracking as well, allowing you to get up and move around in your environment.
There’s also been rumblings of additional “controllers’ that come with the headset although I’ve been unable to find any pictures of them or details on how they work. Supposedly they work to track your hand motions so you can interact with objects within the environment. Taking a wild guess here I think they might be based off something like the MYO as other solutions limit you to small spaces in order to do hand tracking properly whilst the MYO seems to fit more inline with the Re Vive’s idea of full movement tracking within a larger environment. I’ll be interested to see what their actual solution for this is as it has the potential to set Valve and HTC apart from everyone else who’s still yet to come up with a solution.
Suffice to say this piece of HTC kit has seen quite a bit of development work thrown into it, more than I think anyone had expected when this announcement was first made. It’ll be hard to judge the platform before anyone can get their hands on it as with all things VR you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you give it a go. The pressure really is now on to be the first to market a consumer level solution that works seamlessly with games that support VR as all these prototypes and dev kits are great but we’re still lacking that one implementation that really sells the idea. HTC and Valve are well positioned to do that but so is nearly everyone else.