A GEARVR NEWS “VR JAM” RETRO REVIEW
“SMALL” was a VR JAM game made (by Kieran Lord & Elliot Lewis of Cratesmith) for GearVR that takes you on one large adventure with an epic sense of scale. You are extremely … small. In fact, that’s even your name: you play as “Yolanda Small,” a 3.5-inch pixie-sized creature living in a home with humans who are blissfully unaware of your existence. You are so small that your torch is … a single wooden match.
All the usual objects are 10 times larger than they normally are, and the game uses a perspective trick with the 3D to make it all look and feel larger even still. You run along book-shelf ledges and through narrow gaps in the aging walls of this lovely cottage-style manor solving puzzles in order to get further through the house.
You have to figure out how to progress through a clever combination of stealth and timing. Later in the adventure, you will fashion a grappling hook together out of a pen, some string, and a few paper clips. This then opens the door to scaling terrain of differing elevations without requiring a jump dynamic. This was done on purpose, as the 2-man team discovered that this helped to greatly reduce or even eliminate motion sickness.
The graphics are fantastic to say the least. Even standard books at this scale look menacingly large, and are in the beginning often used as ramps that you must climb to reach the higher areas. The environments remind one of some English cottage in the forest, and a kind of fog effect is used to add various color hues and atmosphere to the rooms and make the far walls seem further away through reduced visibility.
The use of lanterns and candles that are bigger than you, as well as the size of all the objects and their relative placement, portrays to your brain a definite sense of diminutive scale that shocks the mind. The only other GearVR game to claim this sense of scale was Polo (another GearVR Jam Title I already reviewed here if you’re interested), and apparently this game uses a lot of the same assets, which explains why I liked this game’s graphics as much as Polo’s. Both games have truly stunning backgrounds.
I found myself marveling at the way it felt being reduced down to a mere 3.5 inches tall. I would start a room at the bottom and after a lot of hard work scaling the bookshelves, finally find myself at the top feeling like I’d just climbed a mountain. If I were human size, I would have just stood up and been there instantly, but at this minuscule size, everything takes a lot more time to figure out. A simple room becomes a great chasm, requiring hours of exploration to reach the far side or the top. And the VR JAM demo, which debuted exactly a year ago last week, came with at least 3 hours of adventure for free!
Rats and insects will kill you if they see you, if they can catch you, so you have to learn their patterns and try to make a break for it when they aren’t looking. At this scale, they are terrifying creatures. But just ask my mom, she says even at regular scale they’re still terrifying creatures! There is no combat in this game, it’s all based on stealth and evasion, and running for your life. It’s simple, if they see you, they will chase you, and if they catch you, then you die.
There is a small jump ability if you run toward an edge, but the main mechanic seems to be using the grappling hook. Once you finally obtain it after an hour of exploration to reach it, you will rely on it pretty much for everything after that. You don’t have any sense of swinging out or anything, when you grapple something, you just pretty much are shot into the next spot without any intervening motion. This is to keep motion sickness at a minimum. But I feel it reduces the fear level (and thus reduces the sense of adventure) I believe the grappling hook element could bring. And thus cheapens the sense of adventure, even if only a little.
The VR JAM game “Finding” (the original one, not the changed one they released in the Oculus Home Store called “FindingVR” (which was sadly turned into a standard platformer)) made grappling hooks insanely cool because of the intense feeling of motion and fear of falling the grappling hook dynamic served in Finding, making it so compelling. Motion sickness or not, that fear created a much more exciting adventure in Finding than in “SMALL” … which means the grappling hook aspect of SMALL doesn’t play as big of a role in the game as I believe it could. It’s almost as if it’s just a teleporter, moving you from spot A to spot B. If it wasn’t for the over-blown (but very cool) animation sequence that comes from firing it, I think it would not be as interesting as it is. But the animation sequence does make it really fun to fire off.
a… SMALL NOTICE:
My copy of SMALL didn’t actually work right for my S6 and Innovator Edition that I installed it on back in early 2015. It played for the most part, but one eye would flicker horribly and often ruin the sense of 3d Depth and immersion. But there were times when everything worked okay for a few moments, and I remember the game had a deep sense of depth and amazing scale that made it incredibly unique for GearVR.
Now, with all the updates to Marshmallow Android and GearVR’s software platform, SMALL no longer runs on my phone at all. I was really eager to load it up again and give it a run through one more time before writing this review, but sadly I could not. I had to write everything from memory, so if you find a mistake about the game’s dynamics or rules, don’t judge me too harshly. I’ve done the best I could from memory and the one “small” YT video that plays on the VR JAM page located here.
There are a few ideas I feel would have helped with the sense of danger and excitement in this title:
- Human Shadows – I feel that if we are in a house with real humans, why don’t they move around from time to time, instilling a sense of dread? For example, since there are many open doors in the house, why not have the shadow of a huge man streak across the floor and splay out on the wall, draping over you as you sneak along? Maybe this would cause the rats and other bugs to speed up and go sort of crazy with fear themselves and, for just a moment, let all “small” things band together and forgive old grievances? This would allow some parts of the game to only be solved when a human wanders down the hallway. Perhaps the footsteps seem louder to our distorted point of view? We aren’t giants, though, I am not saying books should fall off the shelves or anything, but maybe from our POV, the sound would feel different anyway? Scarier? Make the humans moving around in the house part of the game’s dynamic, and add more fear situations into the game. I am not saying the humans should ever become visible… only their shadows coming from rooms we can’t see ever betray their presence. Or when they’re talking in a nearby room, muffled, darkly.
- Grappling Hook Swinging – Add a tiny bit more drama into every leap by having the user swing out a bit more, show our feet swing up and balance our bodies as we land on the ledge. The sequences are 1-2 seconds at most, but add a bit of excitement and drama to the adventure elements. They can be turned off in the Options Menu.
- Gnats, Flies, Dragonflies – For being in the country cottage environment, there should be more creepy crawlies. What these would do is, at first, just buzz over you, or buzz around you, scaring you. But later, after you get the grappling hook, they can pick you up and drop you off the ledges and shelves from high up. You then have a half second to look around, find a grappling hook location, and hook it, allowing you to return to your perch of safety. Insects like ants and such don’t like pepper, so maybe along the way, we can find some sprinkled on the counter where no one has cleaned up in a while (kitchen counters). They are of course pretty large, but anyway, we can hold 1-2 grains and if a bug approaches us, we can drop one nearby and they won’t pick us up and throw us off anymore, they just leave us alone after looking seriously miffed at the pepper. At this scale, maybe pepper emits waves of fiery aroma which covers a pretty decent area of effect. We actually see the attacking bug shake its head, overcome with the pepper. We are not a bug, so it does nothing to us.
- Rat Traps – We are smaller than rats but we have to negotiate spaces with the same traps. Mice are faster than we are. If we get too close to the trap, it springs. And the sound waves alone are enough to knock us out, meaning we pitch forward over the ledge to our death. So we have to trigger the traps from a distance using our grappling hook. When we trigger it, it cracks loud even from a distance, and our vision diminishes to a blacker version for 10-20 seconds. It’s not that it’s very hard to get around, it’s that it creates disturbing imagery and horrid sound effects that make triggering them frightening and stressful. Things like small grains of rice can become weapons that shoot out at us. If we don’t first clear the grains out of the path of the trap’s sound wave, we could also get killed by them.
What really happened to this game? Why hasn’t it come out for real on the Oculus Home Store already? Why have so many of the coolest VR JAM apps made for GearVR been abandoned by their creators despite enormous praise and adulation by adoring fans who think many of these now “old” experiences beat almost anything out in the Store so far? They’ve had plenty of time to finish the game, it’s been one full year since the VR JAM was completed. Did their faction break apart? Did they run out of money? Did they get other jobs? Even if this game isn’t ever going to be completed, couldn’t they at least update it to work with the latest version of S6, S7, Note 5, and release it as a “Concept” for everyone to enjoy the 3 hours of this unique experience which already exists?
SMALL is a game that had truly deserved to see a full release on the Home Store. The fact that it is either abandoned, or still in development with no word from its creators to let us know it’s still alive and kicking, makes me feel the GearVR community has truly lost out on amazing experience that could have set the bar higher for all the new games coming out today. That would been a really good thing for us all … in addition to getting to play an incredible game with a whole lot new to offer.
SMALL is a title that is the sum of one large idea: that VR was made for new experiences we’ve never had before. And this is one game that encapsulated the full expression of that idea in a huge way. That’s what helps it so remain so big in my mind even to this day. And the fact that it has become a long-lost gem continues to trouble me.
Categories: Retro Reviews