Supermassive Games is back on the right track. Bravo Team might’ve been a misfire but Shattered State sees the Until Dawn developer return to its narrative roots with a satisfying degree of comfort. Interestingly, though, it simultaneously takes a step back from its gaming DNA in search of that wider audience that shares a common interest in VR. It’s a somewhat shaky but ultimately significant step in a new direction.
This is, in the studio’s words, a political thriller set in a fictional state that finds itself on the brink of civil war. You’re the head of an intelligence agency that must navigate the muddy waters of the day’s events, calling the shots as bombs explode and VIPs face assassination. In many ways it is a stripped back experience for Supermassive, though that’s not a bad thing. There’s no progress-hindering puzzles or exploration, no chance to ‘fail’ tasks or secrets to uncover. It lasts about 40 – 60 minutes and its branching path narrative isn’t as exhaustive or impactful as Until Dawn (though still admirably varied).
What there is instead is a clear grasp of why this experience needed to be in VR. Steely-eyed cast members stare you down as if aiming to pierce into your soul, awaiting your commands sometimes with a look of desperation, sometimes with a sense of threat. Supermassive conveys the weight of your responsibility by making you watch your decisions unfold in real-time through mission briefings and news bulletins along with, eventually, the judgment and approval of your peers. The short-form nature robs the consequences of the kind of guilt or nerve-shredding tension you might experience if, say, this was the end of one of the seasons of TV shows that so clearly played an influence, but it’s an effective and thoughtful tribute to their atmosphere all the same.
And Shattered State is all about atmosphere. It’s a theatrical experience, moreso than anything Supermassive has produced before. There’s a touch of well-oiled stagecraft to it; you feel as if you might find a stage crew hiding just behind a door swung open as a colleague marches in to protest at something mid-sentence, producing a kind of scene-setting that’s rarely seen in VR. It’s immediate and exciting, even if the overly-talky plot doesn’t always keep up.
Still, not all of the changes to the Supermassive formula work as well as you’d hope. Character interaction is limited to one of two choices you select from a menu, but I couldn’t help but wish there was a more personal way of addressing the piece’s cast to really hammer home the connection between ‘player’ and NPC. That’s no easy task and it may be beyond the current limitations of headsets, but restrictions in place here feel like a weight around the game’s ambitions. Even with the stern-faced plot explaining and darkly foreboding soundtrack booming it is a little too easy to lose your way and let your mind wander from time-to-time.
Ultimately, Shattered State might not have made an especially compelling TV show, but novel use of VR elevates it in meaningful, if not quite mastered ways. Supermassive has the potential to push VR development forward but, if it’s to do that, it needs to start leading and not imitating.
Final Say: Worth Watching
Shattered State is available now on Google Daydream.