E3 2017: Hands-On With Playful’s Mysterious New Game — Star Child

by Ian Hamilton • June 15th, 2017
Star Child from Playful is a "cinematic platformer' coming to both PSVR and traditional screens.

Three years ago I rushed through the doors of the Los Angeles Convention Center when E3 opened and headed straight for the Oculus booth to try the latest Rift development kit. I met Paul Bettner, the CEO of Texas-based Playful Corp, and inside the Rift DK2 headset I met Lucky.

Lucky was an adorable fox waving at me from inside his virtual world. He was aware of my presence, and I worked like a guardian angel over his shoulder helping him navigate the path ahead. The colorful world ingeniously obscured the headset’s low resolution, and the camera system Playful developed allowed for smooth exploration of a place in which I never felt uncomfortable. To put it simply, when Lucky’s Tale released with the launch of the Oculus Rift last year it was a groundbreaking game that showed what was possible with the familiar platforming genre, known for characters like Mario and Sonic, but built from the ground up for a new medium.

Star Child is Playful’s next step. I rushed through the doors this week at E3 and headed straight for Sony’s booth to find it.

The game is directed by Kynan Pearson, who designed levels for the Metroid Prime games, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Halo 4 and 5 and others. According to his LinkedIn, Pearson also worked at Bluepoint Games for nearly three years — a company that just announced a remake of Shadow of the Colossus. He’s been at Playful since May of last year.

“The specific ‘staging’ techniques that Kynan and team have discovered to make a game in this genre (2.5-D side scrolling ‘cinematic platformer’) actually work wonderfully well in VR,” said Bettner. “It’s very similar to the process we went through to discover how to make 3D open world platforming work in VR… but now applied to the side-scrolling genre.”

Star Child is still very early and Playful is embracing mystery at this point in the game’s development. My hands-on time was a very brief section of the game that started on the surface of a planet with a ship landing in a bright desert-like environment.

The ship lands on a platform, which descends slowly down a long shaft into the world. There are bug-like mechanical creatures scurrying about and at the bottom, an adolescent female jumps out of the ship. I use the Dualshock 4 controller to move her into a tunnel to the right. I don’t know who she is, but she is bigger to me than Lucky was in his world, and she seems ready to brave whatever is inside here.

As I move her to the right into a cave, I notice it’s illuminated by what looks like alien plants, machinery and crystals. It’s hard to tell what is organic and alive and what is machine down here. There’s a vibe to the environment and creatures that feels a bit like a cross between James Cameron’s Avatar and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. If I move my head behind one of the crystals I can see the character distorted as if I was looking at an action figure through a glass cup on my table. Steam rises from below and firefly-like creatures fly around in swarms. A large mechanical creature way bigger than we are is watching with interest and I feel uneasy for the first time in this fantastic world. Should I be scared? I am just a little bit.

There seem to be control panels down here and when I approach them I’m prompted to press a button. When I do, control shifts to a kind of drone I can navigate to grab and hook up power lines. It seems like I’m powering something up.

Near the end of this short play through an enormous mech-like creature comes to life and its hand extends to block a more menacing creature and keep it away from my character. Then the giant reaches out and places its palm out, as if inviting her to stand on it like a scene out of Iron Giant. I do so and the demo ends with the Star Child logo.

The game moved on a left-right trajectory much more so than Lucky’s Tale ever did.

“My hope is that people will realize that here we have another genre that probably nobody realized would work really well in VR, but it does,” Bettner said. “If you think about how amazing a game like Inside or even Metroid could be in VR, I think this little teaser demo gives people a glimpse of that.”

The publisher, Game Trust, told me after my demo the game was also coming for traditional TV screens too. Overall, the whole world was alluring, with gorgeous visuals and enveloping sound, and I found the mystery of it enchanting enough to intrigue me and put this on a list of titles to watch for in the future.

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