by Augmentl, 21st April 2016
After a week with my Oculus Rift, having completed Adr1ft and spent hours in Lucky's Tale, Elite: Dangerous, Eve Valkyrie and a multitude of other titles, there is one Virtual Reality experience that, against all expectations, I feel regularly compelled to return to: Farlands, one of the least talked about free titles from the Oculus Rift's launch lineup.
Maybe it's partly because of its simplicity: After a hard day at work, I stand in the middle of the room with the Oculus Remote hanging from my wrist, don the Rift, and with a couple of clicks of a button jump into this gorgeous, colourful alien world.
The simple look-and-click interaction model mixed with the standing experience makes for a relaxing, low-impact, yet high engagement time. But there is more to Farlands than meets the eye. Continued interactions with the creatures you encounter builds trust, and trust is rewarded with new observable creature behaviours and other more material rewards I won't go into in order to avoid spoilers.
Farlands also does a great job of implying a sense of depth and complexity where, perhaps, there may be none: I don't actually know if visiting the planets at night yields different results, but I could swear that my after-dusk visits features the discovery of bugs, fish and observed behaviours I had not seen over many repeated visits during daytime.
Coincidence? Maybe. But it does nothing to take away from the sense of being David Attenborough on an alien planet, quietly and patiently waiting for the sun to set in order to observe the curious and endearing behaviours of Giffles, Wibwoms, Wisples and Kolerons in their natural environments.
For a game whose aesthetic and tone seem squarely targeted at a pre-teen audience (an odd choice for a launch title for a device not recommended for under 13's), Farlands somehow succeeds where more "adult" VR experiences fail: in leveraging the VR medium to instil a sense of whimsy and wonder while offering a space you actually want to spend time in.
Farlands' core game mechanic is centred around the building of experience points and rank (mostly acquired by interacting with the creatures and taking photos of new behaviours), and is specifically designed to keep the user coming back for the first week. Rank in fact unlocks new areas, interactions and mechanics that only become available the day after a certain rank is reached. There's even an underlying "story" thread, a mystery woven between the more mundane discoveries and daily interactions with the creatures.
These layered progressive disclosure mechanics all combine to help build a sense of anticipation. I genuinely look forward to going back to find out what that new toy or location I unlocked yesterday will look like. But that same mechanic is also limited by the small number of unlockable items and stages offered by the game, which add up to a little more than a week's worth of daily play. Farlands therefore hides within it a great opportunity for expansion, with add-on DLC packs with new items, new creatures and new worlds being the obvious choice.
If nothing else, Farlands is a showcase of how to create a visually stunning, relaxing, yet engaging experience with the simplest of control mechanics. Its simple use of a teleport mechanic and clever use of the Oculus Remote - a device otherwise relegated to use with video and photo applications - as the main point of interaction creates an unencumbered, approachable experience where most of the user's cognitive load is directed at observing and enjoying the surrounding environment, not in controlling it or navigating within it.
Farlands is a simple game that hints at greater depths, even is said depths may well rest as much in the player's mind as in the game designer's intentions. And that's ok. VR is, after all, the perfect medium to let our imagination run wild.