Developer: Numinous Games
Release Date: December 22, 2016
Genre: Adventure, Narrative
Game Modes: Single
Control: Daydream controller
Okay, so I’m a little late to the party with this one, but this is far from the last we’ll be seeing of this quirky title. Untethered is an episodic narrative that combines comic books and radio drama, and mixes in a surprising amount of interactivity. It’s created by the same team that released last year’s soul-crushing-yet-amazing game That Dragon, Cancer, which told the heartbreaking true story of the developers’ son’s battle with brain cancer. This review is focused on the first episode of Untethered, with the second one due out this spring.
Untethered drops you in the role of Taylor, a night-time radio DJ in a small town on the west-coast of the US. Surrounded by a turn-table, microphone, and recording equipment, your producer directs you to kick-off the show by reading from the script. As you play songs and take calls, the story begins to unfold around you. Callers that, at first, appear to be wacky comic relief become more… significant. Your producer, first passed off as jaded and surly, shows a very human and vulnerable side. Over the course of the episode the environment, characters, and story develop a substantial depth that makes it more immersive than just about everything else available on Google Daydream. This is amplified by the many times you’re asked to actually speak to the game, whether you’re answering the phone or recording an emergency broadcast message.
And the game is actually listening to you. Untethered uses your phone’s microphone and voice recognition algorithms to detect what you’re saying, and compares it to the script. There’s no artificial intelligence trying to have a conversation, but the clever use of phrase detection and voice acting clips produces a convincing back and forth dialog that really draws you into the scene. If you read the lines exactly, you’re praised for your voice talent. If you improvise, you’re chastised for being a morning show shock-jock. It’s pretty cool.
And then there’s the environment. I’ll get to the graphics and sound later, but one of the things that amazed me was just how interactive the environment is. Essentially everything in the room can be picked up, examined, and often used for something. The obvious stuff is the recording equipment, buttons to play news/advertisements, and the turn table that can be used to play any of the vinyl records lying around the booth. But then there’s all the stuff that’s not directly tied to the main narrative that really brings the world to life. The board behind you has loads of notes, and some tickets to a band that nobody seems to like. The dart board, which serves no story purpose, is completely functional and extremely well implemented, especially considering the limits of the Daydream control scheme.
It’s all that stuff together that gave me that “wow” feeling again. The gaze-shooters and infinite runners and jump scares in other mobile VR games are all great, but this is truly an experience. And it has me eagerly awaiting the next episode.
The controls in Untethered are functional and intuitive, if just a little awkward at times. You’re either sitting in a swivel chair or standing, and you’ll need to turn 360 degrees, which works just fine. The Daydream controller is presented in game in it’s normal pointing configuration, but the increased angle on the pointer takes some getting used to if you’re coming directly from another Daydream game. The controls are actually fine with the very occasional occurrences of the controller moving into strange orientations, sometimes 90 degrees to how you’re actually holding it. Some of this is the normal Daydream drift, but luckily re-centering always solves the problem. Other than that it’s always quite easy to target, press, pickup, or examine exactly what you intend to, and it really brings you into the game world.
I don’t know if it’s the setting or the color scheme or the polygon count, but the graphics in Untethered remind me a little of Job Simulator and a little of Firewatch. All the models are relatively low on the polygons with solid color textures and flat shading, and they’re beautiful. The whole thing feels like you’re sitting in a comic book illustration, a feeling further enhanced by the speech and thought bubbles, as well as sounds that are accompanied by text representations. Most of the models can be picked up and examined, and paper notes can be pulled closer and are very easy to read. All item models are kept simple, but what’s there can usually be manipulated in some way. And I think that’s the magic here: the interactivity of the models makes them seem real in a way that photo-realistic rendering couldn’t achieve alone.
The sound design is a major highlight here. The voice acting and narration is all great, and you can feel the emotions of the characters. The static of the music on the turn table is wonderfully authentic, and it’s even cooler that you can control what music is being played. The game makes great use of 3D audio; the radio music isn’t just playing, it’s actually being projected through 2 speakers in the room, and you can sense the direction as you turn your head and change position. Ringing phones, lightning and banging are all convincing and well positioned, and really fill the small DJ booth with life. The commercials and news reports are humorous and entertaining, but what’s more is you’ll actually hear your own voice on air! The advertisements or segment lead-ins you record get added into the broadcast, and it just adds to the immersion to hear your own voice as part of the game. Not all the recordings are required to advance the story, and they don’t play if you don’t record them, but it’s another example of the fine attention to detail in this game.
Of course I can’t talk about the sound without mentioning the music. First, getting to play songs with a turn table is super cool. Second, some of these songs are really catchy. My personal favorites are “Rocket Tow Truck” and “Broken Artichoke Heart”, but they all fit the mood of the game and setting perfectly, and I believe they were recorded specifically for this game. Once more, wonderful execution and attention to detail.
Comfort & Immersion
So how comfortable is it? No complaints. This isn’t the type of game that should make you uncomfortable, and it doesn’t. Motion is all head controlled, so as long as you don’t stand up or bend over too many times, you shouldn’t feel sick at all.
I’ve mentioned it a few times already, and I’ll say it again: this might be the most immersive game on the Google Daydream, and possibly on mobile VR right now. It’s not just that the setting is highly amenable to mobile VR, that is, being confined to a swivel chair. It’s that nearly everything you see can be interacted with somehow. It drives home that you’re not just watching a video, you can actually reach out and touch this stuff, and it provides that sense of agency that many mobile VR games lack. Add to that the 3D audio, custom soundtrack, and voice recording, and you have a very convincing environment.
This is the part of the review where I summarize everything and give you a recommendation. Should you buy Untethered? Well, the short answer is “yes”. The long answer is “yeeeeeeesssssssss”. At $5 I think it’s great value, and the experience is quite unique, especially on mobile VR. One play-through is 30-45 minutes, and each subsequent play-through doesn’t have the same impact as the first, but you probably won’t pick up on all the details the first or second time anyway, so at least a few replays are warranted.
Untethered is a highly-detailed and polished VR experience, and it doesn’t rush you to move at it’s pace. Rather, it introduces you to a world, shows you a few cool things, and then sets you loose to progress the narrative as you like for the most part. And that’s what a great VR experience should do: give you a sense of freedom. Even in a tiny DJ booth, it’s packed with detail and you get a sense of presence and agency. This game is a fantastic example of a new form of storytelling; one that’s interactive and free, yet following a set narrative. It somehow manages to simultaneously make you feel very much a part of that story, without putting you on rails. The highest and most succinct praise I can think of is, simply: I want more.
- Highly-interactive environment
- Voice acting, music, and the ability to record your own commercials
- The story and characters are interesting and engaging
- Some stutter in the head-tracking as the game opens
- Relatively short play time
- Occasionally awkward controls