Virtual reality has been fluctuating in popularity with mainstream gamers & the general public for years as the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR & mobile phones struggle to gain broad adoption as the future of interactive entertainment.For all of the innovations in recent years, there are a lot of challenges between hardware cost for the premium versions, lack of killer software & the persistence of disorientation for some users.
That said, it offers a compelling way to experience new things in a safe, controlled environment that may otherwise be inaccessible for many users. Virtual reality for seniors matters because it allows a large, underserved audience to participate in a broad range of experiences from gaming to travel at high fidelity. Microsoft is a leader in performing usability studies, discovery, socialization & building products that address the desires of seniors to explore this technology.
As a mainstream gamer, I find it fascinating that games which have declined in popularity due to age & lack of visual fidelity such as Wii bowling continue to be hits with seniors; it is a stark reminder that different things matter to different audiences. Games that allow seniors to learn, interact & explore with others are still valued as traditional gamers have moved on to newer, trendier games in a non-stop release cycle.
Another interesting observation is that virtual reality can have comparable health benefits to regular low impact exercise & social interaction. The ability for digital experiences to detect early cognitive and/or visual impairment, provide training, train new motor skills, help with dementia & distract from pain are impressive benefits that I hope facilities such as senior homes & treatment centres will pay close attention to.
One of the beautiful things about digital technology is that it is an equalizer: the barrier to entry, learning curve & potential benefits combine into the most transformative change in the last century of human society. It’s important that people of all ages are included & valued in that journey as virtual reality or other technologies continue innovating into the future.
This review is based on the Playstation 4 version of The Gardens Between.
As I get older, I have an increasing appreciation for games that start with a simple premise & gradually ease you into more complex gameplay elements without becoming a stat management exercise. There is a particular type of joy that comes from getting better at key moments where the designer has inserted a carefully crafted scenario to teach you something new, gives you a few chances to figure it out & then continues to layer upon each previous skill with a new addition and/or a different wrinkle to what was shown before.
The Gardens Between is an game that captures this type of experience in a beautiful package. Created by Australian developer The Voxel Agents, it combines the time control hook of Braid with the visual style of Oxenfree for a compelling puzzle solving adventure.
You play as Arina & Frendt, a pair of friends who have different abilities such as carrying a lantern or toggling switches on each level. Their journey takes them through an increasingly elaborate series of levels composed of circular spires, heading up towards a peak that requires a lit lantern to open the gate to advance. Each collection of these levels is succeeded by a brief intermission with our protagonists captured in a memory, highlighted with elements that vibrate slightly to draw your attention to unveil complementary animations. It feels like a classic adventure game on CD-ROM that tells a story through inference rather than interaction, a balance of hands-on with hands-off that doesn’t always work but succeeds here.
Each visual detail has a confidence of design that makes The Gardens Between stand out visually in a memorable way. The levels & characters are rendered in a cell shaded style that also shows deliberate touches with the depth of perception, layered animations & a continually shifting perspective that really stands out. The delicate, soothing soundtrack & gentle sound effects accentuate the beautiful levels as you puzzle out the right combination of lantern placement, light capture & switching to continue the journey.
The Gardens Between is a thoughtful, carefully crafted adventure that ends after a few hours but stays bubbling on the edge of your brain for days to come. It has a confident vision that makes me excited for future projects by The Voxel Agents; its combination of visual style, aural nuance & interactive patterns make it a really fun way to spend moody afternoon or stormy night.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This review is based on the iOS and Playstation 4 versions of Donut County.
The best things in life are generally simple: taking a walk in nice weather, enjoying your lunch or sleeping in on a long weekend. For casual games, the same principle applies as titles like the Katamari series, Tetris & Puyo Puyo have become staples of accessible gaming for all ages.
Donut County excels at delivering quick hits of fun with a really simple premise: you have a hole on the ground: the more that falls in, the larger it gets & the more items you can drop in. Not since Katamari has a game captured the visual delight of snatching up increasingly large items from a stray brick to an enormous house in the span of a few minutes while bouncing around cheerfully bright worlds.
Building on a concept that came up during a game jam, developer Ben Esposito has created an easy to grasp & not that much harder to master game: the difficulty curve doesn’t scale up as it does with other puzzle games. Officially described as “A story-filled physics puzzle game where you play as a hole in the ground”, Donut County is a linear experience that pair small game worlds with rapidly changing environments to tell the tale of a town under siege by a raccoon squad bent on collecting the world’s trash. The occasional cameo of high powered drones or urban gridlock pop up in & around an Animal Crossing-esque town that you’re tasked with saving using the power of gravity + an increasingly active hole…!
The audio has a fun mix of smacking, plopping & whooshing sounds that fit tightly with the visual style. Background tracks are soothing melody loops while the character dialogue is full on Charlie Brown parental squawking that comes across as thematically appropriate.
The iOS version is as equally enjoyable as the PlayStation 4 version, the cartoon graphics still pop out of the screen & the quirky animations still engaging across different screen sizes. The only minor frustration on mobile is obscuring part of the screen as the hole is clicked & dragged around with my finger, but it’s a common challenge with mobile games; having a dedicated navigation point at a corner lacks the precision that some of the trickier puzzles require.
Donut County is a fun & distinctly styled game that deserves a place on everyone’s digital library. The complete experience is fairly short (I finished it on a short plane flight) but the levels are fun to revisit & filling out the complete Trashopedia provides a rich stack of quirky, pun filled descriptions to giggle over. The experience is equally fun in full HD on a console or the confines of a mobile screen, it’s worth checking out for gamers of all types.
Have a Garbage Day!
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars