I recently purchased a Sony PS4 VR headset for my archaeogaming research (thanks to a mini-grant from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology) and have been learning how to use it. The headset’s bundle comes with two disks, one with a demo of a dozen VR games, and Sony VR Worlds, which contains five complete (and short) VR games. As an archaeologist I was delighted initially that one of the full games featured archaeological content. And then I played it. This is the brief story of Scavenger’s Odyssey.
In Scavenger’s Odyssey you play a gender-neutral “scavenger”, a non-human entity who picks over space junk to find things to sell to wholesalers (this is told to you; you don’t actually scavenge anything). In the single adventure your AI companion (think of it as a humorless GLaDOS) tasks you with finding and looting an artifact that has been detected inside a space-monolith. The AI informs you that dealers have already lined up to bid on the looted artifact, whatever it might be. As a player, you have no choice but to comply if you want to play the game. There is no free exploration mode or even the chance to defect to the other side to protect the artifact instead of stealing it. But I get ahead of myself.
Situated in your scavenger-spacecraft, the AI guides you through a number of 360º jumping puzzles as you pick your way across a field of space debris. Along the way you encounter space-eggs that release space-mites protected by space-mite-parents most of which you have to destroy with your laser cannons. Playing pacifist is not an option.
As you progress across each of the six short chapters, you begin to experience interference from another entity speaking from the monolith. The entity gives you keys that ultimately grant you access to the monolith while trying to talk you out of looting the artifact within. The entity calls you “pilgrim” and speaks of a prophecy, telling you that you are more than just a scavenger, and that if you activate the artifact, something good will happen.
After surviving a boss fight featuring a giant space-earwhig (which the entity tells you not to kill, and then caves to your AI’s demands to blow it up…), the artifact appears. You activate it with the keys you’ve earned. Upon activation, the hole inside the monolith becomes charged with some kind of plasma.
While the monolith charges up, the entity overrides (finally) the increasingly unhinged AI to tell you that the artifact will allow the pilgrim (you) to fulfill the prophecy of building a bridge between universes so that the entity’s universe can come in and extinguish the universe you occupy.
You are then sucked into the plasma ball. The screen goes white. The entity says that you’re being redirected somewhere because the entity’s enemies have found her (and you). THE END.
Okay. What just happened? I realize that Sony VR Worlds was created to show players the potential of VR gaming, and to ease them in to virtual reality. I was fine playing games with gravity. The deep-sea dive in a cage was fine, and the street luge game was fun. My brain understands that up is up and down is down. But in space, all I wanted to do was vomit. Scavenger’s Odyssey‘s jumping puzzles made me feel disoriented as I leapt from one piece of space junk to the next, and I ended up playing the game in four, 10-minute shifts over the course of four days in order to regain my equilibrium. But I had to finish because, you know, archaeogaming.
The game is full of textbook archaeology-adventure tropes. First, you’re a looter, and you answer to someone above you who has connections to a market filled with artifact-dealers. You have to fight in order to find the artifact. The artifact is “magic” and unleashes some kind of energy when activated. That energy could be good or evil, and ultimately lends itself to a destructive force. You never learn about the underlying culture. There is no context. Somehow you’re the “chosen one.” In all my years of being an archaeologist, I have never (nor have I known anyone who has) found a magical artifact, unleashed ultimate evil, or felt “chosen” (unless you count being assigned by a trench supervisor to pull out tree stumps).
As with other games, Scavenger’s Odyssey uses the artifact-quest as a simple mechanic to advance the narrative, what little narrative there is. The player has to have a reason to be there in that environment, in that situation, and an alien artifact is a very easy way to bring the player on a journey. Unfortunately for a game set in a 360º VR universe of endless possibility, you get stuck with a one-dimensional adventure that’s not really fun to play and, for the reasons mentioned above, made me want to puke.
Developers, you can do better than this. I *WAS* looking forward to the VR port of Fallout 4, which is rumored to be happening, but seems to be restricted to the HTC Vive headset. And there will be other games to play in the future that will likely do a better job at archaeology than Scavenger’s Odyssey. In the meantime, I will try to train my brain to operate in the freespace that is VR. But for now, pass me the ginger and a copy of Tomb Raider for PC.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming