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The Twilight Zone VR - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • 3 original Twilight Zone stories
  • One excellent narrative and ludic twist
  • Criticism of abusive work culture and crunch in video game industry
  • All gameplay is in service of the stories
  • Use of player voice recordings

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Other 2 twists are predictable
  • Purpose of recording player dialogue is too obvious
  • Shooting and stealth
  • Puzzles could be better
  • Outdated visuals
  • Narrator is hit-or-miss
  • Nitpick: Why are they called "chapters" instead of "episodes"?

Overall Impression : C-
Stories are well-conceived, but only adequately-executed.

The Twilight Zone VR - cover

Developer:
Pocket Money Games, Ltd.

Publisher:
Fun Train

Platforms:
PC (Meta Quest) (via Meta Store),
PlayStation 5 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
Quest: 14 July 2022 | PS5: 18 March 2024

Genre:
sci-fi, horror

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
2 hours

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen) for:
blood, violence

Official site:
www.funtrainvr.com/the-twilight-zone

I like the original The Twilight Zone TV show. I wouldn't call myself a huge mega fan or anything, but it's easily my second favorite show from the 60's. Heck, The Twilight Zone might even hold up better than the majority of original Star Trek episodes, and the show is probably more progressive too. For one thing, it isn't loaded with as much of the casual sexism and fetishization of women that keeps popping up in Star Trek.

In any case, the PSVR2 release of a Twilight Zone game kind of came out of nowhere. I saw a preview of it on my Google news feed on my phone the day before the game went on sale on PSN. Heck, the PSN didn't even have it listed as "coming soon". It didn't even show up in the store until it was released, and I immediately jumped on it and bought it.

The game is a small anthology of 3 short, original Twilight Zone stories with some contemporary themes. I was glad to see the game divided up into multiple chapters, and for these chapters to apparently be playable in any order (even though I opted to play them in order anyway). The Twilight Zone really works better as short stories like this, as the premises and twists rarely (if ever) hold up for longer stories. In fact, trying to pad some of its stories into an hour runtime or longer was one of the biggest problems with CBS and Jordan Peele's recent reboot.

You are about to enter The Twilight Zone.

As a tiny nitpick, I will say that I don't understand why Pocket Money chose to use the term "chapters" instead of "episodes"? The use of the word "chapter" implies a small section of a larger story, with that small section not being a story in itself; while the word "episode" would imply self-contained stories that may relate to or follow one another, but which have their own beginning, middle, and end that does not necessarily depend on the other episodes. Yes, all 3 chapters do refer to one another, and seem to take place in the same continuity, and one of them kind of acts as a prequel to another. Regardless of those connections, each chapter is a completely independent, self-contained story that does not at all rely on the events of the other chapters in order to understand what is happening. You can play these chapters in any order, or play any one of them without playing the others, and it wouldn't make any difference to the perception or interpretation of the stories. And in fact, the game is perfectly willing to let the player play them in any order.

Each of this game's chapters takes about 30 minutes to an hour to play, and the whole game should be playable in 2 hours (give or take). Any of the chapters may take longer depending on how many times you might have to repeat some of its more tedious stealth or shooting sections. So these little VR stories hit the sweet spot in terms of length, and they don't over-complicate their gameplay such that it distracts from the story being told. In terms of story-telling, Pocket Money Games puts up a really solid product here. The actual game, however, is a lot less solid.

The boundaries of imagination

I'm not sure if some of these outdoor locations are designed to look bad on purpose, since some of the indoor environments actually look pretty good. It's possible that the VR visuals are deliberately meant to evoke the low-budget set designs of the 60's TV show, in which it is often apparent that we are looking at a small soundstage set in front of a matte painting. But this illusion works a lot better on a 2-D screen framed by a competent cinematographer, than it does in an immersive 3-D environment upon which the audience frames the shot.

This game was originally developed for the Meta Quest 2 back in 2022, and it's yet another PSVR2 game that looks like a last-gen VR title. This leaves me wondering just how powerful and capable the PSVR2 is, and whether it's already past its prime. The aforementioned outdoor environments lack scale or depth, and don't sell the illusion of them being anything other than a small toy diorama. There's also a lot of low-quality texture work, and almost all the character models are just dark silhouettes. Some of it is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, but others look like they were place-holder assets that developers either forgot to replace, or ran out of time and money to replace.

The outdoor environments do not sell the illusion of being anything other than a confined diorama.

As for Rod Serling himself, we get voice-overs from an impersonator. Kiff VandenHeuvel is hit-or-miss in his impression of the iconic narrator. Sometimes he sounds convincing; other times, he sounds nothing like Rod Serling. He's definitely not as good as the Leonard Nimoy sound-a-like who Dramatic Labs found to portray Spock in Star Trek: Resurgence. We also only ever see the narrator in an awkwardly-animated silhouette, so we don't get Serling's trademark smirk either. Thankfully, we also avoid the second-hand cigarette smoke that I could practically smell through the TV screen.

I would think that if this game were made today, it would probably include a digital recreation of Serling with voice-over from an A.I., but those tools weren't readily available 2 or 3 years ago when this game was in development.

But I'm not here for the graphics, or for ultra-realistic VR worlds, or even for a digital Rod Serling. I'm here for the Twilight Zone stories, and this is where Pocket Money Games fares much better.

The video game industry crosses over into The Twilight Zone

Each of the 3 chapters utilizes a different gameplay mechanic, which helps things feel fresh, and allows different types of stories with different types of concepts and twists to be told. They cover topics such as toxic workplaces, climate change, science gone amok, judging a book by its cover, and so forth. And the environments range from mundane offices, to post-apocalyptic city-scapes, uncanny suburban houses, and even alien spaceships. They do feel very much like the kinds of stories that Rod Serling would be telling, if he were alive today and still producing Twilight Zone reboots.

The first chapter is probably the most interesting concept of the 3, as it uniquely utilizes the video game medium to tell its Twilight Zone tale. This chapter literally pulls the player into its story (beyond simply requiring your participation), and it turns you into a character. It does this by using the microphone to record some audio dialogue from you before the game starts, and then asking you to create an avatar for yourself. It then puts that avatar into the game, and has it use the dialogue it recorded from you for its own dialogue. It's a brilliant use of the technology, which I'm surprised hasn't been done a lot more video games.

Unfortunately, the developers of The Twilight Zone VR weren't particularly clever about trying to hide the twist of what this dialogue will be used for in the actual game. The game tries to tell the player that the dialogue recording will be used for calibration of voice commands, but I don't think it will be fooling anybody. Anybody who's played the type of game that this chapter will be emulating will probably immediately recognize what these dialogue barks will be used for.

I don't think anybody is going to be fooled about what these voice "commands" will actually be used for.

Hypothetically, Pocket Money Games could have created a system by which the game asks the player to record some other, more innocent dialogue lines. It could then use voice-recognition algorithms or possibly some kind of generative A.I. to rearrange the words that the player spoke into the dialogue barks that actually end up being used in-game. It would also help to sell the fake-out by actually having the player use 1 or 2 of the dialogue lines as an actual voice command, before throwing the twist at us.

Of course, this game originally released for the Meta Quest back in 2022, and generative A.I. wasn't really a thing quite yet. Algorithms for transforming the player's dialogue like this were probably too complicated for the scope and budget of this game. Any sort of cloud-based speech-recognition would likely require an internet connection to an expensive cloud computing resource, which would also limit the lifespan of the game (or at least the first chapter) to how ever long the publisher is willing to keep those cloud services online. So I understand why a low-budget game like this wouldn't be able to employ difficult and expensive speech-altering tech.

This chapter is also explicitly about the video game industry, and is critical of the abusive corporate work culture of video game development, which often relies on "crunch" to release games on time. It is specifically about a wrongfully-terminated employee who sends his toxic former boss to the Twilight Zone for revenge. The episode makes references to other employee's complaints, including being forced to work excessive overtime (including having to work holidays), being denied paid vacation or sick days, having certain medical procedures rejected by the company's insurance, being forced to throw away work and start again (without having deadlines or milestones pushed back to accommodate), being forced to come into the office while the higher-ups can work remotely, having their boss leering over their shoulders to the point that it makes them uncomfortable, and so forth. I don't recall any specific references to sexual harassment or anything quite that extreme (and by "extreme", I mean "routine for the likes of Ubisoft or Activision"), but it's possible that I simply missed such notes or clues.

The first chapter is about a wrongfully-terminated employee taking revenge on his toxic former boss.

In any case, I sincerely hope that none of what's depicted in this chapter of the game reflects the working conditions for the development of this game (or any of Pocket Money's other projects). One would hope that the managers and executives would be self-aware enough to not commit the very same crimes against their employees that they are criticizing in their game. But then again, Ubisoft did release Assassin's Creed: Black Flag (and are rumored to be releasing it again!), and corporate executives are notoriously oblivious and out-of-touch, so who knows ...?

Pit of fears and summit of knowledge

While the first chapter is the strongest (mechanically, conceptually, and thematically), the other 2 chapters vary considerably in both their gameplay quality and writing quality.

The 2nd chapter is a first-person shooter through a post-apocalyptic wasteland of London. The player is looking for his missing daughter, who has wandered out of the security of the bunker and into the toxic wasteland -- without any protective clothing or equipment, to boot. The player must explore the awful-looking wasteland of London, and shoot at monstrous bugs that pop out of the ground and kill you if they get close to you. Your weapon is a little pea-shooter gun that apparently has unlimited ammunition (I guess the character keeps reloading it with rocks or pebbles whenever the player isn't looking?). The catch is that the gun has a very short range, and must be pumped with a hand crank after 3 shots.

Chapter 2 is the most action-driven.

The concept is solid. Walking around in a hazmat suit and filtered mask with this little pebble-shooter almost reminded me of what a Robocop VR game might feel like. (I recently bought a discount copy of the Robocop FPS from last year, so I'll be playing and reviewing that later.) The pacing is slow and plodding, and the process of dispatching the enemies becomes very mechanical and robotic. The limited range of the gun means I have to wait until the monsters are relatively close before shooting. But at that range, I better be deadly-accurate, since a miss will likely mean I don't have time for a second shot (especially if I didn't crank the gun to give me all 3 of my shots before the monster popped out).

But this chapter is also very rote and dull. The monsters rarely feel threatening. Their appearances are easily predictable and accompanied by loud sounds. The only times I died, it was usually because the game didn't register me trying to grab the gun from my hip -- probably because I was playing sitting down, which completely messed with the placement of the holstered gun.

Narratively, I felt like this was the weakest chapter. The twist is apparently supposed to be on 2 levels. The first one, I predicted as soon as the chapter started, and the second one felt kind of inconsequential and poorly set-up. I'm also not clear about what the lesson of this chapter is supposed to be. Usually, Twilight Zone stories have some kind of poetic irony that teaches some progressive moral lesson or warning. Lessons about accepting people who are different, about not letting our fear or hate get the better of us, about not jumping to premature conclusions, about not being greedy or lustful, about being careful how we use miraculous technologies, and (of course) being careful what you wish for, and so forth. But unless I completely missed some piece of crucial information that explains what the protagonists' supposed "mistake" was (other than that some people told him not to do it), I don't really get what the poetic irony is supposed to be. I barely even see regular irony here -- let alone anything poetic about it.

Chapter 3 features a satisfying ludic and narrative twist,
which I did not see coming at all.

The 3rd chapter, however, has (in my opinion) the best narrative twist of the group, and the one that completely blind-sided me. This chapter is about a science fiction writer who is abducted by aliens while trying to resolve his own writer's block. Sounds as much like the setup to a Stephen King novel as a Twilight Zone episode. The gameplay unfortunately doesn't hold up as well on a technical standpoint. It's half Layers of Fear and then half stealth game. Neither of which plays particularly well. But I feel that chapter 3's ludic genre combinations probably do the best of the 3 at priming the player for the inevitable narrative twist. This twist is a clever subversion of typical alien abduction stories, of the escape-room gameplay, and also part of human nature (and especially American nature), while paying homage to one of the series best and most well-known episodes.

Shadow and substance

In the end, I got 2 decent Twilight Zone stories and 1 dud. None of these stories hold a candle to the classics like "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street", "Eye of the Beholder", "Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up", or "Time Enough At Last" (even though it does have references to some of those episodes, and others), but they are serviceable. And there are certainly worse episodes of the show -- I'm looking at you, Mr. Dingle! The $20 asking price may seem a bit steep, especially since it's unlikely that I'll replay these, but it is worth the 2 hour investment. Despite the lack of production quality, underdeveloped mechanics, and some frustration with the gameplay in chapters 2 and 3, I did enjoy most of the game.

Imagine, if you will, the developers at Pocket Money genuinely doing their best to realize the creative concepts that they came up with. Sadly, the technology simply wasn't there at the time (even though it's only 2 years old). If this game were being made today, with a higher budget and access to A.I. computing services to really push that first chapter's concept to its full potential, then this might be an innovative horror gaming classic on par with the likes of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Amnesia. Instead, we end up with a collection of stories that are only about as good as any mediocre episode of The Twilight Zone.

There are plenty of easter eggs for classic Twilight Zone episodes.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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