The shimmering worlds of Isaac Cohen

Blarp

One of the best experiences – possibly the best experience – I had at GDC this year was a half hour appointment playing through/with an anthology of Isaac Cohen’s VR work. Experiments, oddities, toolsets and experiences are where VR really sings for me and Cohen’s output is this brilliant combination of iridescent objects, digital playground and enticement to move around. Interactive picture book Delila’s Gift is what I was officially there to see but I’m so glad we had time to run through far more.

In the intervening days of travel and transcription the specifics of Cohen’s work have faded to leave general impressions. When I have a Vive in my possession again I’ll delve in and try to write more about the nuances, but the thing about Cohen’s work which struck me and stuck with me was how it seemed to truly delight in VR.

His Cabbibo studio logo appears ahead of each of the experiences but you see it as a 3D outline described by the way an opalescent foil blanket presses over it. The foil billows out behind and you have the impression of this shimmering, silk drapery.

The iridescence is something which repeated across most of the work I saw. Warka Flarka Flim Flam is a kind of ping pong ball keepy-uppy game where you use the controllers as table tennis bats and you bounce a small ball through hoops. The more hoops you guide it through the more balls accumulate attached to that initial one. These are to be avoided, as is losing the ball outside the play space. Well, unless you want to see what it does when it interacts with the environment.

A similar idea pops up in Blarp where you drag colourful blobs with your controller and try to fling them at target blobs. The more you successfully target, the more start following your controller. That’s not much of a problem, but the fact that this multi-ball cluster ricochets off the in-game walls and rushes back towards you from unexpected directions very much is. I was so surprised by one or two of the balls rushing towards my controller from some odd angle that I squeaked and jumped more than once.

L U N E

The shimmering fabric turned up again in a micro-game I can’t remember the name of (which is a hazard if you call your games things like Warka Flarka Flim Flam and Blarp). In this one you used the controller to reposition these digital beams overhead. At first I was just making little connections and joining them up like I would one of those magnetic construction toys, but then I realised that moving them altered a layer of cloth which draped itself over the top. Eventually I ended up with a blanket fort, making it cosier and cosier, then standing up to poke my body through and look at it from above instead. AHA! It’s called L U N E.

Delila’s Gift was the most fleshed-out experience in there, although that makes it sound like the others were bare-bones projects. They aren’t, they’re just little jolts of game or experience whereas Delila’s Gift has a narrator and pages to turn and things to interact with. I only saw a brief portion of that because of timings, but you could reach into a central golden blob to pull out pages you wanted to see, and fiddle with the particle effects of the illustrations and things like that.

There are echoes of Tilt Brush projects in Delila’s Gift which is unsurprising as Cohen was one of the Tilt Brush artists in residence and, I *think* this game was actually a result of that period. I recognised the brush effects and the specific ways it lets you play with space, although this expands on them and makes them interactive to the point where the tree I built in Tilt Brush myself seems like a child’s crayon drawing.

My favourite was probably Ring Grub Island. I could only find the above tweet with an image for that one. It’s a compact, bright space with musical pipe plants, a curving tube and a tussock of pink grass. You can explore as much as the room you’re using roomscale VR in actually lets you. Clenching the controller allows you to tug on the pipes, bringing the trumpet bell at the top towards you, or mimicking the effect or running a hand through the grasses. You can also reconnect a series of nodes to alter the scale, switching the space to a miniature version and a gigantic one.

It’s a hard experience to put into words because I don’t think I’ve encountered anything like it in games that I can give as a reference point. I think the closest I can get is that this reminded me so heavily of art experiences I’ve loved at places like the Southbank Centre. More specifically, it made me think of the candy-coloured worlds of Pip & Pop’s art which I wrote about on my art blog AGES ago because they made me want to visit Australia just to see an exhibition.

See, this is what I was looking forward to with VR. Not translations of existing games or sports compendia; people doing weird and fun and interesting and thought-provoking things. If you have a Vive and are wondering what’s out there to tinker with, L U N E and Blarp are on Steam for £1.99 each, Warka Flarka Flim Flam is £1.59 and there’s My Lil’ Donut which is more of a toy and is free of charge. I’ll get back to you about Delila’s Gift when I’ve got hold of a Vive from somewhere myself! Oh, and if you don’t have a Vive (because that’s pretty likely) his We Over browser thingummy has been keeping me happy today.

3 Comments

  1. ooshp says:

    Where’s the “RPS hates VR” crew today?

    Definitely gonna check these out.

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      Harlander says:

      I’m waiting for the “VR will make your head fall off” guy, myself.

      As for the article, did anyone ever mess with TrueSpace? Blarp really reminds me of my early experimentations there.

  2. emertonom says:

    In terms of “weird and fun and interesting and thought-provoking things,” I’ve been really enjoying the work of EleVR, albeit vicariously through YouTube videos. They’ve been experimenting lately with cognitive categories and mathematical concepts as expressed in VR. One of the folks on the team is also ViHart on YouTube, whom you may have encountered if you’re into math videos.