Long before LittleBigPlanet became a household name among gamers, no one knew exactly what to make of Sackboy and his burlap buddies. In fact, you needn't look further than its earliest previews to discover the only thing anyone could really agree on is that is was as adorable as it was ambiguous. Tearaway, developer Media Molecule's latest difficult-to-describe entry, is similarly mysterious.
When I task Rex Crowle, Tearaway's lead designer, with neatly categorising his latest project into an established genre, he fumbles his words a bit before preceding a hearty chuckle with: "I'm proving your point, aren't I?" Given a bit more time to mull over the query, he confidently replies with "It's a messenger's delivery adventure through a paper-craft world that you hold in your god-like hands."
The messenger in question is Iota, a cute little guy with an envelope for a head. Of course, Media Molecule doesn't discriminate against paper-people, so players can also embark on this charming journey with Atoi, Iota's female counterpart. My time with the former protagonist begins in Sogport, a dangerous island inspired by folktales and, well, paper. The tree-spawned substance doesn't merely makeup the world's backdrop though, but drives and defines the entire experience, reacting just as it would in the real world — from the way it folds and flaps to how it cuts and curls.
This philosophy impressively shines through as I navigate Iota through the world. His tiny feet pitter-patter along papery pathways, he tosses crumbled sheets into basketball hoops, and petals of paper flowers he interacts with curl exactly as they would on a child's art class project. Less innocent, but equally immersive are Iota's encounters with Wendigos. Construction-paper creatures that he must lure and trap, the angry beasts are quite menacing...well, for craft-made monsters. Tearaway's inventive paper playground is also complemented by clever uses of glue. Deep pools of the sticky stuff swallow up our fragile hero, while light paths of the adhesive can be leveraged as a platforming device. The sound of Iota's feet trudging through a glue trail is especially sweet on the ears.
The Vita's dual sticks control Iota and the camera, while face-buttons handle actions, such as picking up and tossing objects, as well as environmental interactions. The comfortable third-person mechanics, however, only scratch the surface of Tearaway's controls. Circling back to the "god-like hands" aforementioned by Crowle, Tearaway aims to make the player a part of the game in ways that go beyond the usual touch-based trickery. Crowle elaborates: "There's this twist that you're holding this whole world...you, as a player, exist as a character, breaking the fourth wall."
I get a modest taste of this tactile immersion when I'm called upon to unfurl bridges and peel back path-blocking pages with a few finger swipes. I also tap my digits on the back of the hardware to bounce Iota on trampoline-like surfaces. Another feature, one I didn't test during my demo, allows players to snap photos of the world-and presumably post to social networks-and even insert personal pics into Iota's surroundings. Speaking and blowing into the Vita's microphone will also factor into the final game, as will the ability to virtually poke fingers through the back of the Vita so they appear-kinda creepily-on-screen.
Plenty of games have tried to sell us on touch-based shenanigans before, but Crowle's pushing to make Tearaway's interactions feel like much more than one-off mini-games. Citing the importance of what he calls "interplay between the various elements", Crowle and his team are aiming for seamless, organic integration between Iota's story within the paper-craft world and the player's significant role in it. He even likens the experience to a buddy movie starring Iota and the player. I brush with some of this ambitious approach in a separate demonstration showcasing what will eventually become the game's story-driving cutscenes. I pull tabs and activate items much in the same way I would in a pop-up book, effectively playing the game and moving the narrative along simultaneously.
Its do-it-yourself appearance suggests otherwise, but Tearaway will not include level-building tools a la LittleBigPlanet. Still, while it is very much a stand-alone, story-driven adventure, Crowle hopes players will engage outside the digital world by actually constructing-with real paper and glue-items and characters from the game. He didn't have any details to share just yet, but promised some sort of system would be in place for players to maybe earn and print templates of these real-world art projects.
While cramming Crowle's earlier description of Tearaway into a marketing-friendly bullet-point might pose challenging, it's clear Media Molecule's latest is another pure, passion-driven project that will likely tickle some of the same warm and fuzzy spots as LBP.
A veteran freelance journalist covering the video game industry for nearly a decade, Matt Cabral contributes regularly to a variety of enthusiast and print outlets. You can find his work on the web, in print, and, if you look carefully, in the foam of your latte. Find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @gamegoat