“Tearaway Unfolded” pointedly sets itself apart from other screen clutter by commencing with a small, unseen group of otherworldly channel surfers who are frustrated by TV. “There’s nothing in this story box for anyone,” one of them harrumphs before another clicks the off button. Addressing “You,” the narrators ask you to shine a light on their world.
Pressing one of the trigger buttons causes a light in the shape of the one on front of the PS4 controller to appear on screen against a celestial backdrop. Resting the “Guiding Light” over a conspicuous hole in the firmament opens a rift between worlds. Out of the narrators’ world floats an envelope – an invitation to their land as it were. To this object you must give an identity. After picking the gender of your character, the envelope is transformed into an anthropomorphic guy or gal, “a messenger,” and you’re off on what one of the narrators bills is a “real story.”
As a You, it’s your duty to use the Guiding Light and help the messenger deliver his or her message to your world, which lies beyond the hole in the sky. Along with seeing the messenger through environmental challenges, you must chuck away “scraps” – one-eyed banker boxes with grumpy dispositions that try to waylay you. An astute character you meet in the game observes that it’s “almost as if they had been created with the sole purpose of littering your journey with obstacles. Interesting…”
This lighthearted, fourth-wall-breaking tone is carried from the story over into the game’s mechanics. At a certain juncture, your messenger gains the “Throw Forth” ability. This allows your envelope-faced avatar to hurl an object up through a transparent plane – representative of your television screen – that you “catch” with the controller. Using the controller’s motion sensors, you can then aim at a spot on the screen and, with a swipe of the touchpad, hurl the object back into the world with greater force than your messenger can manage on its own. Trust me: it’s useful.
Eventually, you’ll be aiming the controller at the television to direct the Guiding Light while controlling the messenger with a thumbstick and swiping away on the touchpad to throw things or create air currents. In other situations, you’ll use the touchpad to launch yourself from drums which double as colossal trampolines and to decorate things with your own fabric creations, for which the critters in the game will love you. You’ll also have to snap photos and make at least one GIF. The exuberance with which “Tearaway Unfolded” consistently introduces new gameplay wrinkles calls to mind the treasures in Nintendo’s catalog. Its abundant mechanics will keep proficient players engaged, but the challenge factor is offset by a generous save system – so generous that I sometimes came back to life in areas which I had just fatally failed to reach.
“Tearaway Unfolded” is based on “Tearaway,” (2013) the critically lauded title for Vita, Sony’s portable game system. I never played the first game on the handheld, but from what I understand the new single-player campaign differs significantly from its earlier incarnation particularly in its final third–a glorious section, where this already whimsical game filled with talking squirrels and whatnot goes an “experimental” route. Among other things you’ll get to walk across a starkly beautiful plane of unfolding paper and ride a pig in a desert.
“Tearaway Unfolded” may have the wide-eyed look of something targeted towards the kids demographic but its fantastical levels and novel mechanics – which take full advantage of the PS4 controller’s resources – give it a true all-ages appeal. Even its waggishness settles easily on grownup ears. (An early ally in the game introduces itself saying ”Ah, of course. I smell a crow infestation. I’m needed again! I, the Pharaoh of Fear! The Doyen of Dread! I am… The Scarecrow!) The British developers at Media Molecule have made a game which, again to draw a comparison with Nintendo’s creative philosophy, celebrates what is childlike not childish.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.