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'Shattered State' is a VR political thriller designed for the Netflix crowd

'Until Dawn' studio Supermassive brings its brand of storytelling to Daydream VR.
Jamie Rigg, @jmerigg
12.14.18 in AV
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Supermassive Games

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Supermassive Games is best known, at least in recent times, for the story-driven horror title Until Dawn, which spawned both a spin-off and a prequel in subsequent years. Other than occasionally flirting with Windows over its nigh decade-long history, Supermassive has focused on developing games for several generations of PlayStation consoles. Its latest project takes it into entirely new territory, however. Political thriller Shattered State is a VR experience that launches today on Google's Daydream platform, and so is available to anyone with a compatible phone or headset.

VR itself isn't a new medium for Supermassive. In fact, over the past two years, four out of five of the studio's games have been made specifically for PSVR. Similarly, the choose-your-own-adventure playstyle of Shattered State is something Supermassive has honed over the years, it being the main mechanic of games in the Until Dawn series and 2017's Hidden Agenda. But with Shattered State, the developer is attempting to bring in an altogether different audience -- those that may not have spend a lot of time with consoles and controllers -- both through the genre of political thriller and the accessibility of the Daydream VR platform.

Shattered State is set in a country with a recent history of civil unrest. You spend a day in the shoes of the head of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) -- their most chaotic day on the job, as you quickly discover. Without spelling the story out blow-by-blow, it features government leaks, terrorism, the threat of civil war, a military coup and conflicting agendas within your own inner circle. Even if I did recount my specific journey, every decision you make can take the narrative down vastly divergent paths.

For the most part, you're sheltered from the reality of what's unfolding in the city below your penthouse office at NIA headquarters. You're only really made aware through the sporadic reports of your closest advisors, an informant on the ground and the screens of the situation room. The choices you make, though, have consequences that can end up affecting everyone, from the people standing in front of you to the county's leadership.

There's a certain frustration in being confined to your ivory tower. You never really feel well-informed enough to make the right decision, but that's all intentional of course. No choice feels mundane or irrelevant, good or evil, and most have ramifications you don't see coming. The stakes crescendo, and you never fully gain control of the situation as you become more invested in the outcome. You just take the path that feels right to you, because there is no winning.

But that's the whole point. "Winning is such a gamer term," Steve Goss, creative director at Supermassive told me. In that sense, Shattered State isn't really a game at all. There's no beating it, which may not appeal to the traditional gamer. Instead of the puppeteer role you might play, sat in front of the TV with controller in hand, interactive adventures like Shattered State have you steering the narrative in a more hands-off way.

It's kind of up to the player to put on the headset, and immerse and invest themselves in the plot. When there's no right answer or obviously moral / immoral choices, you just have to enjoy the ride. The goal at Supermassive wasn't so much to actively shun the pad warrior playerbase, but to make its preferred way of storytelling more widely accessible. Hence working with Google and Daydream VR to bring the new title to anyone with a supported phone and/or headset, and for the approachable price of $8.49/£8 (and around that elsewhere in the world).

"Shattered State is designed for perhaps an audience more used to Netflix," as Goss puts it. Instead of simply watching a show with eyebrow-raising political plots like 24 or Homeland, the idea is Shattered State puts you in the driving seat. "That's where the creative impulse for this came from. That's where we saw it sitting." And in a calculated move, Shattered State is unashamedly non-specific: A nation in flux, a generic intelligence chief, an anti-government faction. "This isn't real, it's a fantasy," said Goss, "but it does draw on the types of events that occur in the world around us to give it some gravitas. To make it seem realistic."

Shattered State VR

And with a full playthrough taking roughly 45 minutes to an hour, if you didn't like the ending, you can watch the series finale all over again and change the outcome. There are a dozen unique conclusions, but I'm told the decision tree widens dramatically from the very outset, making for many distinct storylines within the general backdrop of national crisis.

Supermassive hopes that when all's said and decided, you'll feel like the ending validates your journey, however many twists it took along the way. Your choices may lead to unpredictable results, but that's what's meant to keep you hooked -- and Shattered State offers something 24 doesn't: The power to turn back time and explore all the unseen what ifs.

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