I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room, lost in my Vita because doctors are terrible timekeepers. 2:00 pm means 2:00 pm, life-saving scumbag. Suddenly, I was looking at dimly lit tartan chairs and an old, wrinkled man with a mustache of frayed steel wool.
When I realized it was the seats and man across from me, a hole ripped open in the waiting room, spewing shredded strips of paper, and I fell into the papery world of Tearaway.
Developer: Media Molecule
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Tearaway is a duet. It stars the messenger, Atoi, and the You — you. Through the Vita’s unique features, you can directly interact with the world. As the powerful You, the forward facing camera places your face in the sun, like the creepy Teletubbies sun god baby. Your fingers actually pop up through the ground in certain areas as you caress the rear touch pad.
Your presence in the narrative is contextualized and, what’s more, it doesn’t cause any weird disconnect as Tearaway’s world and yours interact. You’re tasked with taking real world pictures for various applications, using the touch screen to interact with platforms, and poking nasty beasties called Scraps. Once, an elk that had lost her color asked me to fashion her new fur. I took a picture of my cat, asleep on my lap, and his white and black pattern covered the elk. She loved it. In fact, she started a trend. Other elk in the area started wearing it, too.
More often than not, though, you control Atoi with typical 3D platformer controls as you navigate lovingly constructed, fanciful environments. The touch controls are fun flourishes that supplement the platforming, which has some bite to it, though forgiving checkpoints keep things moving forward.
Beyond platforming, you’re engaged in a host of activities, like throwing gophers in basketball hoops, playing soccer with squirrels — they use their hands, the dirty cheats — and taking pictures with a variety of lenses and filters. I’m always shooting #nofilter, but I appreciate the wide angle and high speed lenses. There’s even a selfie button. It’s the year of the selfie and I’m okay with that.
What elevates Tearaway above competent and novel game mechanics is its holistic world and endearing sincerity. As you play through three narrated story arcs, there’s a feeling of grand adventure without losing the small, personal moments and touches at every turn. It’s reminiscent of games like Wind Waker and Psychonauts in that regard, filled with cool characters and dynamic locales. The windswept, stormy harbor town of the second act, replete with salty fishermen and scientists, is full of impressive breaking waves and a lived-in feeling tavern.
Whether you’re riding a pig, scaling an intimidating mountain, or cutting out a custom crown for the squirrel king, there’s a simultaneous sense of intimacy and the feeling you’re penning a proper adventure through your actions. There’s just so much heart to the game. The sincerity is infectious and insurmountable.
At the base of the mountain you have to scale, you’re asked to make snowflakes. Every once in a while, you’re tasked with heading over to the cutting room floor and making objects out of sheets of construction paper, as if you’re a kindergartener. It’s fabulous. But I struggled in crafting my perfect little snowflake. It just wasn’t coming out how I envisioned it in my mind’s eye. Fed up, I drew a crude, pink middle finger. Rendered in game, the alpine scene looked stunning and my puerile, lazy middle fingers came across as gorgeous cherry blossoms. The game doesn’t let you be cynical.
Following in the footsteps of my other favorite Vita game, Gravity Rush, there’s even a bizarre, surrealist third act that is all kinds of reality warping. It goes from eerily quiet and desolate to a shimmering desert that’s equal parts Journey and the Simpsons episode where Homer hallucinates in the desert on chiles and goes on a spiritual journey with a coyote voiced by Johnny Cash. Without getting too spoiler heavy, the tale reaches a surprisingly poignant, affirming end. I was left misty eyed.
The game is such a technical and artistic marvel, not unexpected from the inventive team that made LittleBigPlanet. That love of creation shines through. You can outfit your messenger with pieces and parts you buy with in-game funds, or go crazy and carve unique things out of paper yourself. The camera is surprisingly fleshed out. You can even unlock instructions for paper craft models you can make in real life.
Tearaway is endearingly original. Its big picture narrative is about story-telling, about how certain stories have been told to death, and how we can tell better ones. “Goblins?” the narrator asks when pondering the enemies to throw at you at the beginning. “No,” is the answer, and instead you get the Scraps, boxy, one-eyed creatures that appear to be composed of old newspaper clippings.
Everything just works so well in unison. The soundtrack is delightful and odd, at times reminiscent of Paprika’s parade fanfare with its lively horns. The world, put together in paper scraps, is unbelievable in its artistry and function. Tearaway’s paper water and ripples as you walk through it are more impressive than any realistic water graphics I’ve ever seen. The level of unique detail in the world is staggering. Every moment spent immersed in it is heartwarming. Fittingly, it feels positively handcrafted.