Cat Sorter VR may be the best use for virtual reality to date
"So what came first?" I asked Pawmigo's Spencer Stuard, one of the small team making Cat Sorter VR. "Did you start with a scenario and build the environment around that, or was it the other way around, where you decided you needed some kind of a porous floor and thought 'that's it, the player's standing on clouds, we're in Heaven'?"
"The setting came first," Stuard laughed. "We've scaled it back a lot, but we have these design documents that take the idea a lot farther. Like there are these 'a-paw-minations' that fell from Heaven and now roam the Earth in packs."
"Oh my god."
Cat Sorter VR is a game where you sort cats, in VR. So, yes, a straight-forward concept, but it's the execution that makes the whole thing so sublime. Snooty, puffy-eyed, red-anused cats will come rolling out on a celestial conveyor belt one by one, and you are tasked with examining the almighty's creations and pulling off any manufacturing errors. Sometimes the cats have spider legs, beaks, or squirrel tails. Sometimes they wear top-hats or rooster combs. Plucked-off parts are tossed to the cloud bank floor where they promptly disappear, and you have bins of replacement parts ready to snap into place. Once you're satisfied your cat is adequately cat-like, you toss it into a tube, sending it on its merry way. There's even alternate, more distant tubes you can try throwing it into for extra points and confetti, if you're confident in your free throw line toss.
Brock Wilbur, who's accompanied me to this most magical of hands-on sessions, is approximately 12 feet tall and made the shot every single time. Spencer Stuard was impressed. When I tried, the cats just screamed as they plummeted to Earth instead.
(Video footage provided by Pawmigo Games.)
"We just showed the game at CatCon. I don't know if you've ever been?" Stuard continued, as though this was a perfectly normal thing to ask someone. Cat Sorter VR, it turns out, was also an outlier at the feline expo, the only game exhibiting alongside the latest patented cat trees, cat cosplay, and "meet and greet" sessions with internet-famous cats like Li'l Bub and Oskar the Blind Kitten.
"It was a great experience," said Stuard. "We got fantastic feedback. We watched people slow down by our booth wondering what the heck it was and you could just see it in their faces as they 'got' it, after just a few seconds. I think VR needs to be something that's easily graspable, something that you can look at and immediately understand how it works."
Still a young and unproven technology, virtual reality developers have had to get pretty creative about how to accommodate the hardware's limitations without totally disorienting the player. A lot of VR games are stationary, where the player is able to look in all directions but movement is limited to hand controls. Cat Sorter VR, currently an exclusive for the HTC Vive, is what's called "room-scale VR," meaning it comes with cameras and sensors designed to track a player's movement within a fairly large play space.
Looking at the trailer, though, you wouldn't really know it's a room-scale game. Most of the action is confined to a pretty small area of a few square feet, with the conveyor belt, the bins full of replacement cat parts, the tubes, and a few terminals for displaying scores and raising or lowering the height of the work area (useful for me, because unlike Brock I am not a descendent of the Nephilim). But you do actually move around more than you might expect. Picking up the cats, examining them, and yanking off their slithering tentacles or elephant ears is a two-hand operation, and as the conveyor belt starts moving faster and faster, you'll need to come up with a pretty efficient system for running between the belt and the parts bins.
Working a line job has never been so adorable, or so creepy. God, those spider legs are gonna haunt my dreams.
"We'd like to do other animals," Stuard told me thoughtfully. "Dogs, maybe. But the trouble with doing dogs is they come in so many different shapes and sizes, whereas cats mostly just have one, pretty standard shape. And that was important."
"At CatCon, did you ever get any outraged little old ladies thinking what you were doing was just horrible?" I asked. I can't remember for sure, but I think I was watching Brock rummage through the parts bin labeled "butt" while I was asking this.
"Oh, no, everyone was very positive," said Stuard. Then he added, "We were worried about getting that too."
It's an understandable fear, given the abstract violence you're doing to a bunch of smug-looking yet nonetheless adorable hook-handed furry monstrosities. Cat Sorter VR leans heavily into its cartoon aesthetic, and that's very much to its favor. Hilarious as roaming bands of feline abominations sound when Stuard describes them, the fact that the game is so light and joyful is a big part of its draw.
"I like all the shooter VR games out there right now... I think there are some great things being done with horror games in VR," said Stuard, who is perhaps best known as one half of the design team behind Night School's Oxenfree. "But I feel fear is the 'go to' emotion for VR developers right now. We were interested in making something different."
Cat Sorter VR releases on August 29th as an HTC Vive exclusive. Which, by the way, just got a major price reduction, if you're interested in finally taking the room-scale plunge.