You wake up confined within a small capsule. In front of you a mission briefing is being projected onto a screen. A voiceover asserts that you are embarking on an assignment to Rhea, a moon of Saturn. Your objective? To uncover the secrets hidden in an abandoned research station; a station belonging to The Enemy. And so begins the mysterious VR puzzle game that is Red Matter.
It takes place in an alternate future where (you are told in your commander’s monologue) there’s a perpetual – and decidedly chilly – conflict between two gigantic states, modelled on the US and USSR Cold War factions. Dispatched in your cramped capsule, you make planetfall on Rhea and begin your mandated intelligence op.
Red Matter’s played from the first person perspective, with dual hand controllers your form of interaction. The first thing that strikes you is a sense of loneliness: the eerie shriek of the high winds, the immense, alien beauty of the environment, then the abandoned station with its Brutalist angles and overbearing iconography. The controllers are mimicked by your gloves in-game, with controls for picking-up objects and for scanning them. All the writing is in a mix of coded characters, English and Cyrillic letters, and so you rely heavily on your scanner to translate clues.
Said hints will reveal themselves in a variety of ways. As you would expect in a locked-down facility, many are structured around discovering unlock codes, restoring power and gaining the correct security clearance, but there are also traversal puzzles involving the manipulation of objects in sequence, and hopping between platforms to perform tasks.
The atmosphere is almost thick enough to touch. A cross between the underground bastion of The Andromeda Strain and the Moscow subway, the installation features appealing retro-futuristic technology, space-age furnishings and wall-filling mosaics. Games that use powerful iconography are a favourite of mine, and Red Matter bases its look on striking Soviet era motifs. As you’re a stranger in this strange land, you have to explore pretty much every nook and cranny. Paying close attention is crucial, and Red Matter’s aesthetic makes your investigation continually fascinating; your perceptions constantly provoked.
Motion is controlled in two main ways: the VR-standard ‘teleport’ system (point at a space with your motion controller, press a button to reveal an arrow pointing at where you’ll reappear, then release to ‘jump’ there) and a ‘free roam’ traversal option that can be configured in various ways. This also includes a fantastically smooth, low-G airjet jump (think astronauts on Earth’s Moon) which always brought butterflies to my stomach – a strange but pleasant sensation, like when you drive over a bumpy bridge at high speed.
On the cognitive side of things, some of the puzzles you’ll encounter in Red Matter are real head-scratchers. The further you progress, the more the focus shifts to abstract and cryptic conundrums and, I have to confess, I got stuck a couple of times. I shamefully admit I required the help of some generous Youtubers – and their superior problem-solving abilities – to get me through.
Red Matter is a short game – clocking-in at around two hour’s worth of gameplay – but it’s still an easy recommendation. The graphics are beautiful, accompanied by haunting tunes and this, combined with the preternatural design, make it an intense, outstanding experience; one of the highest achievements in VR to date. It’s Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the haunted melancholia of Tarkovsky’s Solaris in game form; an extraterrestrial dream in a phantasmal future world that can never exist.