Video games are inherently magic. The wonders of technology create impossibilities on a screen, but it also takes away some of the fundamental “wow” of doing something like a card trick or other physical magic tricks. Of course the game is going to cheat and know what card I selected. Of course it’s going to allow a digital person to be sliced in half. And yeah, it kinda removes the danger and mysticism of a trick like the bullet catch. That’s why I was curious but not convinced before I had the chance to go hands-on with Penn & Teller VR: Frankly Unfair, Unkind, Unnecessary & Underhanded (or F U, U, U & U, as the brilliant acronym ends up being).
I have to give Penn & Teller credit though. These guys aren’t going to get involved with something subpar, let alone plaster their names, likenesses, and brand all over it if it wasn’t something, well, magical. And sure, these might not be tricks designed to wow. Instead they are designed to put on a show and prank your friends (ranging from innocuous to rather mean-spirited), so the less they know about this game, the better.
Penn & Teller VR isn’t a game designed to be actively played by the person who buys it. You’ll want to hop in and get the lowdown on each of the 15 bits to know how to perform them (thanks to hours of video featuring the dynamic duo themselves), but then it’s inherently designed to hand the headset over to your friends and family. The social screen has a different view and separate instructions, allowing you, the performer, to trick your friends, the stooge in the headset.
One such trick says that VR makes for a foolproof method of doing rock, paper, scissors, because you must select what you are going to do before the countdown ends, so you can’t cheat and change your hand shape at the last minute. The stooge hands the performer one of the motion controllers, and you start doing rock, paper, scissors against one another. What the stooge doesn’t know is that the animations on your side are all pre-recorded. So you can activate the recording, set down the controller, and walk away while they essentially sit and play against nobody for a while. Get yourself a beer, walk the dog, take their car for a quick spin. They’ll think they’re just playing against you.
That’s one of the more tame pranks. The Bullet Catch can be somewhat more mean, opting for the jump scare. It’s very showy, being inside Teller’s mouth (which was disappointingly not modeled after the detail of the real Teller’s mouth) while the performer fires a gun at you. The bullet travels in slow motion, and with each “catch,” Teller’s teeth crack and break apart. Finally Penn suggests trying to catch a shotgun blast, and while the shotgun animation is pre-recorded, the performer can sneak up behind you and give a good ol’ physical jump scare (which is most assuredly not one of the tricks I’ll be pulling on my wife, for fear of having divorce papers quickly served to me). One with a spider and sorting eggs offer similar pranks that are less magic and more “Gotcha!”
Penn & Teller VR E3 2019 Preview – What Happens After The Prestige?
If there’s one concern I have with Penn & Teller VR, it’s that it will wear out its welcome rather quickly. Most of the pranks are ultimately revealed by the time the bit is over, so it’s not likely that you’re going to get your friends more than a couple times with each one (though to be fair, I was only shown a few of them in the presentation). Anybody watching the social screen from the couch is going to know how each of them work, which is going to severely limit the number of people you can prank.
You can set up playlists with the bits for certain people (for example, I’d exclude many of the meaner ones if I ever plan on pranking my wife), but the tricks seem like they might be too limited to repeat more than a couple of times for the same audience. If your pool of friends and family isn’t vast, then there’s a good chance this could be more of a one-time party gimmick rather than a staple experience for your gatherings. Though I still think it’d be pretty funny to make one of your friends waste the entire evening reading Moby Dick in full.
Penn & Teller VR: Frankly Unfair, Unkind, Unnecessary & Underhanded brings magic and showmanship to video games in a way that only VR can. The sets and environments are impressively rendered, and I had as much fun looking around as I did being pranked by the members of the dev team. It’s hard to call this a game, as much as it’s a social experience that takes advantage of the medium and technology. You’ll need friends to play, and you’re going to need to hope those friends have thick skins, otherwise you might not have friends anymore after you play.
Honestly, I love these kinds of experiences that take the medium and do something creative and clever with it that can’t be done anywhere else. Despite not being the most traditional game, and despite potentially burning out its longevity relatively quickly, Penn & Teller VR is exploring and pushing the virtual reality medium forward in ways that few other developers, magicians, or people who just want to be assholes to their friends are doing. Honestly, the less I tell you about Penn & Teller VR, the better. If you have a passing curiosity, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on, as there’s plenty of discovery even for the performer, and it’s sure to be the centerpiece of conversation for your next get together.