Video games are magic, right? They transport us into wondrous worlds and let us do things we never thought possible. That magic continues to evolve as the platforms do, and now we’ve got virtual reality on a consumer level (something that was just a fantasy when I was a kid). It’s magic come to life. In fact, isn’t advanced enough technology almost indistinguishable from magic? Show a cell phone to a caveman and he’ll think you’re a sorcerer. Well, Penn & Teller VR is not magic, not really anyway. It’s a package of pranks to play on your friends, all under the guise of showing off some magic tricks in virtual reality tech.
When one thinks of Penn & Teller, magic immediately comes to mind, however this pair of flamboyant goofballs is as much about magic as they are about theater and performance art. They can make even some of the most simple magic tricks look like incredible wonders because of they way they present them. You just can’t deny their infectious chemistry and stage presence that draws the audience in.
Because most traditional magic would be less than convincing in a video game (everything can be excused by digital fuckery), Penn & Teller VR: Frankly Unfair, Unkind, Unnecessary, and Underhanded (F U, U, U, and U) has to take a different approach. While there are a few brilliant little showcases of magic, most of the bits are designed as cruel pranks to shock, scare, or just make a mess of the chumps you manage to sucker into playing this. See, Penn & Teller VR is not for you to play. It’s for your guests, and once they’ve got the VR headset on, your fun begins.
There are 14 bits in the game, and a secret backroom gives you videos of Penn & Teller themselves explaining how to perform the trick, which you’ll of course want to watch before letting your chumps play. From here you can watch the trick performed from their view, as well as add the bit to a dedicated playlists. The playlist set to active which will play out completely from the main menu when you click “Start the Show,” so the chump never has to see the inner workings of the game. Once the performance begins, they see only what you want them to see.
Across the 14 bits, there’s everything from simply watching Penn & Teller perform the cups and balls routine to scaring the hell out of your chump with a digital shotgun blast. You (or whichever sucker you set up) can even sit be Penn Jillette as he reads the entirety of Moby Dick on an e-reader. Yup, the complete book is in the game. Some tricks won’t require your input at all, while others will have the chump interacting with you (or at least what they think is you).
Some of the bits (like any good magic trick) do require a bit of preparation beforehand, and at least one of them requires the chump to be sitting at a table so that they can smack a raw egg, so depending on your VR setup and what tools you have available at home, it could be difficult to pull some of these off. Sometimes the social screen displayed on your TV will give you instructions like entering a chosen card or the player’s birthday to surprise them in game.
It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with all of the bits first, because Penn & Teller VR is all about performance art. Truly, the game starts before your chump ever even puts the headset on. There are some great bits of setup and misdirection that you can and have to do yourself, though the game does take a lot of the effort out of it once the headset is on. Don’t worry, you aren’t going to have to learn any crazy sleight of hand or other physical magic (except one very simple card trick that is one of my favorite bookenders to the whole performance).
I’ll usually start out each “set” by offering to do a magic trick; a pretty standard “pick-a-card” trick, which I then feign not getting the correct card. In actuality, I know what their card is (through methods taught by Penn in game), but this is a bigger setup for a fun reveal much later, often the final bit that I’ll have my chumps do.
Once they’ve got the headset on, I lull them into a false sense of security with the cups and balls demonstration. It’s not a prank, and not really all that magic. It’s just a digital representation of Penn & Teller revealing how they do their sleight of hand for the cups and balls. Next up, I let my Chump become Houdini and try the water escape. This one is more interactive as they’ll be frantically grabbing keys and unlocking chains while water rises around them, but there really isn’t much of a “prank” to it. Once they’re settled into this “magic” demonstration, I tailor some specific pranks and magic bits for them.
For my wife, I had to leave out the cruel ones, lest I find myself sleeping on the couch for a week. There are a couple of fun little ones here that I tossed in, such as having her psychically smell a “randomly” chosen object, and making her think that the game guessed her birthday. For friends, here is where I may shock them with spiders, shotguns, or make them play Rock, Paper, Scissors against an AI that they think is me with the other controller. You can tailor each playlist to the chump and how you think they’ll react to each bit.
Finally, I conclude with a trick about sawing Teller in half, something that is entirely used as a surprise reveal for that original card trick. It’s always a blast to see the pause for a second as they try to figure out what this particular trick is, and then realizing that their chosen card is somehow in this digital virtual reality game they are playing. In actuality, the solution is quite simple, but that unveiling wows them every time.
It’s in those “wow” moments of magic that I wish Penn & Teller VR had focused more intently on. I believe that there are some really cool opportunities for magic tricks that utilize a VR headset, and a few of the bits are proof of concept of that very point. Instead, the game leans heavily on its prank side of things, trading moments of wonder for a bunch of cheap “gotchas!” As someone legitimately interested in magic, this didn’t scratch the itch that I was initially hoping it would. It almost gets there, but its reliance on more cruel-natured tricks overshadows the few moments that make the chump grin and go mouth agape, trying to figure out the secret.
Penn & Teller VR also becomes limited because it requires the headset to perform the magic or pranks, and while a VR headset is an absolutely brilliant additional tool for magic, it also means that everyone outside of the headset is essentially backstage. Everything worked well on my wife when I had her try it out after she got home from work one day, but if you want to utilize this as a party game, everyone not in the headset will immediately know how these tricks are done. They’ll be expecting gimmicks, tricks, and cruelty before they ever even put on the headset, limiting the audience this can work on. And if you don’t have multiple groups of friends to try this on? Well, it might be a one-weekend app before it gets deleted because there’s no real reason to redo the experience with the same people more than once.
In fact, most of the tricks will be revealed for anyone not in the headset. Some of the tricks are painfully easy to figure out if your chump knows anything about video games and VR (a couple bits rely on trying to sell people on “technology upgrades,” but as my wife knows games and VR, she immediately deduced how these tricks worked), which is one more thing that just pares down the 14 bits to a much smaller usable number depending on your audience.
Prank someone with a few, and everyone is expecting the “trick” which makes it harder and harder to fool the chumps that you get to sit in the hotseat. While it’s initially a lot of fun, the magic wears thin really quickly, and you’ll find it difficult to present this to the same group of people multiple times. My personal circle of local friends and family that would be able to play this is rather small (particularly the ones I feel comfortable “cruelly” pranking), so after a Saturday night of beers, grilling, and a few laughs, I had pretty much exhausted the usefulness of the game. Unless I ever want to go read Moby Dick in full at a snail’s pace on Penn’s e-reader.
Penn & Teller VR is a virtual reality social experiment that could easily lose you some friends and anger your loved ones. It’s a niche game on a niche platform, aiming for a niche audience of people who are relatively social and are willing to be a cruel host. It uses two of magic’s most prominent faces, but it leans more on pranks and jokes than it does the wonders of magic. I really love Penn & Teller VR for what it was willing to do differently with a VR headset, something that no ordinary video game can replicate. The headset becomes a magician’s prop, and you the performer. But its welcome wears thin too quickly, its traps, tricks, and inner workings too easily revealed, and gimmicks too often expected. It’s just not the magic of video games that I was hoping for from two of magic’s greatest.
Penn & Teller VR review copy provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a standard PS4 and PSVR headset. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.