Since I saw the very first trailer for Concrete Genie what feels like years ago, my interest was piqued. It’s a first-party PlayStation 4 game about a boy who can paint on walls, only the paintings come to life with cute creatures dancing around buildings in bold fluorescence. Purely based on aesthetics, I’m already all in.
Then I didn’t hear much of it for a long time, until it emerged during Sony’s first State of Play showcase last week. When I went to a PlayStation VR event last week demoing a lot of the games shown during the showcase, saddled in the back of the room was Concrete Genie VR. Only I learned, it was just one of two modes it will have.
“We wanted to try other things,” creative director Jeff Brown of San Mateo Studio tells me. Sony Interactive Entertainment’s San Mateo Studio is partnering with developer PixelOpus on Concrete Genie for its VR modes. The two VR experiences are being built by a small team, which Brown tells me is a VR incubation team of 10 developers.
“So we asked ourselves, what would it be like to follow one of these creatures and realize them in 3D? What kinds of things would we do, where would we go, and what would all those painting mechanics feel like in a more three dimensional world? So it was sort of an evolution of the current play mechanics, just kind of realized in 3D as a natural thing,” he says, “but we also wanted something unique that added some play value, for sure.”
Brown says the painting translated very naturally to VR. With a sketchbook to select brushes in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, you can paint away with relative ease. And this is where the two separate modes come in: a brief 30-or-so minute linear adventure that focuses more on 3D painting, and a “Free Paint” mode that turns to the opposite.
“Free Paint is much closer to what you’re going to experience in Concrete Genie proper,” says Brown. “It is 2D painting with living paint on walls that you’ll be surrounded with. You know, where you’re immersed in an environment like Concrete Genie. For the [linear] VR experience, we’re taking those same brushes and we’re translating those into 3D in a completely three dimensional world. So instead of painting on vertical surfaces, you’re sort of on the horizontal plane of the ground and the sky.”
During my demo, I got to play the entirety of the standalone experience, which unlocks Free Paint upon completion. In the adventure, you first find yourself in a locale from the main game: a drab subterranean basement of a mysterious lighthouse. After a short tutorial of how to paint in VR (here, it’s on barren walls), you find yourself in a large meadow. Your paint brushes here aren’t the usual sorts—they grow plants, put stars in the sky, and you can even hand place individual apples on a tree.
All the while, the first creature you meet in Concrete Genie proper, a round red “genie” named Splotch, is your focal point. Splotch frolics in grass should you plant it; if you sprout dandelions, Splotch will make the pollen scatter. Your goal? What you grow out of the Earth has to make the little guy happy, as evidenced by a little thought bubble showing what it desires. As you progress, you unlock more paint brushes, like one that can summon the moon to make it nighttime. At night, everything glows some sort of neon hue, characteristic of what you’ll find on the walls you decorate in the main game of Concrete Genie. Shaping the nature around me was intuitive and delightful, and I definitely spent longer than I should have making carefully crooked trees and flower-framed pathways.
The Free Paint mode, on the other hand, sounds more similar to some other art creation tools in VR, only it’s directly tied to your progression in Concrete Genie. “For VR Free Paint, we get to take any of the brushes that we find in Concrete Genie and come back into that VR mode, paint genies, play with brushes, see what all the interactions are, and have a free play experience with all those brushes as you as you go through Concrete Genie,” says Brown. “There’s four of those levels.” Levels, meaning, the specific environments that you’ll be able to freely paint on concrete walls in.
While the standalone, lightly story-led experience has an “end,” with specific goals pictured in your sketchbook telling you what to do, you can spend time stalling and just crafting nature if you like. In Free Paint, it’s more open-ended, equipping players with a more traditional painting experience.
“When we first looked at the game, it became immediately clear to all of us that we wanted to try the Concrete Genie mechanics in VR, while standing in one of those spaces. So that came very naturally, even just porting those mechanics directly to VR worked extremely well. You get to hold that paint brush with your hand and paint as you might in real life, and you have a palette of the sketchbook in the other hand,” says Brown. “So it just all came very, very naturally.”
Of all the games I played during the PSVR event, Concrete Genie ended up being my absolute favorite. I imagine when Concrete Genie releases this fall, the VR modes will just be a neat bonus set on top of a delightful-looking core game. Concrete Genie and its two complementing VR modes will be out fall 2019 for PlayStation 4.