Ricky and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland had his work cut out for him with Trover Saves the Universe, the first title for his new VR game studio Squanch Games.
Among many other challenges, there were the nascence of VR, the notorious difficulty of making funny video games, the task of translating his comedic style into a new medium, and the burden of high expectations.
With those caveats in mind, Trover Saves the World is a valiant early effort for the entire team at Squanch Games. There are breakthrough moments in their eight-hour game that hint at how, with some more refinement and iteration, the studio could very well develop into leaders of the VR humor space.
But as an experience outside all that context, Trover Saves the World disappoints with a fundamental unoriginality and misfiring of shallow and juvenile humor.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore the unapologetically crude existentialism of Roiland’s comedy in Rick and Morty. TV lends itself to that kind of passive nihilism. But it grates against the active nature of a great video game.
The self-deprecating humor of Trover Saves the Universe doesn’t quite succeed because its parody constantly undermines your experience as you play it.
The game is littered with meta fourth-wall breaking commentary, shitting on everything from its own rote puzzle/platformer gameplay to the low-stakes narrative. But these read less like jokes meant to make you laugh and more like preemptive lampshading for genuine criticisms players might have of the game’s faults.
TV lends itself to that kind of passive nihilism. But it grates against the active nature of a great video game.
After a turning point in the story, for example, Trover goes on a rambling monologue about how nothing you did up until this point mattered anyway, “This might as well be the boot up screen because we’re back at square one.” I get the intent behind the self-deprecating video game humor. But I’m still left kind of agreeing with him.
This kind of running gag works on Rick and Morty, when referencing TV tropes leads Rick to stuff like adopting the meaningless “wubalubdubdub” catch phrase. But in a participatory medium like games (and VR especially), mocking one’s own use of video game conventions makes the player feel stupid for bothering to play. You become the butt of the joke for investing your time in a game that doesn’t even take itself seriously enough to care.
Aside from not meshing with the medium, most of the satire is delivered through dialogue, which is the language of TV rather than either games or VR (which primarily communicate through systems or embodiment). Often, you have to just sit there and wait for Roiland’s rambling, stuttering improvised voice acting to play out, or get frustrated when it’s unceremoniously cut off by you accidentally progressing.
Compare that to something like South Park: Fractured But Hole, where the fighting mechanics embed the show’s humor into an engaging form of interactivity. The turn-based combat allows the timing on the jokes to land, inventing a new way for the fundamentals of good comedy to translate into a video game convention.
There are a few rare instances where Trover Saves the Universe gets close to being hilariously insightful and innovative like that, particularly in its environmental and character design — and an excruciating scene with Bath Tub Guy that uses player instincts against you. But even then, the crux of that same joke the game keeps making is, “LOL this is a total waste of your time.”
Even if the gameplay loops weren’t repetitive and shallow, the game’s insistence on repeatedly annoying you for the sake of that joke quickly would turn it into a slog.
Yet there’s something admirable about a game that actively says “fuck you” to the player. We need more of that in games, with designers daring to go against the traditions of creating a virtual world built only for player enjoyment. And VR does seem like the best medium to do that in, with very few established norms and rules.
Unfortunately, after playing the game in both PSVR and regular mode, it becomes painfully obvious that the virtual reality isn’t really even adding all that much. Even as Trover Saves the Universe constantly shits on itself for employing gaming conventions, it offers few ideas for alternative approaches.
There’s something admirable about a game that actively says, “Fuck you,” to the player.
None of that is to say that Trover Saves the Universe is a completely failed experiment. You are guaranteed to have full-belly laughs at least every 15 minutes; despite the kinks, Roiland and his team’s humor is undeniable. As an experiment in making longer comedic VR, we are better for Trover Saves the Universe existing. Hell, I’m sure it’s still one of the best VR games you can buy right now.
It’s when you compare Trover Saves the Universe to its missed potential that you really start to see its foundational flaws.
Before launching Squanch Games, Roiland teamed up with indie studio Crows, Crows, Crows to produce Accounting in 2016. While significantly shorter and less intricate, it holds up as one of the best uses of gamified VR and by far the funniest titles in the space to date.
It did so by letting the medium of VR guide its comedic approach. Instead of fighting the inherent disorienting weirdness of VR, Accounting leans into it, overwhelming you on purpose so you embody the joke. I’ll never forget being on the phone with an angry boss while Tree Guy simultaneously yelled at me from across the room.
Imagine what a breakthrough Trover Saves the Universe could’ve been if it had had half as much boldness or commitment to doing something different.
Despite the game’s issues, I remain steadfastly confident that Roiland’s sensibilities are what VR desperately needs: an unfettered willingness to be utterly batshit, sacrificing polish for experiments, and for dreaming big. What’s disappointing about Squanch Games’ debut title is that it seems to have made too many compromises to deliver on any of those principles.
There are clearly concessions that need to be made when comparing a self-contained indie like Accounting versus a major console release like Trover Saves the Universe. The promises of the game’s brilliant talent peeks through. But ultimately, its dulled by the refusal to try anything too new.