Showcase PlayStation VR title Summer Lesson recently got a physical release in Asia with English subtitles, so I decided to grab a copy and investigate.
As you may recall, the idea of using VR to simulate interpersonal interactions and intimacy is something that I find very interesting indeed, so I was keen to try out this unusual title, and excited to have the opportunity to do so in English.
This morning I strapped on my PlayStation VR, sat comfortably and prepared to spend a virtual week in the company of Hikari Miyamoto. My headset didn’t come off until I’d finished an entire playthrough, at which point I was thoroughly convinced of the value of VR.
Before we delve more deeply into the game itself and how it works, this point is actually worth mentioning. VR is an exciting new technology, for sure, but in its present incarnation there are physical limits that vary from person to person as to how long they can comfortably spend immersed.
For some, these limits are quite short, particularly if the experiences they’re attempting to engage with are heavily based around motion. For others — I seem to be in this category — they can spend an hour or more at a time before the headset itself rather than the experience starts to get a bit uncomfortable and you long for the relative “openness” of the real world.
The reason I mention this is that Summer Lesson is paced in such a way that a single playthrough lasts just as long as feels “comfortable” to keep the headset on and remain engaged with the experience — and not only that, it’s an entirely seated experience with no virtual motion, which will help keep the stomachs of those prone to motion sickness calm. The game is highly replayable thanks to the choices you make throughout, but each of those playthroughs is designed to be comfortably completable in a single sitting, rather than taking a more visual novel-like approach of stretching the experience out over many hours.
This is an eminently sensible choice, both for VR games in general and Summer Lesson specifically: the entire playthrough gives you a pleasant feeling of a brief encounter with a pleasant young lady that is over far too soon, but there’s nothing stopping you jumping right back in again if you feel you can remain immersed, or after a bit of a break if you want to remind yourself what a full range of peripheral vision is like.
With the technical and physical comfort side of things out of the way, here’s the deal with Summer Lesson: you play the role of an independent private tutor that has been hired to help out a teenage girl named Hikari Miyamoto with her studies. She has a test in a week and her grades have been falling behind a bit recently, so her mother has issued an ultimatum: improve her performance, or she’ll no longer be allowed to take part in her after-school club activities.
Seven days isn’t a lot of time to work with, so you have to make the best possible use of your time in order to try and get Hikari the results she wants and deserves. This isn’t a dating sim that gives you complete freedom to goof off and do what you want with your days, however; you stick to a strict schedule of studying a single subject per day, and optionally choose some conversational topics that you think will support the work you’re doing with Hikari.
Once the lesson begins, you have the option of supporting her in several different ways, and picking the most appropriate way to encourage her or spur her on for a specific subject means that her performance and subsequent stat increases will be greater at the end of the day. Partway through the lesson, you have the opportunity to engage her in conversation on a variety of subjects, which can lead to you being able to use these topics (represented as “cards”) on subsequent days for additional stat increases. Selecting any of these options is a simple case of looking at the one you would like to choose, or occasionally nodding or shaking your head to answer yes/no questions.
On top of those basic mechanics, you have the opportunity to use “Lucky Items”, which generally trigger special interactive scenes between you and Hikari. These are often quite “physical” in nature, allowing you to interact more directly with your student; using a cake item, for example, sees you and Hikari feeding each other cake with the much-loved “ahhhhn~” trope from anime, while using a sparkler allows the pair of you to enjoy a fireworks display in the evening. During these interactions, the DualShock motion controls are used to physically interact with objects and Hikari; after a sports session, for example, you might be fanning her down, or after she gets bitten by a mosquito, you might be applying a soothing cream to her neck.
If all this sounds quite intimate, you’d be absolutely right. Summer Lesson is a very intimate game, and its visual style, use of stereoscopic 3D and beautiful animation are all used extremely effectively to give a very strong sense of “presence” to the game. When Hikari leans in to ask you something or sits down next to you, there’s an uncanny feeling of someone actually being there that provokes a genuine sensation of “butterflies in the stomach” as you find yourself wondering quite where you should be looking. And the game takes full advantage of this; the scenes where Hikari feeds you a sweet treat, for example, are framed beautifully so that it really feels like you’re leaning in and putting something in your mouth. It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself actually opening your mouth even though part of your brain knows there’s nothing really there, which is testament to how successful the game is with its sense of immersion.
This sense of physicality continues in the more mundane aspects of the game, too. When receiving a phone call, you grasp your smartphone using the trigger button on the DualShock controller, then hold it up to your ear to listen to the caller. When completing a lesson with Hikari, you “stamp” her report card with your controller. And at all times, the game’s use of the PlayStation Camera in conjunction with the VR headset means that you can look around, lean in and even stand up if you want to. It’s one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had in VR, and all the more enjoyable for not being a simple arcade-style experience or physics sandbox.
Is it a good game? That’s difficult to say, because mechanically it’s certainly very simple. There are some interesting things going on under the hood with the vaguely Princess Maker-esque aspect of raising Hikari’s stats through studying different subjects and using different conversational topics, but for the most part it’s fair to say that this is a game primarily about the experience of just being with its central character in a manner that simply isn’t possible with conventional, flat displays. Your own personal mileage may vary as to whether that makes for a “good game” or not.
I found it an enormously compelling experience, as well as an exciting demonstration of the potential VR has for immersing us in interactive stories. While Summer Lesson as a whole isn’t trying to do anything overly ambitious with its narrative and characterisation — Hikari is an eminently normal, pleasant sort of girl rather than an exaggerated anime stereotype — it’s a solid proof of concept that demonstrates how VR can make even relatively mundane interactions with rather ordinary characters into something special. And I very much look forward to seeing how developers build on this idea over time.
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