Gosh, we’re sorry. Something’s rotten in the state of Valleyfold and it’s all our fault. Mischievous creatures called Scraps have infested this papercraft land, spilling out of a hole in the sun and running amok, terrorising the inhabitants. This tear in the solar fabric leads to another dimension, the Scraps charging forth from the void in between, and the culprit’s up there in the screen’s top corner, smiling curiously down at the paper people below. It’s us, our face captured by Vita’s front camera. We dispatch the first of many Scraps by jabbing our fingers at the rear touch panel, a polygonal digit bursting from the ground and knocking our enemies into the air, the fabric of our jeans just visible around its edges. It’s taken almost two years, but someone’s made convincing use of Vita’s swollen featureset. Naturally, it’s Media Molecule.
It doesn’t end there, either. Front touch is also used to fine effect to open a pair of stage-front curtains, uncurl reels of paper to form platforms, and pull apart ribbon bows to open the presents that litter this varied land. Switching between two touch panels takes some getting used to – this is, after all, a brand-new way to play – but the visual design helps us along. Objects that use rear touch have a matte surface plastered with little PlayStation symbols, just like Vita’s back panel. Those that require a digit on Vita’s OLED screen have a gloss surface covered in glistening thumbprints.
Even Vita’s two cameras are put to wonderful use, the action pausing frequently to ask us to take a picture of something in the game or the real world, the former using a camera given to envelope-headed protagonist Iota (or Atoi, if you play as a girl) early on. It’s a flexible thing, aimed with either the right stick or Vita’s gyroscope. An array of lenses and Instagram-style filters are available for your cameras, purchased using Confetti, the game’s principal collectible and currency. An elk with low self-esteem begs for a splash of colour and we oblige, a close-up snap of our sofa through the Cooling filter decking it out in icy blue corduroy.
We take selfies, both of ourselves and Iota, with our mug plastered on posters and the land’s new-look sun. We record noises on demand, giving voice to a pumpkin-headed scarecrow, our booming “hello” echoing back at us as we navigate a sequence of tiny platforms across a late-game canyon. The Scraps have left some creatures and objects completely colourless, but a photo restores their vivid splendour, and you also unlock a papercraft pattern to print off from the game’s website. Pause the game and, behind a layer of menus, the screen is a window on the real world.
Tearaway is a game that blurs the lines between real and virtual, one that takes to dizzying new heights the concept of putting the player in the game. The cutting mat might be the highest of the lot. You’ll encounter it first when the king of a local squirrel colony has lost its crown and asks you to make a replacement. You select a square of coloured paper, tap the pencil icon, and set to work against a jaunty ukelele soundtrack. Tap the scissor icon and it will cut along the dotted line you’ve drawn, then you drag the waste paper off to the side. After that, the squirrel asks for jewels. We’re no master jeweller at the best of times, least of all when drawing with an adult index finger, but when our ramshackle creation appears in the game, it somehow fits. The effect is striking. We made that.
Yet even without our input, Tearaway’s world is beautiful. Screenshots can only tell you so much – they can’t show you the way that waves are made of sheets of paper that unfurl like party streamers. They can’t convey the sticky inertia of setting foot on the brushed swirls of glue that let you walk up walls, the wavy sway of parchment plant life, or the way fabric tears as you drag your finger along the rear touch panel to bring a distant platform within reach. Tearaway’s world may be made of dead matter, but it ripples with life from the minute you first set foot in Valleyfold right through to the end, when Iota’s journey to your solar throne completes and the two of you are rewarded with one of the sweetest closing sequences you’ll have seen in years.
It’s gracefully paced, too, with Iota’s moveset starting out so simple that he doesn’t even have a jump. He’ll get one soon enough, then learn to curl up into a ball to pass through small gaps. Later he’ll lay hands on the Weaponised Squeezebox, a concertina with a hole in it that wheezes comically as it hoovers up enemies and blows breezes at paper windmills. The Scraps learn a few tricks of their own in response, some sitting high on stilts and gobbing spitballs, others sprouting wings.
Yet while Iota’s moveset is simple and checkpointing is generous in the extreme – fail a platforming section and you’ll often be deposited on safe ground at the end of it – this is far from an easy journey. It is a game of nimble dexterity rather than fast reflexes, and late on, when you’re juggling front and rear touch with tilt and traditional controls, it feels quite unlike anything else.
At six to seven hours, Tearaway isn’t the longest game in Vita’s library, but it packs in more joyfully realised ideas than many games manage in three or four times the runtime. It’s a beautiful, brilliant game, but it’s more than that: it’s the first great Vita game, using the console’s gimmicky featureset – its gyroscopes, cameras, touch panels and microphone – to make something that wouldn’t be possible on any other system. It’s a game that refixes Media Molecule as the misshapen jewel in Sony’s wonkily sketched crown, one that shows immersion isn’t about story or spectacle but the simple pleasure of play. And throughout it all there’s you, up in the sky, gazing benevolently down from the sun, the smile on your face forever unbroken.