BONEWORKS is a virtual reality, first person shooter, puzzle, physics sandbox, tech demo, computer game. The game was released for PC VR in 2019 by Stress Level Zero. There's a lot going on here so buckle up.

The Plot

spoilers follow

In BONEWORKS you play as Arthur Ford, the chief security officer for Monogon, a corporation that developed ultra-immersion VR head-sets in an alternate history where quantum computing developed alongside regular computing. This led to the discovery of void particles that allow the headsets to directly interface with the users consciousness and the creation of whole virtual environments on 1990s hardware. Nearing the launch of Monogon's new VR platform called MythOS Ford logs in to the system and delivers malware that locks everyone else out. From there Ford makes a slightly fraught journey through the back end of MythOS city to reach the clock tower and reboot the system while he's still in it. This allows him to exit the MythOS while remaining in the BONEWORKS engine. From there it's a short trip to an unsecured portion of the engine and Ford's mind and body dissociate and he becomes an immortal consciousness in the void.

If you found that summation confusing and unsatisfactory all I can say is playing the game won't clarify it because there is a fair bit I'm leaving out and none of it's explained in any real detail in the game. Depending on your orientation toward plot this may represent an impediment to your enjoyment. Personally, I don't care because the games about the shooting and physics but one thing I find fascinating is that there isn't a single thing to indicate that Ford is motivated by anything other than self interest. He's not only causing all of his coworkers a great deal of consternation but he's pursuing ghost in the machine status in a way that will clearly see the path blocked for others by Monogon's leadership.

The Gameplay

Okay, so the story is a write off but what about the game itself? Is it fun, intuitive, or challenging? Well it more or less delivers on what it promises. It's a physics based shooter with melee options, puzzles, and some fairly big (but slightly empty) levels. What I'm trying to say is that this game really wants to be VR Half-Life 2. I'd say it actually succeeds at this more than Half-Life Alyx in places. The physics elements are pretty solid for a first attempt with weapons, objects, and enemies that all have weight and inertia which mean there are objects that can be lifted one handed, two handed, can't be lifted but can be pushed or rolled, and objects that are too heavy for the player to move. The players entire body is modeled in a way that prevents things like Fords's arms from passing through one another or stepping through walls (unlike Alyx) while granting features like infinite grip strength for the purpose of climbing and an absence of fall damage.

The combat is satisfactory. The game provides a ton of different guns from pistols to assault rifles. The enemy variety can be summarized as several flavors of zombie, crabelets (crab+helmet) which are basically just headcrabs, turrets, and the omni-projector which is a mobile turret with a holographic gun man projected over it. The omni-projector is the only enemy that represents a real threat if you play at all intelligently. On that note I will say that this game is very easy if you know what you're doing. Nearly every death I suffered was because I was stupid or overconfident. The game gives you three levels of bullet time (1/2, 1/4, 1/8), force grab, and more bullets than you can possibly use. Also, death is cheap as it just boots you back to wherever the last check point was and health regenerates. You are pretty squishy but that only becomes a problem when you aren't disposing of foes aggressively enough. All of this is to say that once you've learned the combat sufficiently it's easy and any challenge is likely self imposed.

The puzzles are another matter entirely. They ranged from brain dead simple too "I did not get it and invented the hardest and least fun solution possible". One thing that really stood out about the puzzles was that as far as I can recall every single one seemed to have multiple solutions. This felt like a core part of the design philosophy. Nothing in the game has only one workable approach. The puzzles also invite the player to slow down and explore. BONEWORKS is more quiet parts than combat and has a fair number of collectables hidden throughout the levels which provide significant replayability for completionists.

The Vibe

Aesthetically, this game is hard to summarize. It's a strange mixture of mid-nineties futurism contrasted with industrial park elements. MythOS has CRT monitors in offices. It has a gigantic waste reclamation area and sewers. Diagenically, this all exists in a virtual world which shouldn't need plumbing because everything that exist is bytes in memeory. This gives the whole game a veneer of unreality on top of the bizarre premise and pushes the player into a "just roll with it" headspace while playing. The world looks and acts like a video game because it is one and anything in it that doesn't make sense is because of that. This gives the whole game the feeling of being in a profoundly grounded dream where the physics is hard but the logic is soft. The soundtrack is mostly Vaporwave, ambient, and harder techno all of which generates even more retro future nostalgia for Neal Stevenson's Metaverse.

The other half of this games vibe is that it's a slightly janky and fairly ambitious first draft of a VR physics engine with a fair bit of effort spent on sandbox features. The game engine simulates Newtonian mechanics for the most part, enemies are fully ambulatory rag dolls at all times and as a consequence trip and fall over just about anything, and Ford's weight can unbalance a stack of objects that he attempts to climb. If it sounds to you like this game is trying to be Garry's Mod for VR then you're completely right.

This game is a tech demo. It also manages to be a full (if slightly sparse) game despite that. It's a strange combo and one that shouldn't really work but BONEWORKS pulls it off. It's one of those games that is more than the sum of its parts. It's mostly competent in nearly every category but it excels in none. Despite that it filled a niche that really needed filling and became one of the early big titles in VR. It's since been succeeded by BONELAB which has a lot more features. While it's old news the popularity it enjoyed makes it an important stepping stone in the evolution of VR.


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