Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
There’s something bizarrely bold about hiring someone to “play” Bill Murray—especially when you have as much obvious reverence for the King Of Hangdog as the developers of Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son, a VR video game sequel to Murray’s 1993 time loop opus. Like a lot of the game’s concept and design, it’s an idea that sounds tremendously, almost blasphemously stupid when you write it out bluntly: This is a VR sequel to a classic movie that includes none of the original cast, but does have a section where you psychically enter a cappuccino machine in order to do physics puzzles about smashing coffee beans apart. And yet it’s not hard to grasp how deeply the developers at Tequila Works love their source material, and have taken its lessons of empathy and hard work to heart.
If that names sounds familiar, it’s not just rodent-induced deja vu; we’ve talked about the studio’s games, including time-travel-adjacent works like The Sexy Brutale and The Invisible Hours, in this space before. For them to go the licensed property route feels both obviously crass and strangely personal, given how clearly the idea of “getting a single day right” has infused their design documents over the years. Consequently, Like Father Like Son feels like it should be a cheap, obviously ridiculous cash-in, but at every turn (including, yes, fake Bill Murray as fake Phil Connors Sr., handing out fake life advice to his equally time-loop-prone son) it manages to be smarter and more special than you expect.
Take, as an example, a late-game portion that mimics the movie sequence where Phil very slowly tries to figure out the step-by-step ways into the heart/pants of the virtuous Andie MacDowell (also not back, in case that wasn’t clear). Phil Jr.—who, like his father, is an enormous asshole when the day starts, but unlike his father, has a Twitter account just to help make those character flaws apparent—slowly figures out the steps to reconnect with an old flame, from proper toasting etiquette, to mixing an appropriate drink, to practicing the strumming of his guitar. (A new addition to our Big List Of VR Things We Hadn’t Done Before). But rather than go the route of obvious mimicry, the game manages to turn the supposed seduction into one of its most emotionally resonant beats. Ditto the sequence in which Jr. replicates his dad’s bloody-minded talent for learning sculpting, one painstaking day at a time. (Psychic coffee bean-smashing shenanigans, not so much.)
Like Father Like Son never hits the movie’s transcendent joys—sure, you can go on a suicide spree just like dear old dad, but it’s a lot less interesting when all you’re doing is sticking your virtual hand on a virtual frying pan until the day dully resets. And most of the puzzles are pretty much what you’d expect, especially if you’ve indulged in the cottage industry of games that take their cues from Harold Ramis’ film before. And yet, seeing the transition from “complete jerk” to “enlightened hero” play out in a “single day” is no less compelling now than it was 26 years ago, especially when the game’s writers have gone out of their way to start Phil Jr. from a compellingly awful mental spot. (There’s something legitimately intriguing about asking yourself what being raised by a man who was cosmically brainwashed into radical altruism might be like.) Groundhog Day isn’t going to sell a VR headset on its own merits, by any means. But if you dismissed it on the admittedly ridiculous concept alone, it might be worth going back to give it another look, a second time around.