Thursday, December 28, 2017

stories I've experienced: The Invisible Hours (on Oculus Rift)

Over the course of this past month, hour session by hour session, I've made my way through the VR story experience called "The Invisible Hours" by Tequila Works.

The story takes place in the 1930s in an alternate universe in which Nikola Tesla has a sizable fortune, has faked his death, and escaped to a mysterious island to finish his more otherworldly work in peace. You soon find out Nikola has invited an intriguing assortment of guests to his sprawling estate for his own strange reasons. But you are never able to see Nikola as host, since you first encounter him dead on the main entrance foyer. The experience quickly unfolds into a classic who-dun-it in which you have to seek out the truth across 7 suspects' tangled story lines. The story you eventually unravel is written well enough, has intriguing characters, and a few eye opening twists and one jaw drop. But the story itself isn't what makes this a special entry in the early days of VR entertainment; what makes it special is an innovative new mechanic for how the visitor participates.

Like many of the story based VR experiences attempted, you the visitor are treated as a ghost-in-the-room without any ability to influence or any reactions from the cast. What makes the experience engrossing, at times delightful, and downright important in the evolution of the medium is how it gives the visitor complete control over time and space. You can pause, rewind, fast forward and teleport yourself around as over a 90 minute period, you follow the dramatic suspects through out this island complex, which is filled with strange rooms, secret passages, scattered clues and backstory artifacts.

What made Invisible Hours unique and a big step forward for the medium is that only in VR could I also control over time. I had a few giddy moments of appreciation when I would be following one suspect through some hallway or foyer and then cross paths with another suspect unwinding their own drama. I could then rewind and follow that person to find out what happened, only to be drawn into another crossing thread.

Many times during the experience, I felt a familiar delight I've had during some of my favorite immersive theater experiences, knowing that whatever thread of the story I chose to follow, a larger tapestry was being woven around me. I chose where to go and who to follow and so my story was crafted by my decisions. But because of my non-linear time powers in VR, I didn't feel choice anxiety. I could follow all of the threads, forward and backward, and yet the path I traced over the pre-determined tapestry of tangled threads was still my own.

The genius of it all is that having control over time and space is a perfect mechanic for a murder mystery. I was disappointed when I discovered I had no agency, but considering the goal was finding out who did it and not stopping who did it, I didn't need anything more than what I was given.

There were 4 particularly exceptional things the creators pulled off that deserve gold stars.
  • Although it took me the entire first act to realize I had complete control over time and place (for the most part), I still walked the path intended by the creators. I love that there weren't many artificial boundaries to the mechanic, but the experience was so well designed that by the end, I looked down the road I chose and realized it was all a magic trick. And I loved the magicians for it.
  • The creators made smart visual design decisions so they didn't have to do that much fixup on the hours of motion capped acting by keeping farther away from the Uncanny Valley. Although there still were awkward idle loops and comically wooden acting, considering the state of the art and the cost per minute limitations of VR, it was stand out work.
  • Being able to hear sounds and dialogue from other parts of the house was one of my favorite parts. That being said, the sound design was far from perfect: many times sound from another room didn't feel muffled by walls or properly reverbing around the wooden hallways. I am willing to give the sound designer a pass here considering the amount of content and the small budget for the experience. But what excited me is that just like in immersive theater, being able to hear noise from other rooms reminded me of the larger web of story around me.
  • Finally, the more spine tingling, eye popping moments I had were amplified when a chilling swell of music would accompany a dramatic reveal. Using music as a way to steer the audience's empathy is a story tellers tool that works as well in VR as it does in theater as it does in movies. The creators of The Invisible Hours used it to great effect.