Another long-lost Google Daydream exclusive is making its way to less-dead headsets next week.
Fire Escape, an engaging interactive VR series from iNK Stories, will arrive on Steam with support for the Valve Index, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets. The app originally arrived on Daydream over a year ago, when the platform was already on its way out.
The Steam version will also be available to play without a headset. Not only that, but 25% of the proceeds from sales will be donated to COVID-19 relief efforts.
In Fire Escape, you play as a neighbor to a block of apartments that peers into the lives of others over the course of one night. After a tenant is murdered you’ll need to listen in on other people’s conversations and search for clues to help unravel a murder mystery. The series is split into three parts, each about 20 minutes in length.
When we reviewed the experience, we said it had “complex layers” that viewers could decide how to approach. “A single viewing gave the piece a gripping structure,” we said. “I anxiously worried about what other scenes and puzzle pieces I was missing. At the same time, you could just as easily go back and study each character individually to get the full picture. But it’s to Ink Stories’ credit that Fire Escape works either way.”
iNK Stories itself is a respected game developer behind other narrative-led experiences like 1979 Revolution. Based on what we played on Daydream, this one’s definitely worth checking out if you want to see a unique approach to VR storytelling.
Will you be checking out Fire Escape when it launches next week? Let us know in the comments below!
As confirmed during our Holiday VR Showcase today, Zoink Games’ affectionate VR debut hits the standalone headset in December 2019. The game originally launched on PSVR earlier this year. No word on a release on PC VR headsets, but hopefully this news means that’s possible too.
In Ghost Giant you meet Louis, a young kid living in the gorgeous papercraft world called Sancourt. The game opens with Louis sobbing, and his tears appear to form the ghostly being you embody. Only Louis can see and interact with you, and you’ll go about helping him on various tasks.
We loved Ghost Giant’s adorable diorama worlds and many of its fun puzzles. More than anything, though, the game hits on some unexpected topics we haven’t seen explored in VR gaming before. It handles heavy subject matter like depression in assured and surprising ways, making it an unmissable experience.
“It’s an experience in which emotional weight guides your each and every action, giving you reason to act beyond a simple state of failing and succeeding,” we said in our review. “It is at times delightful and at others unflinching, with moments of VR purity that tear down the barrier between you and your companion. If you want a look at where the true power of VR lies, look no further than Ghost Giant.”
High praise indeed. We’ve got even more Oculus Quest surprises in our Holiday VR Showcase, so make sure to tune in!
Google is shutting down Spotlight Stories, the group tasked not only with pushing forward virtual reality as a storytelling medium, but creating a number of highly polished and thoughtful VR pieces in the process.
A copy of an email written by executive producer Karen Dufilho was obtained by Variety.
“Google Spotlight Stories is shutting its doors after over six years of making stories and putting them on phones, on screens, in VR, and anywhere else we could get away with it,” Dufilho said.
Variety also managed to get confirmation of the studio’s shutdown from a Google spokesperson:
“Since its inception, Spotlight Stories strove to re-imagine VR storytelling. From ambitious shorts like Son of Jaguar, Sonaria and Back to The Moon to critical acclaim for Pearl (Emmy winner and first-ever VR film nominated for an Oscar) the Spotlight Stories team left a lasting impact on immersive storytelling. We are proud of the work the team has done over the years.”
Spotlight Stories created a total of 13 short animated experiences over the course of its six-year existence. First starting out as an internal studio within Motorola, Spotlight Stories then joined Google’s ATAP division, going on to produce several immersive experiences, the most successful of which was arguably Pearl (2016), an Emmy Award-winner for Outstanding Innovation in Interactive Storytelling and Oscar nominee for Best Animated Short Film.
Most recently, Spotlight Stories released Age of Sail (2018), a powerful and emotional tale of a hardened sea captain in the early 1900s who rescues a young girl after she falls overboard a luxury ocean liner. As a real-time rendered experience, it was plain to see just how much time, effort, and expertise was put into producing it. Its hand-drawn quality and heartfelt acting made it not only one of the most sincere VR stories out there, but arguably the group’s greatest work to date.
Variety contends the shutdown was due to the lack of any clear avenue for monetization in the face of a less than brilliant launch of Google’s Daydream VR headsets.
Variety further reports that an anonymous source with knowledge of the situation maintains that Spotlight Story members were given the opportunity to look for new positions within Google.
Fable, founded by former Oculus Story Studio alumni, today announced a distinct pivot in their focus, moving from an immersive storytelling studio to a “virtual beings” company which plans to build persistent, AI-powered, characters which can interact naturally with viewers.
Fable introduced itself a year ago as a character-driven immersive storytelling studio, at the time revealing its first VR experience dubbed Wolves in the Walls, which was prominently built around protagonist Lucy, a character created by the studio. At the time the studio clearly expressed its interest in making Lucy a reactive character and one that would be persistent across several experiences and platforms.
Now the company is pushing even further in that direction, dubbing itself a “virtual beings company” rather than an immersive storytelling studio. The idea, says Fable co-founder and former Oculus Story Studio alum Edward Saatchi, is to imbue the character Lucy with AI and natural input such that each viewer can have unique interactions with her, with the potential for those interactions to become part of Lucy’s memories which could color future interactions.
Saatchi says that his time at Oculus Story Studio was largely spent trying to figure out how to fuse VR gaming and film to define the art form of immersive storytelling. At Fable, he now wants to fuse immersive storytelling with AI to create virtual beings that form the core of what he sees as the future of storytelling—characters that not only interact with viewers, but transcend individual stories or experiences by existing across many contexts, all while being meaningfully aware of individual viewers through ongoing interactions.
“Lucy is always Lucy if she’s in AR or VR. She’ll carry that across platforms, across worlds, across technology,” says Fable’s Jessica Shamash, who is directing an upcoming Lucy-centered experience called Whispers in the Night, where Lucy’s first memories will be formed.
Shamash says that in the experience viewers will interact with Lucy via natural language processing, in an effort to create a spoken dialogue between viewer and character. Lucy will also record some memories from the interactions to be used later.
“Within Whispers in the Night, the whole theme is about memory. Throughout it you’ll see that Lucy has a memory and can call back to something that you said from the beginning to the end,” says Shamash. “Also it will allow us to weave [some of those memories] from Whispers in the Night into Wolves in the Walls.”
Wolves in the Walls is another Lucy-centered experience which comes chronologically later in her “life” story, as Saatchi put it.
Whispers is just a starting point, but Saatchi’s ultimate vision is that Lucy, or other virtual being characters, could be developed as believable AI personalities that uniquely remember and interact with individual viewers across experiences. Even further out, “a virtual being could be the next operating system,” he suggested.
He believes that such virtual beings are the next frontier for storytelling, and points to a handful of examples of others breaking ground in this space, like ‘Lil Miquela‘ a CGI character who is presented as real, with a crafted narrative playing out through Instagram posts to her 1.5 million followers.
Another is Mica, a CGI character being designed by Magic Leap to push the boundaries of realistic rendering of digital humans, with the end-goal of using her as an AI-powered assistant and interface for augmented reality.
Fable is so excited about this frontier of AI driven characters and storytelling that they’re also announcing that they’ll be hosting a conference focused entirely on the topic, with the goal of bringing together storytellers and developers building AI technologies. The suitablye named Virtual Berings Conference is planned for Summer 2019 in San Francisco.
Secret Location, developers behind Blasters of the Universe (2017), today launched a Philip K. Dick-inspired VR adaptation of The Great C, a sci-fi short story that follows a tribe of humans oppressed by an artificially intelligent overlord.
The titular VR experience takes you to the ruins of a typical American city, now entirely depopulated with a tribe of hunter-gatherers living at its periphery. If you’ve read Dick’s short story, which was published in 1953, Secret Location has significantly turned up the malevolence of the AI overlord, dubbed ‘The Great C’, by adding in a twisted human servant to the mix who makes sure its yearly ‘report’ is carried out.
Here’s Secret Location’s back cover blurb:
The Great C follows Clare, a young woman who finds her life upended when her fiancé is summoned for this year’s pilgrimage. Leaving the safe confines of her village, Clare must decide whether to accept the rules of her harsh society or fight against the oppressive powers that created it.
Without spoiling the 37-minute real-time rendered experience any further, it’s safe to say The Great C is an early triumph in VR storytelling. It’s a visually compelling experience that marries expert voice acting, motion capture, and classic movie-style pacing that will leave you wishing it were adapted into a fully explorable VR game.
As a VR short story though, you’re swept through the narrative via predetermined camera spots, letting you soak in a variety of richly detailed locations as the action unfolds. Since nature has reclaimed much of the world, you’re treated to visually stunning landscapes and crumbling cities.
The experience offers both a normal viewing mode, which automatically teleports you to discrete viewing areas, and a ‘cinematic mode’, which takes you through sweeping camera shots and fluidly scales your point of view from area to area. The latter I found to be somewhat uncomfortable, as constantly scaling from small to large can be fairly disorienting.
The Great C is now available on Steam (HTC Vive, Oculus Rift) and the Oculus Store (Rift) for $5.
The future of VR storytelling will be immersive and interactive. Yelena Rachitsky is an executive producer of experiences at Oculus, and she’s been inspired by how interactive narratives have allowed her to feel like a participant who is more engaged, more present, and more alive. The fundamental challenge of interactive narratives is how to balance the giving and receiving of making choices and taking action vs. receiving a narrative and being emotionally engaged and having an embodied experience of immersion and presence. Balancing the active and passive dimensions is the underlying tension of the yang and yin of any experience.
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE OF THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
The boundaries between what is a game and what is an immersive story will continue to be blurred, but Rachitsky looks at the center of gravity of an experience. Are you centered in your embodied experience and emotional engagement of a story (yin)? Or are you centered in your head of thinking about the strategy of your next action in achieving a goal in a game (yang)?
She’s recommends that experiential designers start with more yin aspects of an experience including the feeling, the colors, the space, and the visceral sensory experience of a story that you’re primarily telling directly to someone’s body. She’s also been finding a lot of inspiration and innovation of the future of storytelling from immersive theater, where actors are able to use their body language to communicate unconsciously with the audience and use their bodies moving through space in order to drive specific behaviors. The Oculus-produced Wolves in the Walls used immersive theater actors from the production Then She Fell in order to do the motion capture, and to help tell the spatial story using the body language of an embodied character in the story.
I had a chance to catch up with Rachitsky at Sundance this year where Oculus had five different experiences including Dispatch, Masters of the Sun, Space Explorers, Spheres, & Wolves in the Walls. Rachitsky has been key in helping to discover immersive storytellers and supporting projects that push the edge of innovation when it comes to the future of interactive storytelling. She says that the biggest open question that is driving her journey into immersive storytelling is “How can you be passive and active at the same time?”
I suspect that the focus on embodiment and the audience’s direct experience is part of a larger trend towards a new forms of storytelling that transcend the Yang Archetypal journey of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and VR and AR are more about a more receptive Yin Archetypal Journey that I would say is more non-linear, cyclical, embodied, sensory, centered in your own experience, environmental, nurturing, receptive, cooperative, community-driven, worldbuilding, depth psychological, connective, transcendent, esoteric, & alchemical.
The exact patterns and underlying structures of this more yin archetypal journey are still be explored in VR stories, but there’s likely a lot of inspiration that might come from kishōtenketsu literary structures found in classic Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives that focus more on conflict-free stories of cooperation, collaboration, and revealing holistic interconnections of how the totality is greater than the sum of all of the individual parts.
I’ve recorded nearly 100 interviews on the future of immersive storytelling now (here’s a list of the Top 50 from 2016), and a consistent theme has been this underlying tension of giving and receiving where there is a striving for a balance of the active and passive experience. I find that the concepts of the yang and the yin from Chinese philosophy and the four elements from natural philosophy provide compelling metaphors to talk about this underlying tension.
Using metaphors from natural philosophy, the fire element (active presence) and air element (mental & social presence) are yang expressions of exerting energy outward while the water element (emotional presence) and earth element (embodied & environmental presence) are more yin expressions of receiving energy internally. My keynote on from the Immersive technology Conference elaborates on how these play out in the more yang communications mediums like videos games and more yin communications mediums of film and VR.
Video games focus on outward yang expressions of making choices and taking action while film focuses on inward yin expressions of receiving an emotionally engaging story. VR introduces the body and direct embodied sensory experience, but it’s possible that this focus on embodiment and presence helps to create new expressions of yin archetypal stories that have otherwise been impossible to tell.
Most of my recent conversations about VR storytelling from Sundance 2018 & the Immersive Design Summit have been focused on this emerging yin archetypal journey of how embodiment & presence are revealing these new structures of immersive storytelling:
The concept of a “Living Story‘” from the Future of Storytelling’s Charlie Melcher is very similar to what The VOID’s Camille Cellucci calls “Story-Living,” which is about “creating spaces and worlds where people have a chance to live out their own stories within a framework that we design.” The recently released Ready Player One movie did not include some of the ‘story-living’ live action role playing scenes that were included within the novel, but Ernest Cline was definitely attuned to the trends towards immersive narratives when his novel came out in 2011, which is the year that the Punchdrunk immersive theater production Sleep No More opened up in New York City.
Whether it’s a living story or story-living, both involve becoming an active participant and character within the story that’s unfolding. AI is going to play a huge role in helping to resolve some of this tension between authorial control of the story and creating generative possibility spaces, and it’s something that I’m starting to explore in the Voices of AI podcast with interviews with AI storytelling pioneer Michael Mateas, AI social simulator designer & improv actor Ben Samuel, and AI researcher/indie game developer Kristin Siu. Oculus’ Rachitsky is looking forward to integrating more and more AI technologies within future VR storytelling experiences, and she’s even experimenting with using live actors randomly appearing within some future VR experiences that she’s working on.
I expect that the underlying tension between giving and receiving, active and passive, and the yang and the yin to continue to be explored through a variety of different immersive storytelling experiences. While Ready Player One explores a typical Yang Archetypal Journey in the style of Campbell’s monomyth, these types of active gaming and mental puzzle-solving experiences may look great on a film screen, but they’re not always compelling VR experiences that amplify the unique affordances of immersion and presence in VR.
I predict that immersive storytellers will continue to define and explore new storytelling structures that I expect will initially be focusing these more Yin Archetypal Journey of immersion and presence. There will continue to be a fusion of traditional storytelling techniques from cinema, but it’s possible that VR stories need to completely detach from the paradigms of storytelling that tend to focus on conflict, drama, and outward journeys.
It’s possible that the Kishōtenketsu story structures from Eastern cultures might work well in VR as they focus on more cooperative and conflict-free stories that focus on the Gestalt of interconnectivity. It’s also likely that if there does turn out to be a fundamental Yin Archetypal Journey structure that’s different than the Campbell’s monomyth that it’s likely that these stories have been ignored and overlooked, and that it’s possible that the mediums of VR and AR have been needed in order to provide people with an embodied, direct experience of these types of stories.
Ready Player One is definitely worth seeing. It's a metaphor of a potential immersive future. We WILL be using social VR spaces to connect to each other & have immersive adventures, games, & puzzles. But the magic of VR isn't cinematic. It's a sense of inner presence & embodiment https://t.co/uv5I1E76cF
Eventually we’ll be able to find a perfect balance of the yang and the yin in immersive stories, but perhaps before we get this perfect balance then we’ll need focus on these Yin Archetypal Journey of immersion and presence. Once we open our minds about what the optimal structures for embodied stories that center us in our experiences, then I expect more of a seamless integration of live-action role play, gaming elements, social interactions, and collaborative stories.
Betty and Barney were an interracial couple in New Hampshire, and their purported encounter with aliens was a positive peak experience for Betty, but Barney had an opposite experience that Wexler & Stoudt attribute to his experience as a black man in the early 1960s. Inspired by passages of Barney’s hypnosis recordings posted online, Wexler & Stoudt expanded Hill’s story into an immersive narrative at the New Frontier Story Lab, and collaborated with director Angel Manuel Soto to bring this story to life in a 360 film.
Dinner Party is the pilot episode of a larger series called The Incident, which explores the aftermath of how people deal with a variety of paranormal or taboo experiences. Wexler & Stoudt are using these stories to explore themes of truth and belief such as: Who is believed in America? Who isn’t? What’s it feel like to go through an extreme experience that no one believes happened to you? And can immersive media allow you to empathize with someone’s extreme subjective experience without being held back by an objective reality that you believe is impossible?
Dinner Party is great use of immersive storytelling, and it was one of my favorite 360 experiences I saw at Sundance this year. It has a lot of depth and subtext that goes beyond what’s explicitly said, and I thought they were able to really use the affordances of immersive storytelling to explore a phenomenological experience in a symbolic way. It’s a really fascinating exploration of radical empathy using paranormal narrative themes that you might see in the The X-Files or The Twilight Zone, and I look forward to see what other themes are explored in future episodes.
Sundance New Frontier had a solid line-up of VR experiences this year with a number of immersive storytelling innovations including SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime, which takes you on a journey into the center of a black hole. It’s a hero’s journey that provides an embodied experience of the evolution of a star from birth to death with a poetic story written and directed by Eliza McNitt, narrated by Jessica Chastain, and produced by Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures.
LISTEN TO THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
SPHERESmade news for being acquired for a 7-figure deal, and it represents a unique collaboration between science and art. There were a number of scientific collaborators including the National Academy of Sciences and physicists who study black holes, and so the VR producers had to come up with creative interpretations of mathematical descriptions of the edges of spacetime that push the frontiers of our scientific knowledge.
I had a chance to sit down with McNitt at Sundance in order to talk about the inspiration for this project, her journey into creative explorations of science, the challenges of depicting gravitational lensing in Unity, what’s known and not known about black holes, how listening to gravitational waves for the first time inspired the sound design, and crafting an embodied hero’s journey story in collaboration with Protozoa Pictures. The acquisition deal by CityLights was secured on Kaleidoscope’s funding platform, and includes this first chapter shown at Sundance as well as two additional chapters yet to be produced, and will be released later this year by Oculus.
Dispatch (2017), a new episodic story from VR pros Here Be Dragons, launched on Oculus Rift and Gear VR yesterday. Following a small-town emergency dispatcher named Ted (voiced by Martin Starr), you experience the story through a sort of half-imagined, half-real version of the grizzly events he’s privy to.
One of the unique features in Dispatch is its minimalist art style, which leaves a lot of room for the viewer to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. After all, as a 9-1-1 dispatcher, Ted only has the sound from the phone to drawn upon, so every slam or creak of a door is potentially a clue to what’s happening on the other end of the line.
Writer and Director Edward Robles said in an Oculus blog post announcing the experience’s release that from the very beginning he was intent on creating something minimalist, “reducing the details of everyday life to the most evocative.” Highly reliant on positional audio, you’re essentially following along with Ted as he recreates the grizzly scenes of violence in his mind. Despite its visual sparseness, the effect Dispatch has on you is pretty visceral.
Martin Starr, also known for his role as Gilfoyle in Silicon Valley,deliversthe action with his patently monotone voice, acting as a sobering backdrop to the violence at hand.
Dispatch is told across 4 episodes, offering the first episode for free, which lasts about 5 minutes. The full four episodes however costs an additional $3, adding about 10 more minutes of overall time to the entire story.
Here’s how Here Be Dragons describes Dispatch:
What begins as a domestic violence call quickly cascades into a host of attacks across town, and the local police are struggling to keep up. Every new call sheds light on Ted’s inner torments and pushes him closer toward danger. Police dispatchers are trained to see with sound. Every door slam, tire screech, and piercing scream paints a picture in their minds. The visual world of Dispatch unfolds inside Ted’s imagination as he wades through the soundscape, advising terrified callers and listening for clues. Ted yearns to be at the scene of the crime, to be given the chance to really help someone. He’s about to get what he wished for.
You can read the full interview with Robles here, where he describes a little more about the creative process, and working with Starr to fill in the role as Ted.
The Tribeca Film Festival featured over 30 different VR experiences within their Storyscapes and Immersive Virtual Arcade, and I had a chance to catch up with curator Loren Hammonds about some of the highlights of the festival program with genres spanning from live-action narrative, animated narrative, documentary, interactive installations, guided tours, empathy pieces, and even a couple of immersive theater, mixed reality pieces. The overall focus and theme that connected all of the VR pieces is storytelling, both in terms of strong storytelling execution as well as in innovations around interactive storytelling.
LISTEN TO THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
Some of my personal favorite pieces included an immersive theater, mixed reality piece called with a live actor Dram Me Close. The Last Goodbye was an incredibly powerful tour of a concentration camp by a Holocaust survivor that pushes innovations around best practices in volumetric storytelling using photogrammetry and stereoscopic video capture.
Other documentary standouts include Step to the Line as well as Testimony, which used an innovative non-linear structure to feature direct testimony about experiencing sexual assault.
One of the best narrative shorts was Alteration, which used AI-processing techniques on the 360 video to great effect. My favorite animated short was APEX, which is the latest music video by the creator of Surge.
I also had some great interviews with the creators of Blackout, Treehugger, Tree, The Island of the Colorblind, Auto, Bebylon Battle Royale, Becoming Homeless, The People’s House, Remember: Remember, Falling in Love, and Beefeater XO.