Tag Archives: Los Angeles

Star Wars vs. Alien VR Shootout

22 May

I’m back from two terrifying trips to the outer limits of civilization. But while I was in Orange County, I checked out two of the most cutting-edge location-based VR experiences on the planet: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire and ALIEN: DESCENT.

Some quick background. In the last few years, VR has generated a lot of buzz and comes in a lot of flavors. I’m specifically talking about the free-roaming, location-based flavor, which seemed too far-out to be feasible even just a few years ago.

– Free-roaming: you can walk around while in VR, thanks to some incredibly cool tracking technology. This is something of a minor miracle, considering that VR effectively makes you blind to your actual environment.

– Location-based: the experience incorporates features that are exclusively available in a specific, purpose-built venue.

Ie8ed661ff8c118bf8d4cb465400a9a59n other words, these experiences are likely to be more sophisticated and immersive than what is available with a typical home-based setup.

Both experiences were awesome, but I couldn’t help asking myself: which experience was more awesome? There isn’t an easy answer to this, so I did the obvious thing: generated a custom 6-point evaluation matrix to drive an obsessively thorough analysis.

Suited up? Blaster charged? Let’s have a VR shootout!

Spoilers ahead!

1. RR. Yup, Real Reality. You know, all that boring stuff that surrounds us when we’re not trying to escape it by pouring ourselves into yet another screen. From the moment I arrived, I was tuned into how effectively the non-virtual environment of these location-based experiences set me up for the main virtual attraction.

1_2018_DTD.0503.C-750x501.jpgSTAR WARS: At the Downtown Disney location, the exterior theming and signage is primarily oriented on letting you know that you’re at THE VOID — the company that produced the experience. A few Star Wars display window graphics hint at what’s inside, but the lobby is similarly VOID-oriented. Overall, I was picking up on a multiplex design sensibility that enforces a clear distinction between the framing experience of the hosting facility and the show itself. I didn’t really think too much about this until I saw . . . .

alien-interior-2ALIEN: The experience and storytelling begins with exterior theming that features large-scale graphics that make you feel like you’re entering a futuristic outpost. The story continues inside where dark, moody lighting and sound effects, impressive set-pieces and wall graphics, costumed attendants, and even a full-sized Alien sculpture set the stage for deep-space adventure. It was fantastic to feel like a part of the story from the second I walked in.

WINNER: ALIEN

GEparkerpen42. Q-Factor: As much as these experiences should be about immersive storytelling and transparent technology, there is an undeniable Bond-esque gadget fetish that temporarily takes over when you’re gearing up for your mission.

STAR WARS: The VOID uses a custom head-mounted display (HMD) that is reportedly higher resolution than what is generally available to consumers, and essentially unavailable anywhere other than in a true VOID experience. Sweet! Players also suit up with an “armored vest” that includes a special feature; more on that later. Since the experience transforms you into a stormtrooper, the vest and helmet feel very appropriate.

ALIEN: The HMD in this experience is actually a Gear VR. It’s a longer technical conversation to explain why this is so cool, but it’s basically the David to the VOID’s Goliath. Imagine heading onto the freeway on your bicycle only to discover that you’re effortlessly going 85. In addition, cyborgian devices are strapped to each forearm and shin and seem to provide a crucial tracking function, while making you feel like you’re gearing up for a dicey situation . . . which you are.

WINNER: TIE for innovation, novelty and theming

3. 4D: This is at the heart of why these experiences are different than what you can do at home. 4D generally refers to physical special effects that engage your other senses beyond what you’re seeing and hearing (in 3D) via the HMD and enhance that sense of disappearing into the experience.

STAR WARS: Based on my experience with The VOID’s excellent Ghostbusters show, 4D is something they do well, and Star Wars was no exception. Floor haptics, fans, and heaters are all used effectively to provide real tactile feedback that related to the virtual environment. There were also unexpected effects like scent enhancements, creative floor textures, fog blasts, and a couple props you could touch. A nice detail was that the armored vests also contained haptics that generated a stun effect when hit by enemy fire.

alien-exterior-detail-1.jpgALIEN: Fans and heaters were also in play, and floor haptics were used to drive epic “elevator” experiences that powerfully enhanced the visual design by creating the sense that you were moving through outrageously large volumes of space. There were also some rickety floor surfaces that added to the tactile sense of environment.

WINNER: STAR WARS: Slight edge with variety of 4D and creative uses.

4. Environment: VR is most exciting when it takes you somewhere that you otherwise couldn’t go. While this is primarily achieved by visual design, the underlying physical layout of the space can be designed to take advantage of some clever “sleight-of-foot” techniques. As you physically walk around, your sense of the actual physical space can be subtly manipulated to change your perception of the virtual space, which in turns adds to the sense of being transported into a new world.

Star-Wars-VR-Featured-10112017STAR WARS: This experience was full of surprises and moved you through lots of different environments from the inside of a transport ship to the surface of Mustafar to multiple levels of an Imperial base. There was an exciting sense of discovery and it was not easy to keep track of where you might actually be in real space, nor would you ever really want to, unless you’re a geek who can’t help trying to reverse engineer these experiences. The variety of locations is enriched by gorgeously rendered visual details that make you feel like you’re living the ultimate fan dream of walking through a Star Wars movie.

ALIEN: The impact of the sense of volume that I mentioned in the 4D section cannot be overemphasized. There are moments that are simply jaw-dropping as you feel dwarfed by the scale of the vast, dangerous caverns that you “move” down through before rising back up to the mysteries of the planetary surface. However, it’s hard not to notice that the layout of the experience essentially requires you to walk back and forth between a couple of discrete locations in the physical space, which are virtually reskinned as the story progresses. While this may seem like a killjoy technical observation, it’s not hard to figure it out, and it creates a subtle predictability that robs the experience of a certain element of surprise.

WINNER: STAR WARS

5. Story: Even the most breathtaking visuals will get old quickly if there isn’t an underlying story that gives a compelling reason to be walking through this world. This is a loaded topic given the huge popularity of all the IP involved, so I’ll try to keep it neutral.

an1-268229_r.jpegSTAR WARS: A video preshow provides a mission briefing about retrieving a powerful weapon that has fallen into the hands of the Empire. Your mission is to infiltrate the Imperial base while disguised as a stormtrooper. The story continues to be developed through non-player characters that provide additional information and react to your presence. As the experience unfolds, you acquire a blaster, so that you can . . . react back. Once shooting ensues, story goes somewhat by the wayside. In the climactic scene, we come face-to-face with Darth Vader who is throwing down some of that nasty lightsaber fu that was notably featured in Rogue One. There’s a surprising twist in this scene that ultimately provides a satisfactory resolution to the narrative.

alien-sculpture-4-effects.jpgALIEN: A video preshow prepares you for transport to an alien-infested mining station with the mission of rescuing survivors. This is probably incredibly subjective, but this felt like a cleaner, more direct in media res setup that fine-tuned my sense of agency in the experience from the get-go. The story is skillfully communicated in a visceral, mostly non-verbal way resulting in a more organic narrative of exploration as opposed to moving through a linear series of staged scenes. It was refreshing to live the story rather than be told the story.

However, there are a couple of big misses. First, you don’t really save anybody — in fact, in one place, one of the survivors begs you to end it for him. It wasn’t clear whether this was meant to be a narrative twist, or whether this confirms that the experience is mostly about shooting stuff. Second, there is no Queen Alien or other climactic showdown. In fact, when the experience ended, I was actually surprised and thought that maybe there had been a glitch that had ended it prematurely. The scariest, biggest Alien in the show is the life-size sculpture in the lobby, which was super cool, but set an unfulfilled expectation for me.

WINNER: STAR WARS

6. gary-larson-far-side-cartoon-what-we-say-to-dogs-blah-blah-gingerInteractivity: Arguably, the most compelling opportunity for this type of entertainment is providing guests with the ability to engage and affect both the environment and other players. In both experiences, a good portion of the interactivity involves shooting stuff. While attractions that feature shooting can be incredibly fun, even just holding a gun can be highly distracting and can make it hard to focus on other details. Both experiences seemed aware of this and handled it in different ways.

STAR WARS: One of the first things you do in the VR part of the experience is sit down on a bench. Now this may seem preposterously mundane, but sitting down in VR is actually quite amazing. When your brain and butt follow through in what amounts to an incredible leap of faith to make contact with something that you technically can’t see, it’s actually pretty cool. As mentioned above, you acquire your blaster a few scenes later in a similar fashion, by reaching out and grabbing a real item that you can’t actually see. Blaster in hand, you get plenty of chances to use it., including a pretty heavy firefight with some stormtroopers who have figured out that you shouldn’t be there. The performance and calibration of the gun is well-tuned and it was very satisfying to carefully aim a shot at a far-off target and hit it. A couple scenes feature puzzle-type interactions that require you to do something that isn’t shooting in order to advance. These interactions were few and far between though and didn’t require much group cooperation.

alien-descent-vr-arcade-experience-wireless-virtual-reality_vrroomALIEN: Let’s be honest. This one is mostly about the shooting, but oh what delicious shooting. Your gun fires laser bolts as well as grenades, each with its own trigger or button, with different reload periods and damage. The gun also has a laser sight that you can turn on or off (for extra challenge). Just sayin’, it was incredibly satisfying to fire this gun. The vast virtual spaces (see Environment above) for your projectiles to traverse was a major enhancement. Also, because of the way the story is setup and developed, I found myself communicating and interacting more with the other player as we worked together to shoot our way through.

A puzzling but intriguing twist is that the experience is launched with two teams of two players who are sent to different physical staging areas. After entering the virtual experience, you see what appears to be the other team, although I’m still not sure whether that was really them, or just an artificial construct to suggest a larger-scale experience. There simply wasn’t a payoff to this setup, and I didn’t find a scenario that required a collaborative effort, but it would have been really cool if there was.

WINNER: NEITHER. Yeah, I know the other word for that is TIE, but this is the area that needs to shine if this type of entertainment is going to be seen as anything other than a next-gen video game.

OVERALL WINNER: STAR WARS

On the basis of sheer points, Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire blasts its way to victory by tallying a decisive win in two categories and a slight edge in a third. No slouch though, ALIEN: DESCENT posted a decisive win in one category and showed up strong in every other category.

CONCLUSION

I have been enthusiastically recommending both experiences, and feel that they represent solid strides forward for the VR industry as a whole, which seems to be floundering a bit in the Trough of Disillusionment.

Neither experience is perfect, and there’s still a huge opportunity to create something that pushes interactive capabilities to another level. For many people, one of these experiences may even be their first exposure to this type of sophisticated VR, if not VR period. The stakes are high to deliver on the hype, but the high quality and entertainment value of both shows is a good sign of things to come.

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I’m That Guy Who Had His Phone On At The Movies

1 Aug

Remember that annoying dude in the movie theater who seemed to be constantly tapping away at something on his phone during the movie? Yeah, that was me, but if you do remember me, then chances are you were doing the same thing while watching Late Shift at AT&T SHAPE.

20170714_201137 copy

AT&T SHAPE was a 2-day event held at the Warner Bros. Studios in LA that explores the convergence of technology and entertainment. Late Shift bills itself as “a cinematic interactive movie experience,” and promises to be the decades-delayed wish fulfillment of every kid who grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and wondered, “Wouldn’t it be cool if movies worked like that?” I wandered through the iconic streets of the studio’s back lot toward the stunning and luxurious Steven J. Ross Theater to find out.

Screenshot_20170714-201155.pngThe setup was surprisingly simple. Guests were asked to download the lightweight CtrlMovie app on their smartphone, connect to a specific WiFi network in the theater, launch the app, and be patient. Introducing a “bring-your-own” technology requirement into an entertainment venue is always a gamble, but the folks at CtrlMovie deserve a lot of credit for making the process irreducibly simple. Nevertheless, that didn’t keep me from feeling like a dirty philistine for brazenly having my phone on and in my lap as the lights went down.

Despite our fascination with technologically sophisticated entertainment experiences, we generally don’t want the entertainment to be upstaged by the technology, and often prefer the latter to be “invisible.” As a feature length proof of concept of the CtrlMovie technology, Late Shift was clearly designed to enhance, but not totally up-end the familiar moviegoing experience. Even with about 500 people in the audience, the sea of low-profile black screens was fairly unnoticeable. So far, so good, but I knew the real trick would be in how they would pull off the actual interactivity.

Screenshot_20170714-202332Late Shift tells the story of an innocent guy who gets caught up in a heist gone wrong. At various points during the movie, a small subtitle appears on the screen providing 2-3 choices for our hero. These same choices also appear in the mobile app, allowing viewers to vote for what they want the hero to do. After a few seconds, the subtitle is updated to indicate the option chosen by the majority of the audience while the movie continues along the chosen path. The process is completely intuitive and requires no training, and the entire decision sequence lasts 6-7 seconds.

Probably pretty much what you expected, but the magic part is that as this is happening, there is absolutely no awkward pause, technical glitch, or sloppy cut to indicate that anything out of the ordinary has just happened. After I was a few dozen choices in and had gotten the hang of it, I tried to pay closer attention to how they pulled it off, but it generally refused to give up its secrets. Through a combination of classic misdirection, clever shot planning and editing, and expert timing, I was happy to end up falling for the seamless effect each time.

For the first few choices, the audience was giddy and even giggled aloud at the novelty of our seemingly godlike powers. As the movie progressed, we directed our hero’s destiny with the second-nature reflexes of deity savants. I was surprised at how seamless it was to bounce back and forth between the two modes of experiencing the story. I’ve justly railed against terrible second-screen efforts, but this one was surprisingly effective.

As I tapped my way through the movie, I observed the interactivity starting to develop its own identity rather than just serving as a bridge between the technology and the story. I was getting involved in the story in ways that may not have been intended by the filmmakers, and was approaching each individual decision with a different motivation. These various motivations seemed to feed off each other in a bizarrely interconnected way, and developed a parallel significance with the on-screen narrative developments. I’m still on the fence about whether this meta-experience is fundamentally at odds with the filmmakers’ intentions, or an inadvertent side effect that might turn out to be a good thing. Here’s a quick stroll through the garden of forking paths.

Social
: A visit to the movies already has its own unique social dynamic, even if it’s essentially a murmuring undercurrent of common courtesy. Late Shift is unequivocally a group experience though.  When you make a choice, you’re well aware that you’re either in the majority or the minority of those around you. Whether I had a string of “wins” or “losses” or a mix of both, I found myself momentarily reflecting on the mysteries of groupthink. It was a realtime trip into the eye of the social hurricane of opinions and trends and likes that are usually just a dull and distant roar in the background.

Atlanta Falcons Fans Watch Super Bowl LI Against The New England PatriotsSport: The audience would often react to various outcomes with the types of “YEAHHs” or “AWWWs” that you would expect from a football game. Disappointment makes sense since you can easily convince yourself that a better version of this movie exists and unfortunately, you’re not watching it. Kind of like rooting for the Falcons during Super Bowl LI. It’s also ironic since being able to watch the movie your way is one of the selling points of this experience, but see Social above and welcome to the human experience.

Fantasy: The plot of this movie doesn’t pull any punches, and it doesn’t take long for our naive hero to get in deep doo-doo. As someone who’s calling the shots for him, it’s natural to strongly identify with him. At first, I really wanted to help him, because I was approaching each decision based on what I would do, which was generally along the lines of: these are the types of bad people that my parents warned me about, and I should get the hell away from them. Then, I remembered I was watching a movie, and went in the total opposite direction, basing my choices on what would be the most bad-ass thing this guy could be doing right now because I wanted to see it on screen and live vicariously through him.

Prince_of_Persia_1989_Traps
Sadism: It didn’t take long for the sense of fantasy to evolve into something darker. Once it sank in that me and the guy on the screen were in fact two different people, and that my vicarious enjoyment of his pleasure was tangential at best, I went in the other direction. Seeing him as a helpless pawn under my (partial) control, I wondered what kind of horrible situations I could maneuver him into. It became less like a story and more like one of those video games with irresistibly grisly scenarios that are perversely satisfying to watch play out.

Moral: After binging on competitive, delusional fantasies of grandeur and sadistic spectacle, it was time to consider the consequences, In other words, Vegas at about 4:12 AM. Our hero was in pretty deep, and what had started out to a coerced participation in a Robin Hood style heist had turned into a disaster, and it was basically our fault. The trope of an innocent person perched on a slippery slope of morally questionable decisions provides the engine for powerful narratives from Hamlet to The Godfather. For the last few thousand years, we have tried to understand how and why it is that stories like this can touch us at a deep level. Even though Late Shift drew on similar themes, I felt that some of the climactic impact may have been dissipated in our role in reaching it. I’m fascinated by these stories because I DON’T want the moral responsibility of figuring out what happens to the hero. Or rather, I want to experience an artist’s thoughtful perspective on it, and evaluate it against my own inclinations. It’s that interplay between a story and our reaction to it that allows it to speak to us even over the gulf of decades and centuries. In this instance, it felt like we had been tampering with the engine and that as a result, our mileage would vary.

ee5036d62d34ed78c8047dce5e8b666bI kept trying not to “go there” by overanalyzing  it, but I always enjoy experiencing something that makes me think about storytelling in a new way. In what I initially perceived as shortcomings, I saw opportunities and questions for further exploration. Would this be more/less fun to watch alone? How about a group of your closest friends? How about as a form of speed dating? Would it work better as a 10-minute short? Are some genres and stories more compatible? Does everything just work when you remove the moral weight from the narrative? Does this need to take place in a movie theater at all? I look forward to experiencing or helping to create some of the answers to these types of questions. In the meantime though, the phone’s going back into my pocket.

My Year of Walking Through Darkness: Part 2

3 Nov

Birth: check. Death: check. And now onto the business of living. Confused? Read Part 1.

bruce-lee-quote-darkness

3. The Rope (October 2016)

hqdefault-2It’s increasingly common to see “horror” experiences on nearly a year-round basis, but the best work tends to be saved for October. Amidst these high expectations and as a follow-up to last year’s debut, this year’s “signature” show did not disappoint, despite having scant resemblance to anything that had come before it.

The Rope seemed intent on changing up many of the fixtures found at earlier experiences. First, they managed to deliver many of their personal, solitary experiences in the context of a larger group of six. I thought that the intimate nature of the experience would be compromised by the group dynamic, but it was mostly intact. Second, and more interestingly, this was the first production that truly led with story. Previous productions had narratives & themes, but felt more impressionistic, open-ended, and rawly experiential. By contrast, The Rope had characters, backstories, plot lines, settings, literal setpieces, and other trappings that one would typically expect from “theater.” Before you go off thinking that they were getting all Tennessee Williams on us though, where it got interesting is that the show was also a game.

After an introductory scene, we were each given a separate mission to locate somebody in the story world and perform some action. We would receive special items as a result of completing tasks, and were directed to periodically check in with a sage character for more guidance. The various character encounters had interactive components that sometimes required choices that seemed to alter the outcome of the overall story. In the final scene, all of the guests were reunited as a group and shared our tokens with a final character who provided closure and parting wisdom about both our individual and collective experiences.

The production design was more ambitious and varied than in prior productions and provided an appropriately surreal backdrop to this journey to a fantasy time & place. And as would be expected, everything was tinged with a dark intensity that never allowed you to completely feel at ease, in a good way. This was October after all.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and unexpected way to spend an evening. The various experiments: group experiences, game mechanics, stronger storylines all felt well-considered and were more successful than not. However, in embracing a more traditional framework, they took on some of the heavy lifting that goes with it. In an impressionistic, solitary experience, a good portion of the show ends up happening inside your own head. There isn’t really a good way to tell a story halfway, and it felt like there were some troubling loose ends. Afterward, I had a conversation with one of my fellow seekers that started with him saying aloud to no-one in particular, perhaps just the building in which we had just spent the last hour, “Does anybody else here feel just a little bit frustrated?”

There were spurts of story, teases of backstory, vapor trails of character arc, that just-woken-from dream sense that you kind of get what’s going on, and the dawning realization that you don’t. That hunger for a full meal not just a succession of artful plates. I wanted to know more about everything I had heard and everyone I had met, and I had the sinking feeling that I wouldn’t, or worse that there was nothing left to know.

2. Fear Is What We Learned Here (October 2015)

film-leader-21I can remember it so clearly. Parking my car on the unfamiliar suburban street near an address that I had only been provided in the past day. Walking alone up a dark path, carefully following the provided directions to choose the right path at appropriate landmarks, and finally approaching the figure wearing a black robe, standing silently. Waiting for me. And thinking to myself, “Now what?!”

Fear Is What We Learned Here was a fresh installment in the type of solitary, extreme horror experience pioneered by BLACKOUT. It mixed a dark minimalist sensibility with clever low-tech effects and artful touches in a way that was beautiful, disorienting, exhilarating, and unexpected. All of this was executed with a homegrown sensibility that felt raw and unpredictable, and even a bit dangerous in a way that most productions can never achieve. It was the show I felt luckiest to have experienced in 2015, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It exceeded many of my expectations of what I could want from this type of show, and helped set a new standard of what I would want to experience in the future.

So why wasn’t it #1?

1. Shoshin (May 2016)

hqdefaultAfter Parturition‘s relatively disappointing follow-up to Fear‘s dark splendor, I was wary of Shoshin. From what scant information that was shared beforehand, it seemed to be an immersive theater show about Zen Buddhism. Huh? Exactly. Should I sit this one out? Have these guys gone off the rails? Did I have them all wrong? Was Fear a lucky hit? But it was May; October was months away, and I could hear the darkness calling.

I found myself in the same neck of the woods that I had been to for Fear, and some of the setups were familiar. Show up to an address, don a robe hanging from a tree, and wait to see what happens. I flowed into a 90-minute mostly outdoor walking journey staged in plain sight in the green areas of a suburban community. I was fascinated to see the tropes of extreme horror seamlessly applied to an introspective odyssey of self-discovery and reflection that was challenging but gentle, strict but instructive. In the same way, that we have discovered that we must ultimately be alone in order to truly face that which we fear, Shoshin draws a similar parallel of intensity and gravity to the lifelong process of an individual’s search for meaning.

The format of the show was a procession through various stations and activities, some of which were entirely self-guided and without any performers. I did not feel rushed at any point and considering it was springtime in Southern California, it was mostly a pleasant, if not slightly peculiar way to spend some much-needed time outdoors. The final scene occurred indoors where I was an audience of one to an intense keyboard and vocal performance that was absolutely stunning. It was oddly cathartic — I occasionally return to that moment, and how unique it has been in my experiences.

On one hand, it would be easy to fault Shoshin for a reliance on other ideas — in this case, the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, from which it borrows liberally for much of its script. But the genius of Shoshin lies in how it brought those abstract theoretical ideas to life and made them interactive and compelling. I actually came away wanting to learn more about meditation, something that probably would have never happened if I had just tried reading the book.

Above all, this was my favorite show because of how absolutely different it was from Fear. It would have been easy for them to keep phoning it in and delivering dark, solitary, horrifying experiences, and I’d probably keep going to them. But Shoshin was a gutsy gamble that almost seemed designed to fail. Instead, the result was spectacularly transcendent. It not only broadens what can be achievable in a context of darkness and intensity, but elevates the potential of immersive theater across the board.

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Thank you to Screenshot Productions for your tireless ambition and fearless experimentation.

Ever seeking light, I look forward to whatever comes next.

My Year of Walking Through Darkness: Part 1

27 Oct

I was born, actualized, terrified, seeking, and died all in one year. Just not in that order.

In the past 12 months, I’ve participated in five experiences produced by Screenshot Productions, a prolific newcomer to the immersive theater scene. I’m a terrible person for not having blogged about any of their shows until now, so I’m trying something different — a retrospective ranking of their shows to date and a crack at collectively evaluating them as an evolving body of work.

i-601-waiver-devil-in-detailsFirst, some overall context. Los Angeles continues to be one of the best places to experience what can be loosely described as extreme haunted attractions. Unlike traditional haunted houses which are designed to accommodate hundreds if not thousands of guests per hour, these experiences are designed for smaller groups, and sometimes just individuals. They frequently require you to sign a personal liability waiver that allows them to break down traditional barriers by permitting them to touch you and generally subject you to more bodily intense treatment than would ever be allowed at most theme park events or family-friendly/amateur offerings. I’ve written about some of them before, and when they’re executed well, they can be uniquely thrilling and impactful experiences. I’m not going to beat around the bush, Blackout: elements was life-changing.

Last Fall, as “the season” was approaching, I was fortunate to have been given a tip to follow the Instagram page @whatwelearnedhere. This began a series of email exchanges that culminated in my favorite haunt experience of 2015, amidst a crowded and talented field (Alone, Wicked Lit, LA Haunted Hayride, to name a few outstanding options.)

What happened next was delightfully unexpected. In the subsequent year, I experienced four more productions from this tireless and ambitious group and was charmed, mystified, thrilled, and provoked by their work. Moreover, it became increasingly difficult to generically classify their shows as “haunted” or “horror” or “scary” although aesthetically, they continued to be strongly informed by those sensibilities. Instead, through a medium of intense one-on-one interactions in a milieu of dreadful uncertainty, I found myself absorbing philosophical teachings and having mild therapeutic breakthroughs. Hardly your typical haunted house.

That said, I occasionally came away feeling that they hadn’t quite hit the mark, even as their efforts have greatly expanded the scope of what is achievable with immersive theater. In every show, I feel like I see something I’ve never seen before, even if the execution is not perfect. And that’s why I keep coming back.

So, from least favorite to most favorite in my extremely personal opinion, here is what we learned in the past year.

stock-footage-leader-countdown-recorded-on-get-old-film-projection-bad-projector5. Parturition (January 2016)
This was their second show. On one hand it was the much-anticipated follow-up to their Fall 2015 experience which took everybody by surprise. After the true horror of the Christmas season, and the subsequent nationwide cultural hangover that is January — the announcement of a new show was a beacon of hope, even if it seemed to have been pulled together in a shockingly short period of time.

Parturition, a fancy word for giving birth, promised to be a show about being born. And they had introduced a new twist, after purchasing the ticket, you had the option of electing whether you wanted to do the experience in the nude, as in “naked as the day you were born.” Guests would participate one at a time, and there was also a small questionnaire with somewhat personal questions that set an expectation that each experience might be personalized.

Although I have ranked this fifth, I don’t necessarily think it was a bad show, but it nevertheless fell short for me. It felt like a series of beats that were loosely strung together, and none of them felt fully realized. It did not seem that any of the information that I had provided had actually been used to personalize the experience, which felt like both a missed opportunity and a failed expectation. In the climactic scene, you meet “your mother” in what is a tender counterpoint to the chaos and sensory overload of the preceding scenes. This was an atypically soothing and intimate exchange with a performer, not some cheap, disingenuous bait-and-switch to a horrific last laugh. As special as this scene was though, I still felt that it didn’t achieve its full potential. The experience ended, in what would evolve as a signature closing beat to many of their shows, with a precious moment of silent reflection before re-entering the normal world where I was no longer a newborn.

I left the experience with mixed feelings. I felt like they had rushed to pull this together and it showed. However, it was the first time I’d seen the tropes of horror and extreme experiences applied to a non-horror narrative. For me, it blew open a door that we’ve been sitting outside for the last few years. And through it, I could see a vast space to explore.

hqdefault4. Bardo Thodol (September 2016)
This was their fourth show, and the pragmatist in me couldn’t help noticing how close it was to what should really be their signature show of the year in October. I was concerned that like Parturition, it might have been rushed.

Bardo Thodol is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist text. From the typically cursory information provided beforehand,  I understood that this show would concern my recent passage into the afterlife after dying. Whether intentional or not, it could be seen as a bookend of sorts to Parturition. Like Parturition, I received a questionnaire beforehand, but this one was much more incisive and personal, and the responses demanded thought and reflection. I was also directed to download some  audio files and have them ready for playback for the experience itself, without listening to them beforehand — a delicious exercise in self-restraint. I’m a huge fan of engaging the experience before it actually begins, so all was good so far.

The experience itself began on a crowded city street, outside a nondescript building where the email instructions directed me to close my eyes and begin listening to the provided audio files. Once I was directed inside, the show proper began, and the first 2/3 of it featured some of the most intense moments I’d experienced in any production to date. Loud, disorienting, intimate, chaotic. I was dead after all and in transition. For the final 1/3, the mood shifted and I had a very personal interview with a bodiless voice about the information I had provided in my questionnaire. The dialogue was conducted in a reflective context — a look back at key points in my life. Even though I had recently provided the information, the preceding scenes allowed me to re-engage it in an unexpected and powerful context.

That said, I have ranked it fourth for a reason. Generally speaking, production design is not the strongest feature of any of these shows. In some cases, they are able to successfully use a minimalist asethetic as a cleverly-integrated design constraint. In this show though, it was a bit too ragged and ultimately felt distracting and unfinished. Also, much of the script appeared to be pulled from Bardo Thodol itself or similarly-themed philosophical texts and thus lacked in story and felt a bit forced and ultimately difficult to engage. What should have been a powerfully resonant experience felt somewhat cluttered and diluted with filler. The highs were high and the lows were low, and overall there was more that worked here than at Parturition.

Read the rest of the countdown in Part 2.

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Into the Further: Virtual + Reality

10 Jun

captain-picard-full-of-win-500x381“Dude, how did you score those tickets?!”

I held the phone in disbelief.

I had heard about Into the Further 4D, a traveling, pop-up, virtual reality experience promoting the upcoming horror flick, Insidious: Chapter 3. That’s just a bunch of adjectives that you don’t usually see in the same sentence describing the same event, so I wanted in.

It was going to be in LA for a brief three days in May, and here’s the thing, the tickets were free, if you could figure out how to get them. After trying some broken promo codes, I had basically given up, until my friend called to save the day. He never really answered my question. It didn’t matter. We were going.

We showed up at a parking lot on the edges of Downtown LA just before noon on a Sunday, pretty much the most unhaunted time and setting to experience anything.

insidious_trailers_resize

Conveniently located next to Urgent Care

There were a couple of connected trailers that looked similar to the ones at last year’s Purge: Breakout escape room event. Blumhouse Productions is behind both events as well as 2013’s Purge: Fear The Night immersive theater production. Based on their track record, they are establishing a reputation for producing events that mashup horror with experiences not typically associated with horror. When they roll into town, you can pretty much expect that it will not be your run-of-the-mill haunted house.

NOTE: This event is gone, and it’s probably never coming back, and you’ll probably never get to see it, so spoilers will follow. make the world_front

I’ve been lurking on the periphery of the virtual reality scene since the first time I tried Oculus Rift at the 2013 NeuroGaming Conference and Expo. As an interactive experience designer, the lure of the latest and greatest technologies is a perpetual temptation and the siren song of VR can seem irresistible.

The amazing part about VR is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. The challenging part about VR, especially in terms of location-based entertainment, is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. It’s an uphill battle to provide guests with a form of entertainment that can essentially be experienced in their living room. Unless you replace the living room.

insidious_trailers_entry_resizeBack to the parking lot. We had reservations for a specific time window, but VR is generally not a high-throughput venture, and to maximize the horror, we were told that we would walk through alone. So we waited. And anticipated. And postulated. What on earth was going on inside that trailer?

The facade of the trailer was designed to look like a front door, and walking through it brought me inside the house of Elise, the paranormal investigator/medium from the first two Insidious movies. I waited as another inner door swallowed guests one at a time, and eventually me.

I entered a short, dark, narrow hallway and was accosted by an assortment of pops, air blasts, loud noises, etc., designed to put you on edge. I turned the corner and a ghoulish figure burst out, screamed at me that I had to help her, and directed me down a longer hallway toward a numbered door.

ins2The tiny chamber was cramped, dimly lit, and filled with all kinds of bric-a-brac that evoked the home-gone-wrong feel of the films. A monitor turned on and played a short video introducing the upcoming VR experience. A previously unseen door opened and another ghoulish and relatively sedate character beckoned me forward and into a chair facing a familiar red door. Seconds later, I was in the Rift, heading into the Further. Or so I thought.

The first thing I saw in VR was the same door that existed in reality. It opened and I “moved” through it and into Elise’s sitting room. She was waiting and warned me of some of the bad things that were afoot. Then things started to get real spooky including a few good scares that took full advantage of the immersive quality of the experience. There were some 4D effects including seat rumblings, and at one point, (I’m guessing) the assistant lightly brushed my arm in time with something wispy floating by. When things were about to get crazy, it faded away, and I was back, looking at the real door and being guided toward the exit.

The whole experience only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like something significant had been achieved. Haunted houses, 4D, and VR are nothing new to me, but combining all of them felt like a breakthrough. Even if it was basically a highly sophisticated movie trailer, this modest whole was definitely larger than the sum of its parts. I was satisfied with what I had seen, and curious about where it could go.  But before I launched headlong into the future, I found myself momentarily thinking about the past.

train_1I recalled a story I heard in film school. About 120 years ago, a couple of brothers were trying to figure out something cool to do with their Cinématographe — one of the first devices to resemble a motion picture camera. One of the first pieces that they screened was a short clip of a train arriving at a station, evocatively titled, “Arrival of a Train.”

The apocrypha would have us believe that some of those audience members from two centuries ago ran in terror from the theater because they thought the train would burst through the screen. I remember thinking, “That can’t possibly be true.” These were sophisticated Europeans with elevated tastes, and this was after all a shot of a train arriving at a station. Nevertheless, although it’s hard to imagine standing in their shoes in that darkened room, I wanted to believe that the truth of their reaction probably landed somewhere between the abject terror of the legend, but far from mute indifference.

kerzeA more fruitful daydream is that everybody in that room knew that they had just seen something that they’d never seen before, and that they felt like they could see that much further into what this new, crazy thing could be. And each of those early viewers might have got something out of it, talked about it with their friends who hadn’t seen it, forgotten it, or got hooked at the gills. Except they didn’t have blogs back then.

VR is out of the living room. Reality just got that much more virtual. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Story Room: Saving the World is Thirsty Work

26 May

“Are you ready to save the f–king world?” he asked. To be honest, it was a bit more than I had in mind after a day at work, but I exchanged looks with my companions and said, “Sure!” After all, what could possibly go wrong?

We were about to enter Story Room, a production of Two Bit Circus. I’m not actually quite sure what this group really is. I’ve seen them referred to as an entertainment company, a think tank, and in more pedestrian press, an agency. However, I had a great time at their STEAM Carnival last autumn, so for the purposes of this blog, I’m OK with thinking about them as a group that likes to make fun experiences. I think they’d be OK with that too.

hqdefaultSo, back to saving the world. In the real world, we were at the Brewery Arts Complex, an artist colony housed in a former brewery that is off the beaten path in an industrial part of Los Angeles. It’s an easy place to get lost in and quite mysterious in its own right. Certainly worth saving.

We were welcomed inside an anteroom and provided with a smattering of backstory. It involved aliens. It sounded important. And then a door opened, we entered, it closed behind us, and we were inside the story!

Half the fun of Story Room is not having a clear idea of what to expect, and I don’t intend to spoil that for you. The website describes it as a “unique multiplayer experience that combines problem solving with character twists to create a new form of live entertainment.” Clear as mud, but intriguing as hell.

journey-escape(4)However, if you’ve read their website, you’re probably wondering, is this an escape room attraction? If you haven’t experienced one, escape rooms are pretty much what they sound like: you’re placed in a locked room and have to figure out how to get out, usually within a fixed time limit. And there’s no guarantee that you will. Getting out usually requires solving a number of puzzles based on objects in your environment, while possibly fending off antagonistic or distracting elements. I had a tremendous time at last year’s Purge: Breakout, but I haven’t felt drawn to seek out similar experiences.

Although an escape room can be elegant and complex in the design of its puzzles, the underlying narrative can sometimes feel limited. The context for your situation ultimately boils down to being trapped and needing to escape. Although there is a binary, win/lose aspect to it that appeals to my competitive side, it tends to conflict with my desire to just be entertained.

Story Room shares many of the game mechanics and sensibilities of an escape room, but the narrative framework substitutes progress for escape. It’s a subtle nuance, and therein lies all the difference.

In Story Room, as we solved the puzzles, we learned more about our situation. Rooms started to feel more like scenes, and the puzzles themselves felt increasingly like a connected, rational part of the underlying story. On one hand, it’s a different means to a similar end, but it places the focus on the journey, not the destination.

As a practical illustration: we did OK with the puzzles, but we were occasionally assisted via a mechanism that was integrated with the story. Sure, my ego would have been more gratified if we had performed better, but I found myself less focused on winning or losing and far more interested in what would happen next.
In the final room, we had to choose between two objectives to pursue. Either one would have constituted “success,” but we decided based on what we had learned about the story in the previous rooms and how we personally felt it should resolve.

In short, this show lived up to its name. We were in the story! In fact, we discovered afterward that had we done better in one of the previous rooms, we may have learned something that could have influenced our decision in the final room.

magnacovblankeThe website boldly namechecks the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 80s & 90s. This type of branching narrative is a holy grail of sorts for experience designers in location-based entertainment, but can be operationally difficult to execute. It seems that on some level, even if we didn’t experience all the possible outcomes, they pulled it off.

The puzzles were excellently designed and thoughtfully crafted to require multiple participants to solve them. In similar attractions, multiple players allow you to simply “throw more bodies at the problem” by being able to more rapidly find hidden objects. In Story Room, multiple players are critical because many of the puzzles consist of discrete tasks that need to be performed in parallel. In the final room, we each had distinct roles to play to reach our objective.

iwantmoreWe were in there slightly over an hour, but time flies, as the saying goes. Understanding that like any production, they are limited by real resources such as budget and space, my main feedback for future productions would be to create more “scenes” even if each is shorter. Reflecting on how this show redraws the line between storytelling and problem-solving, I would love to see them take it even further and incorporate more branching, more rooms, and maybe even some live performers. In other words, more of everything that worked so well.

As you could probably guess, saving the world is thirsty work, so we were delighted to discover that the Brewery just happened to have a gastropub on the premises. Tasty food. Cold beer. Good times. Highly recommended.

If you’re in LA, and this show is still happening, I would recommend checking it out. And if you’re not in LA, why not? It’s real nice here.

Wicked Lit’s Tough Crowd: Dead People

3 Nov

About midway through Unbound Productions’ performance of Wicked Lit, I couldn’t help noticing that although there were hundreds of us in the crowd, only about 30 of us were still alive by this point.

When I heard that Wicked Lit featured plays being performed in a graveyard, I flashed back to those cringeworthy moments of my youth making short films in cemeteries, and thought, “This can go very wrong.” However, it was October, and I’ll try anything once if it involves Halloween. As we entered the venue, I had no way of knowing that I was about to experience my favorite show of a very busy season of haunted attractions.

cover_1128171732012_rWe were at the Mountain View Mortuary, Cemetery, and Crematory in Altadena, CA. The facility’s ample grounds also include an extensive mausoleum, which pretty much makes it a one-stop shop for dead people. Although the show was scheduled to start at 7:30, we arrived at about 7:15 to find an entertaining pre-show involving a host who was part hypnotist/magician/paranormal investigator and his various assistants already in the process of various shenanigans. This part of the show took place in a courtyard with walls consisting of mostly occupied drawers of the not-so-recently departed. The living crowd was divided into three groups, and each was led to experience a different one-act play before regrouping in the courtyard for more entertainment and subsequent dispatch until each group had seen all three shows.

I could see that logistically this was already a very ambitious production, but I found that it was well-matched by the sophistication of the creative execution. The playwrights of the three pieces bill their work as “adaptations,” but a quick comparison between the source material and the final product suggests that this is perhaps an excessively modest attribution of what appears to be highly original creative work. The three main plays offered a diversity of themes, styles, and settings with minimal overlap making for a very well-rounded and satisfying experience. As a guest, it can be exhausting to mentally shift gears between three different stories in a single evening of entertainment, but each piece was rooted in a familiar spooky trope that made it easy to get your bearings, before these wicked geniuses proceeded to turn the tables on you.

Our first offering was Dracula’s Guest, and we began by walking through the inner halls of the mausoleum that were spookily lit throughout, an impressive feat considering the myriad corridors and stairways through which we passed. The play started in what was probably the most tradtional “set” of the entire evening — a classic three-walled construction of a 19th century inn. We were soon introduced to Jonathan Harker of Dracula fame, and noted the presence of silver bullets and other familiar trappings of nocturnal menaces. But as quickly as they arrived, these ephemeral wisps of familiar milieu were dissipated by the winds of a brisker, edgier narrative. Harker’s archetypal naiveté is warped by a fierce insolence and (dare I say, millennial) sense of entitlement that made me wonder whether he might actually be better off with a couple of fangs in his neck. We were whisked outside the mausoleum to witness Harker’s journey through the Carpathians, before trekking to the final scene in a vast graveyard that was expansively tricked out with dramatic lighting and immersive sound effects. There, we watched a fierce and decidedly risqué encounter between Harker and two of the Count’s comelier devotees, before returning to the courtyard for our next adventure.

Despite its familiar themes and melodramatic flourishes, there was a decided lack of campiness in Dracula’s Guest. The performances struck the perfect balance of not taking themselves too seriously while not taking the easy way out into parody. And just when the tension seemed to be too much to handle for a leisurely weeknight out in the graveyard, the piece ended and we were allowed to decompress with the appropriately themed intermission hijinks in the courtyard. It was a dynamic that would be repeated throughout the night, and it was always effective. During these intermissions, I noticed a unique intimacy and sense of community that permeated the entire show. I even had a chance to chat with some of the producers and learn more about the history of the company.

The second play was The Monk, and it took place in Inquisition-era Venice. In this story, the familiar anchor was that of a Faustian bargain, but with a modern feminist twist. Our heroine was a young woman who, through an unexpected set of circumstances, finds that the pension that has been supporting her studies has been absorbed by the Church. Without this support, as a woman with academic ambitions in 17th century Europe, she finds herself with no option except to join a convent. She enters into a deal with a satanic figure to gain her freedom from society and the Church, but instead of bartering her soul, she must use her powers of seduction to ruin a man of the cloth. The deal itself, and its attendant hooded ghouls and wicked devil, was staged in the mortuary church, a delectably sinful nuance of the production. Finally, we watched the climactic crescendo play out below us in the mausoleum’s beautiful garden from the unique perspective of a balcony.

The third play was Las Lloronas. Whereas the first two plays were clever dramatic narrative retellings, this piece was an impressionistic feast of story, dance, music, multimedia, and a succession of absolute knockout dramatic performances by every single one of the players. The gist of the narrative was the retelling of an Aztec legend in which a native of Tenochtitlan finds herself wed to Cortes, and subsequently driven mad by his betrayal to the point where she murders her children. The four scenes that followed depicted similar vignettes that showed how this tragic pattern repeated itself in successive generations and increasingly familiar and contemporary settings. While each vignette was hosted and narrated by a handsomely demonic figure, the emotional current of the story was conveyed through movement and passionate performances that embody the special power of the theatre. I felt very fortunate that through the luck of the draw, our group saw this piece last. It was definitely my favorite, and in its final moments, it sent the types of chills down my spine that I had been seeking (and not always finding) all month.

I attended quite a few events this Halloween season, and felt that each was satisfying in its own way, but Wicked Lit was definitely my personal favorite. The material was developed and executed with a freshness and a depth that tends to be difficult or impractical for this type of seasonal event. I was particularly struck by the fact that there were no small roles. Every player had a meaningful, challenging part, and I am grateful to them for bringing so much energy and intensity to their performances, especially considering that each actor delivered three performances per night. Special kudos to all of the talented and passionate performers in Las Lloronas.

Unbound Productions is an exciting, passionate, and innovative group, and while I’ll definitely be back for Wicked Lit 2015, I look forward to seeing what they do in the interim!

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