I found baobab’s “INVASION!” both on Within and Jaunt. You can also get it from their website.
It’s worth noting, that this seems to be a preview or trailer for a larger work that’s to come. But they did release it and it does stand on its own. Even if it’s quite short.
Overall, baobab studios seems to have created something that is actually captivating, for now.
The gimmick is that you are a character. You are a silent, motionless and apparently motivation-less character. The story happens around you. Characters are motivated by your presence.
baobab has created a compelling and awfully cute set of characters. Sitting somewhere between Pixar and Chuck Jones in both design and tempo.
One particularly interesting question that this has answered for me is one of immersion in a stylized or cartoonish space. The question better put:
If VR successfully provides you presence in a cartoonish space, will you accept it? Or will its cartoonish nature have you reject it?
Certainly the space in “INVASION!” isn’t fully realistic or fully cartoon. It’s sitting comfortably between a painted background for an old Looney Tunes piece, and a piece of realistic 3d rendering. Is it painterly? Yes. Is there realistic light and shadow? Yes. Does it work? Do I reject it? Yes, it works. No, I don’t reject it. It feels fine.
The questions that pelt me now are: How much can you peel back from it before you reject it? Can you do a more non-photorealistic lighting and still accept it? Can you do a space with no lighting and just ink and paint? I’m sure we’ll all eventually see.
The big creative gambit in this piece is you. The viewer. You are a character. If you read the text description, it’s made clear you are a bunny. But the piece itself doesn’t make that clear. Rather, you’re some sort of 6 inch-ish tall creature. And you know you are present, because a bunny regards you as such very early on. From then on, everything that happens around you is clearly regarding you as a character in the diegesis of the piece.
Does it work right now? Yes. It’s so early on in VR Cinema that it feels okay. Future audiences may find it off-putting. We’ll see in time. Most importantly, it removes the problem I find in the MR ROBOT VR piece. In MR ROBOT, even though there’s some theoretical justification for my being an observer of the events, it feels awkward and voyeuristic. In “INVASION!” that problem is now completely removed.
However, it is replaced by another problem. I feel somewhat weird doing nothing. Making me a character within the piece makes me want to interact somehow. And at that moment, “INVASION!” proves itself to sit on a line between interactive VR and VR Cinema.
If it’s interactive VR, it’s cute, but it’s not good. Because the interactive component is as minimal as possible. I can’t do anything but observe. It’s bad interactive VR if it’s interactive VR.
Oddly, if the piece seamlessly transitioned into a gameplay experience at that moment, it’d prove to be an excellent VR game cinematic intro.
But probably, that’s not its purpose. Rather, they seem to intend it as a preview to a larger piece of VR Cinema. And therein lies the larger problem.
Writing a piece much longer than this, in which a main character is just silent, motionless and passive, is probably going to be a problem. It’s a neat short. But even as a short, I suspect it’s a VR narrative device that’ll get very old and boring quickly. Are we really going to change most narrative structures to include static characters for the viewer to inhabit in every scene from now on? Probably not.
I very much appreciate the staging. There’s some head turning involved. But they don’t make me turn around backwards for no particular reason. They also do a good job of providing sound cues and visual cues to help you know where to look next.
From a technical perspective, “INVASION!” is very successful.
There are some visual fidelity issues I could point out. Rendering issues. As a former Visual Effects Supervisor, I could run down a long list of notes that an animation and effects team would recognize and go in and fix. But that’s splitting hairs for a preview of a VR Cinema piece at such an early point in the development of VR Cinema. Most viewers won’t notice them.
The depth is well done. Unlike in live-action VR where depth is really hard to do well. In “INVASION!” it just works. And that’s a good thing.
Of what exists right now, this is some of the best VR Cinema we have. It’s entertaining and engaging. It doesn’t make you sick. It’s something you could go watch again. Even if it’s really very short.
I am fairly certain though, that it’s going to amount to a gimmick in the long run. While baobab has found something compelling at this moment in VR Cinema’s short life, I am very skeptical that it’s the solution. And I suspect it will not age well for that reason.
But we shall see. I could be wrong. For now though, it has not yet aged, good or bad. So, it’s worth seeing.