I ended up in an absurdist maze world yesterday. A bemused godlike creature helped me find the back entrance to his nightclub, “The Under,” in the hull of an overturned ship. On stage, a green-skinned lounge performer sang and danced with her drumming skeleton sidekick, Tina. When a cruise-boat captain ran up to me and touched my hand, I teleported to a kiddie pool in a desert for a harried, personalized lifeguard-training spiel, but then I had to jump back to the club to join a live office-aerobics exercise run by a man in a purple spandex unitard. He invited me on stage to lead the group in a new move of my own invention.
And that doesn’t even begin to explain the 10 people trapped on a burning ship-in-a-bottle that can go back and forth through time.
This is The Under Presents, a new kind of social virtual-reality game that Facebook’s Oculus is previewing this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
When it’s released later this year, The Under Presents will teleport you from your living room to this sprawling absurdist universe that mixes VR and stories-within-stories with immersive theater and remote live actors. It has line-dancing cats and a dolphin named Gerald. If it’s a hit, it’ll be a victory for uncompromising oddity and all the weirdos who love it.
Virtual reality needs a hit.
VR was one of technology’s buzziest trends in the last three years, attracting giant investments by heavyweights like Google and Facebook. But its hype has fizzled, as widespread adoption of VR has been elusive. Without a gotta-see-it experience compelling people to try the unfamiliar format, consumers en masse have been ambivalent about the appeal of these strange headsets you strap to your face.
The Under Presents will be released this year as a paid experience for Oculus Quest, the company’s standalone VR headset expected in the spring for $399. Oculus hasn’t determined its exact release date or price.
When The Under Presents was in early development last year, Yelena Rachitsky, executive producer of experiences at Oculus, described the project as indie video game phenom Journey meets immersive play Sleep No More. That description still holds true now.
In The Under Presents, you play a “sprite” that looks similar to the avatars in Journey. As you explore this fantasy world, you come in contact with other players but communicate wordlessly, through pantomine and finger snaps. The Under Presents is replayable and would be different every time, but it’s meant to have a roughly three-hour story arc.
And like Sleep No More, you put on a mask as you enter this fantasy world, where you’re free to explore everything around you or follow paths led by crisscrossing live actors.
Piehole, an experimental theater collective, has been developing the acting side of the project’s different live and recorded acts that come and go. The narrative experience was developed by Tender Claws, creators of the game Virtual Virtual Reality and the augmented reality app Tendar that appeared at Sundance last year.
When I tried The Under Presents, the actors were in the room next door. But as Oculus rolls out the game, actors theoretically can jump into a headset and perform in the experience from anywhere, just as players can attend whether they’re in Times Square or in Timbuktu.
Virtual reality has been flailing for its killer app. The Under Presents feels incomprehensibly weird enough to possibly work.
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