The MetaMovie Presents: Alien Rescue is one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had in VR. It’s part Cinematic Adventure, part Immersive Theater, and part game that’s fusing the affordances of each of these different mediums in a unique way. There’s one interactor who is cast as the protagonist who meets up with three other immersive theater actors who are taking you on a fairly linear adventure to rescue some aliens. The main character gets to do some live-action role playing, customize their character’s identity and expertise, and make a number of different choices along the way to potentially go down some forks in the story. There’s also a number of other audience members there who are cast as iBots, which don’t have as much narrative agency as they can’t really speak, but they have more embodied & locomotion agency in terms of being able to explore around the environment as well as chose which characters and storylines to follow as the part splits up at different points.
I’ve had a chance to see MetaMovie twice now. I saw the first half at their initial premiere at the Venice Film Festival 2020, and then the full experience again as a judge for Raindance, where it won the best multi-player experience and got runner up for best game. It’s part story, part game, and part immersive theater adventure, and so I’m glad that it was able to win the multi-player award as the overall sense of social presence has been some of the deepest that I’ve had in any immersive VR storytelling or immersive theater experience that I’ve had so far. It’s quite a unique blend of agency and story, and it’s a mix that has taken a lot of time to develop through years of different experimentation on previous MetaMovie Project experiments.
I had a chance to talk with most of the cast and crew after I saw the experience at Venice in September 2020, where I got a lot of context and history about how the series of MetaMovie Project experiments have evolved. This interview includes director and creator Jason Moore, producer Avinash Changa, and actors Nicole Rigo, Kenneth Rougeau, and Marinda Botha. The fourth actor Craig Woodward was unfortunately not able to join us for this interview, but we’re able to explore both the past, present, and future of immersive storytelling in this wide-ranging conversation from the POV of the director, screenwriter, producer, and actors perspectives.
Moore tells me that they’re currently planning on doing weekly runs of The MetaMovie Project, and I HIGHLY recommend checking it out. I’ve been able to be the hero twice now, and it’s super compelling. But I also hear how satisfying it is to be an iBot as well to be able to help solve puzzles, track different characters, and have a bit more agency to explore the environmental and storylines that are the most compelling.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So on today's episode, I'm featuring the MediMovie Presents Alien Rescue, which is one of the most immersive experiences I've had a chance to try out in VR so far. I originally got to see it at the Venice Film Festival back in September of 2020. Actually, after I saw it, I did this interview with a number of the cast and crew, and then I saw it again at the Raindance Film Festival. They've just won the best multiplayer experience at Raindance, and they've won runner-up for the best game. Having been a judge on the multiplayer experience, by and far, it was an experience that had the most rich multiplayer dynamics. Like I said, it's one of the most immersive experiences that I've had so far. So the first time I saw it, I only got to see about half of it because that's where they were at with it. They've continued to work on it. And, you know, whenever I have these different discussions about these different pieces, sometimes I'll not release it right away because there's a lot of spoilers and just talking about the experience. And I'd say about the second half of this conversation, we start to really dig into some of the different nuances of the experience. But if you just want to, like, listen to the experience and you haven't tried it out, then I think the first half is fairly spoiler free. But this is a piece where you're immersed within a virtual reality experience where you become the protagonist. So there's three other main characters, and you kind of go on this adventure, and you have this task and this mission. And for me, it was so immersive because you get this sense of these other characters, and you're able to kind of role-play with them. It's like the live-action role-play. But the way that the narrative is structured is that it's fairly linear in the sense that you're walking through these different steps, and they give you different choices and different paths that you can start to go down. But there's quite a lot of different improv that gives you this rich feeling. The other thing that I think is unique in terms of an innovation from the MetaMovie project series is having the main protagonist, but also having these what they call iBots, which is the other characters that are lower tier that you don't have as much narrative agency, but you have much more embodied agency in the sense that you're able to move around the space and kind of track what storylines you want to follow. And there's other ways that they can start to interact with the iBots, whether it's solving puzzles or finding different things or exploring the space. So the people who are the iBots aren't able to talk and speak as a character, but they're still a part of the story in the sense that they're able to observe it and kind of move around, like they control what perspective they can see the story from and which characters that they want to follow. So I think this is an innovation that's continued to have a huge influence, and I've mentioned it in quite a lot of other pieces that have adopted this tiered system because If you are going to do a whole immersive theater production with three actors and a director and everything else, and just to have one person who's paying, that's not really a sustainable business model. There has to be other ways of either having these other tiers and eventually other aspects of live streaming and whatnot as well. I think this is a big part of the future of immersive storytelling, especially when you have these immersive theater fusions. How do you actually structure this? How do you give the characters agency? We start to unpack a lot of these different things with the creators and the actors of this piece. So Jason Moore is somebody who is the director and the visionary behind a lot of this piece. And then he matched up with his producer, Abhinav Changa. And there's a number of different cast and crew. In this conversation, I was able to interview three out of the four. At the time, back in September 2020, Craig Woodward was not able to join us, but we did have Nicole Rigo, Kenneth Rougeau, and Miranda Botha. So that's what's coming on today's episode of The Voices of VR Podcast. So this interview with Jason, Avinash, Nicole, Kenneth, and Marinda happened on Sunday, September 13th, 2020. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:03:40.398] Jason Moore: I'm Jason Moore. I consider myself kind of a cross-platform storyteller. I've worked in theater, film, television, and emerging media for about 20 years. I've always been really interested in any emerging tech, whether it was, and I'm dating myself, but like going from SD to HD or HD to 4K or 4K to 3D or 3D to 360, like all those kind of emergent spaces, those little liminal spaces between analog and digital or old and new. The promise of new tech has always excited me. I've got a love of science as much as I have a love of storytelling. And so when VR technology became widely available, I dove in and I've been working steadily in VR for about five years now. And I'm so hooked on the medium and the possibilities that I honestly, I just, I love cinema and I love 2D storytelling, but I don't think I'm going back anytime soon. I'm so hooked on the potential of VR that I'm going to do a deep dive, I think, for a while. So the Meta Movie has been a project that I've been working on for about four years. And yeah, that's a little bit about my history and kind of where I am in emerging technology.
[00:04:48.337] Kenneth Rougeau: I'm Kenneth Rougeau. As far as virtual reality goes, well, as you know, I play Baxter in the meta movie, which has just been a crazy and amazing experience. It's been quite a ride. I was working with Jason and Nicole and Craig previously on the heist, and Miranda was there towards the end. Alien Rescue is so much more next level, too, which is really great. Beyond that, I develop VR software myself. I'm in the Oculus Start program. I've got a couple of titles out. I've got a virtual reality art gallery full of my own crazy stuff, and I host a bunch of events in Vircadia, formerly High Fidelity. We have a movie night and do a couple other things there pretty much weekly. That's it.
[00:05:26.990] Nicole Rigo: I'm Nicole Rigo. I'm an immersive actor, among other types of acting. And in VR, I've been working for Jason on the MetaMovie project for about three and a half years, since 2017, beginning of 2017. And that was pretty much my introduction to the VR world, and I'm still here.
[00:05:48.445] Marinda Botha: I'm Marinda, Marinda Boerta. I'm a voiceover artist and actor based in South Africa. I've been a voiceover artist for about 20 years and a few years ago I started studying again and I did my honours degree in English literature and focusing on storytelling in VR and that just got me hooked on VR. So now I'm doing my master's in storytelling in VR and I joined the cast about a year ago just at the very very tail end of the heist and yeah it's been amazing. It's been the best experience ever to actually do research in this type of way to be physically in it and I'm completely hooked and yeah that's me.
[00:06:33.485] Avinash Changa: I'm Avinash Changa. I'm the founder of WeMakeVR. And as a kid, I always wanted to become an astronaut. I wanted to explore these new worlds and go where no one had gone before. But obviously, I didn't become an astronaut. I became a VR maker. But the cool thing about VR is that it allows us to go there, to make these worlds that are mind-blowing and amazing. basically turn our fantasy into something that is an actual virtual reality. So we make VR. We've been in the industry since 2012, 2013. We made projects like Ashes to Ashes. We did the filming tech behind Meeting Rembrandt. Recently, we created a shared room, shared space multiplayer systems for the Quest. And in this process, we also coach a lot of new talent. And a couple of years ago, I got in touch with Jason through Reddit, who was looking for beta testers for the heist. So jumped into the heist, which was the second meta movie, was really impressed, not just with the heist itself, but mainly with the way Jason put the whole team together. So I thought, Oh, this is interesting. Let's keep in touch with this guy and see if we can help see if we can coach. And there was a very definite connection. And I was so impressed that I was like, Okay, I want to become part of this. I want to help. So over time got more and more involved. And here we are, we just completed the Venice run. And I'm really proud and excited to be to be part of that. So big kudos to Jason for pulling this all together.
[00:08:09.666] Kent Bye: Hmm. Great. So yeah, the Meta Movie Presents Alien Rescue was at the Venice Film Festival. I had a couple encounters with this. First, I had some, actually somebody else had some technical difficulties and couldn't get in. And that actually worked out in my favor because instead of being like a sidekick observer, I became the protagonist in this piece. So I was able to play the main role. Now I know this is going to be coming out at some point. People will be able to have their own opportunity to be able to see this. I'm sure you're gonna have some sort of either festival run or make it more widely available for folks. There's always the tricky issue here, which is the spoilers of the experience of what happens in the experience, my own experience. I'd love to get into that later, but maybe we could just set the broader context for folks who just want to know about what this project is and maybe a little bit more of the backstory. And then we can kind of dive in and I'll talk about all of my experience. I'll say at the top, though, is that This has been one of the most immersive experiences that I've had within VR and that it does feel amazing to be a part of a cast and to have that latitude to be able to start to role play with other characters. But I also realized that not everybody's going to be able to have a chance to do that. And so you have other roles to be able to have folks be observers and still participate and see a live performance, but yet not be that main protagonist character. So maybe we could set the broader context though, take me back to the seeds and the origins of this project and walk me through how it developed and that process and how you brought everybody up on board to be able to put together what you achieved last week at Venice.
[00:09:40.777] Jason Moore: Sure. I think it all honestly began when I was nine and my parents took me to see Star Wars in the movie theater, the original Star Wars. When I say the original Star Wars to my college students, we get really confused because nobody can agree on what that means. But if you look at me, I've got gray hair. We all know the original one was the original. And I remember that moment when Luke Skywalker was on the Millennium Falcon, there was an aerial combat fight with the TIE Fighters, and Han Solo was there, and Luke is shooting the TIE Fighters, and Han Solo turns to him and says, good shot, kid! And there was this moment when I was so immersed in that film and I just desperately wanted to be in that movie. I wanted to be next to him, shooting those TIE Fighters. And I feel like so many of us have had those moments where there's a movie that we love and we are so enamored with it that it's not enough just to watch it again. We want to be in it. We want to experience that feeling. That feeling never left me ever since I was a kid. I fell in love with the movies and I knew that my life would take me towards storytelling. And as a filmmaker and storyteller, I've just always been so interested in immersiveness and how can I pull my audiences deeper and deeper into my story. And of course, all filmmakers feel this way. This is nothing new. And as a technologist, as somebody interested in technology, I have always been looking for leveraging new technology in order to create deeper and deeper immersion. So, you know, I've made many movies and commercials and TV shows, but always chasing that dream of, like, is it possible to put an audience actually inside? I played Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid, so role-playing was something that was very familiar to me. I've always been a video gamer. So the world of video gaming has always been there with me. And I have a background in theater. I have a theater degree from UCLA. I've directed live theater. And even in like the television work I do, I mostly do live television. So I've had these influences in my life of cinema and role-playing and gaming and technology and live theater. And these have all just been floating in the background and been part of my existence. But when VR technology came around, I started thinking I had this germ of an idea of like well I could build a virtual world and I could tell a virtual story and I could bring an audience inside that and that just might work. 2017 or so was around when high fidelity was kind of in its heyday and this was a free social VR app that was open source and that was easy and I read about it and I thought well gee if I just had a a VR rig and I downloaded the software, I might be able to at least test out some of these ideas of putting somebody inside a movie. I mean, again, with understanding of gaming and, you know, I could instantly visualize building a virtual world. That was a pretty easy thing to visualize. And so I just dove in. I got the VR gear and I started noodling. I spent about a year just researching VR and read everything I could, both consumer level and also academic level. I'm a professor. And so I did a couple papers on VR as a kind of an observer. And the more I started thinking about it, the more some of these influences started gelling. When I arrived at High Fidelity to start the project, I just thought, I'm going to just do some experiments here. I'm just going to test. I'm just going to test and see what works and see what is interesting. And so I started noodling around on some screenplays. And I knew pretty much from watching all of the, you know, in 2017, there was plenty of fiction VR. It was mostly 360 video. But, you know, you could seek out and find story-based, fiction-based VR work in 2017. And I immediately realized that as great as some of this stuff was, it wasn't what I had in my mind. And the first obstacle that I found was that when I was in a virtual space, an immersive virtual space, and there were sometimes of pre-recorded story going on, it just all felt like a cheesy video game cut scene to me. You know, and it wasn't necessarily the bad writing or the bad acting. It was really more that, like, I didn't feel recognized in the space. And it just felt like there was this big divide between the story that was being told and the fact that I was in that space. And, you know, in traditional cinema, we accept the fourth wall. We love the fourth wall. We sit in our comfortable seats, and that fourth wall exists. And during the process of the storytelling, we've just been conditioned with the low lights and nobody's talking. And there's a moment in any good movie or play or any type of traditional storytelling where the audience isn't involved. There is a moment when the fourth wall dissolves and you find yourself immersed if the work is good. And I didn't see that happening in these early virtual works that I observed. I was so far away from that fourth wall being able to dissolve. I knew it would never happen for me. If I was standing in a room and some cartoon characters who had recorded written lines already, they never acknowledged me. I didn't belong in this space. It just didn't work for me. So pretty early on, I feel like I knew I had to work with live actors. And that was something that I was not afraid of at all, because I had done that all my life. And my instinct was that if the actors were live, and I was in that space, there would be that liveness, and that would make it easier to believe in the story and easier to become immersed in the story. So when I started building in High Fidelity, and this is all just, you know, I'm financing this on my pocket change. and I reached out to a few actors. Nicole was one of them. I sketched out a very simple 15-minute three-scene test run, basically. I built a very crude virtual world, and I just started running the scenes. I just started rehearsing and playing around, and I have this moment. It was very, very early on, and Nicole might remember this. We were in High Fidelity, and I had hired somebody to help me build a very simple city block, you know, one block of ten little townhouses, a futuristic New York setting. And the world hadn't even been built yet, but I wanted to start rehearsing. And so we went to like an open world in High Fidelity, just a big flat plane. And the opening of this initial test had the VIP, is what we were calling them back then, the main audience member, had the main audience member playing a 12-year-old boy. And the premise was that this boy was going to get dropped off at the home of some older adults who didn't necessarily like kids and were not really gonna talk or engage with this kid. This was my way of managing agency back when I didn't even really know what the word agency meant. The idea was that this kid would get dropped off at this house, and the story would unfold, and the kid would kind of sit in the corner and watch, and the adults would occasionally just say hi to the kid, but the kid was not really supposed to have any agency, because I didn't really know how to deal with that. And Nicole was going to play a character who kind of introduced us to the story. She would greet you as you spawned in, and she would pretend like she knew you from a previous time. And then she would ask you to follow her, and she would take you into this home where you would then observe the story. And so I rehearsed with Nicole for the very first time. And we were just on this flat plane, and the opening line was something akin to like, hey, Jason, how you doing? I haven't seen you for a while. Come with me. We're going to go down this way. And so we started rehearsing this. And there was a moment when I was wearing this little boy avatar, and Nicole was wearing some avatar, and I said, action. And she came up to me, and she greeted me, and she said, hey, Jason, come with me, follow me. And there was this moment when she said that, and she turned. And I didn't really know Nicole that well. She was just an actor to me. But it worked. Like, there was this moment where I felt this charge of electricity, and goosebumps went all up and down my spine. And it was like this fictional character recognized me, in real time, in a fictional context, recognized me and engaged with me and asked me to come with her. And I just felt in that moment that this fictional character was asking me to go with them on a story. And I knew in that moment that there was something working. this notion of immersive and this notion of liveness. And what I didn't know at the moment was that I was really responding to agency. The fact that she recognized me and talked to me was actually what was the exciting part of that. I didn't quite put that all together until later on. But we spent about nine months or so on this exercise. And again, I've always called this the Metamovie Project because it has always been in my mind project. And I dropped that for Venice and I just said it's the Metamovie Presents because I thought maybe this was our coming out party to some degree. But for years, it has been the Metamovie Project and it has always been experiments in my mind. So this first experiment, I just called it a very old mystery in New New York, very clunky title. And it was a Sherlock Holmesian type of mystery genre. It had a start, but it had no ending. And we ran a series of three scenes, four scenes, and there were some choices. But the key here for me was that the little boy character, who was a hero, our VIP, I told our participants, and it was explained in the context of the story, you're a kid, these adults don't really like you, so it's better if you don't say anything. This is the key. No talking. So you can wave and you can follow the action. You can follow this guy, you can follow that guy, you do what you want. And I set up that story in such a way that there was some branching storylines. So you had to make a choice to go this way or that way. And you would miss pieces of the story if you went that way. And you would get pieces of the story if you went that way. All the narrative would always get explained back if you missed point A. We would re-explain that. And what was so fascinating was that I put a couple people through. And it was fine. Everything seemed to go fine. And then I put my wife through. And, you know, my wife is never going to sugarcoat anything. She's going to just do what she wants. She's going to tell me what she thinks. She's my rock. And she will always tell me, like, this is good. That's not good. And she doesn't know that much about VR. She sees me doing my stuff. She puts up with me. So I stuck her in. And She just didn't care about the rules that I set up because she knows me well enough to know that, you know, it's just Jason. I'm not going to listen to these rules. So she inhabits this little boy avatar and immediately starts running around the scene talking, which I told her she's not allowed to do, talking and gesticulating and getting up in the actor's faces. And she basically like demanded they pay attention to her. And she role-played as a kid, like she wasn't being an adult, she was role-playing as a kid. And she was just following her instincts because she felt comfortable around me, knowing that I can't tell her what to do, basically. She broke all the rules that nobody else did. And in the moment when I was watching it, I was like, oh my God, what are you doing? You're running around. I told you not to talk. You're doing this. And then afterwards, she came out, we all laughed, it was funny and it was a blast. And then afterwards, I sat down and I realized, oh my God, this is what a real audience member wants if I don't control them and tell them these are the set rules. This is what somebody who doesn't give a shit about rules does when you put them in one of these circumstances. They instantly demand agency. And that was a critical turning point for me, understanding that I was going to have to deal with agency. And so that kind of led organically to the next iteration of the experiment. I think I took a year off to go make a film. I hadn't completely gotten the bug into VR. I mean, I knew it was great, but I was still dabbling and working in the mediums. So I came back about a year later and thought, all right, well, so with this next iteration, the goal has to be, we've got to give our VIPs, our main characters, we've got to give them agency. We've got to let them talk. basically. And so I wrote and devised the heist as a longer piece. It probably ran about 35 to 40 minutes. It had a full structure, beginning, middle, and end. This was kind of a crime genre piece where I put the VIP in the middle of a very tense situation. The role play as a a bank clerk on an ordinary day, and they are met by an undercover police officer who tells the VIP that they have a critical role to play. Their bank is about to get robbed, and the undercover cop needs their help. And as the story unfolds, the bank gets robbed, and the bank robber is there trying to take over the bank, and the undercover cop is trying to convince our hero to help him out and kind of put the VIP in a really tense standoff where all sorts of action and intensities going on. And the VIP kind of has to make a choice to either go one way or go the other way. And so we ran this experiment for about a year. Bigger crew, a little bit of a budget from my college, a grant from my college so I could hire some people, a much bigger cast. And that set of experiments just kind of took the project to the next level. I started learning how to direct a bigger cast, started learning how to work with more sophisticated model builders, started learning the lingo of 3D creation. I mean, coming out of traditional film and television, I've worked with any number of production designers and wardrobe designers, makeup artists, visual effects artists, colorists, you know, all of these traditional things. In the VR world, it's totally different, and I don't have any background as a game developer. So a lot of that progress for me was also learning the world of VR development and what it meant to work with these different types of artists. And I know I'm not going to go into the laundry list of lessons that we learned on the heist, but it was a long, long list of things that we learned. Many things went terribly, terribly wrong. Many things went quite right. But the result of a year spent on the heist was an affirmation of agency. The understanding that the more agency you give an audience member, in my experience, the more they want. It was a learning process in terms of how much agency to give and what the intersection between agency and scripted storytelling really wants to be. And also just kind of like what types of characters and stories work best in VR or in this kind of shared storytelling modality. And towards the end of the heist, I started seeing like, okay, I think I think I kind of understand how this emerging medium might work. Of course, not many people are doing this type of interactive fiction in VR. So there's not a lot of roadmaps. I've read everything that there is to read on the subject from immersive theater to video game theory, you know, everything that I could about interactivity. And in the world of fiction interaction, it's really Dungeons and Dragons and video games is where the bulk of the media texts really are available. And so having done that deep dive and having spent about a year on the heist, I started gaining my confidence and I thought, you know what, I do think I'm kind of onto something here. It's working. The response is really positive from the VIPs that we're sending through. And so at that point, again, this is all self-funded and I live on a professor's salary, so I'm not a rich guy. And so I did a Kickstarter. And the Kickstarter really was the next chapter, I guess, that pivoted forward. Doing the Kickstarter, which was brutal, as anybody's ever done a Kickstarter will know, it's a really, really difficult thing to do. But doing it, I did raise $10,000, which was awesome, but way more important than the fundraising was starting to build a base of people who learned about the project and were supportive of it. whether it was backers who gave me money or people like Avinash who came in and beta tested and got kind of excited about it and kind of hung around and started coaching me. More actors just started to kind of feel like, all right, I'm kind of dipping my toe into the VR scene now. And I started meeting other VR makers always on the search for like, is there anybody out there doing something like this? Because I'd really love to pick your brain. After that Kickstarter, I was really convinced that I had one shot, basically. I had this $10,000 that I had gotten from the fundraising, and I felt like this was going to be the moment where it was make or break. I was either going to spend this money and do something that was legitimate and was going to get some attention, or I was going to run out of money and then I would maybe give up on the experiment. And of course, right at that time, High Fidelity died. It went under. They lost their financing and they couldn't continue. And I had built everything based on High Fidelity. It was free and there was a community there. And my plan had always been to create something for a virtual community. I wanted it to be the Broadway or the Chinese theater in Hollywood Boulevard. I wanted it to be a place that people would come into a VR community, into a metaverse, And they would look around and they would see that there's these pretty worlds, but we all know that one of the issues with at least the early metaverses was that there wasn't anything to do. It was really pretty cool things to look at, but in terms of social activities, there just wasn't that much. And I wanted to be that person. I wanted to create social content and help grow a metaverse and be part of a metaverse. And when High Fidelity died, it was crushing. You know, the entire community was devastated, but certainly I felt very, very devastated. I had invested all this time and all this money, and it all was just the carpet was kind of pulled out from under me. But, you know, you have to be resilient in this business. And I started shopping around for a new metaverse. And I did a very deep tour of VRChat and Sansar, Altspace, and then of course Nios. And when I got into Nios and started meeting the developers there and sort of seeing the power of that metaverse, I knew instantly that that was going to be the home for whatever was going to be next. I've never really been interested in making content that plays to the lowest common denominator for technology's sake. The idea of doing like low poly work so that I could have a quest audience is the opposite of what I'm interested in completely. I'm interested in high cinema. Like I want things to be photorealistic. I want things to look as good or better than they do in a movie. And that was kind of the thing that really sealed it for me. For Niosh, I saw the shader support that they had and the avatar support that they had. My goal was to really up the ante visually from the heist. And VRChat could do that, you know, if you were dealing with a developer who was going to be building your entire world in Unity outside of the application, that would have been a possibility. But High Fidelity already had some kind of in-game multiplayer editing tools. So I got familiar with the idea that whatever we built, didn't need to be completely baked before I got to use it. I could bring in a model on High Fidelity and tweak it myself or work with the developer to tweak it in real time. And that was something that I wasn't really ready to give up. And Nios does that in spades, obviously. So Nios it was, $10,000. I had originally told my Kickstarter backers that we would do three short meta movies with that money. But then as I really thought about it, the screenwriter and I developed a couple of different screenplays. Some didn't work as well as I wanted, and we kind of put those down. But the Alien Rescue screenplay, we've been developing multiple works for a year or two. And the early ideas in the first Alien Rescue script by Chris Insana were really good, like really interesting, fun. They just seemed fun and exciting. And Chris is a screenwriter by trade. He does not own any VR gear. He's barely ever been in VR. So I lean on him for like, you know, the big, screenwriting concepts and then I kind of take over as a writer from there to develop the interactivity. And so I thought, all right, I'd rather do one big project than three little ones, which is the exact opposite that every entrepreneur will tell you in game development or VR development. Like that's not what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to make short little things and iterate over them and kind of go through that cycle over and over again. And I knew I was breaking that rule, but the screenplay was too interesting. And the guys in Neos just loved the project. They instantly were like, you know what, we're busy and you're not really offering as much money, but this looks really, really interesting. And they saw it as a way to showcase what Nios could do. Nios is still a small metaverse and there's not that many professional users of Nios yet. There's some edu folks and there's some science folks in there. But, you know, I think they saw the potential of somebody who was a creative content maker, a storyteller that was going to come and make a story for their community. So I got the dev team that is the NEOs dev team also then became kind of the MetaMovie dev team. And so we spent, again, each one of these iterations has been about a year. And so we spent about a year fleshing out Alien Rescue and, you know, we built the worlds and we programmed those worlds with all sorts of interactive scripting moments and avatar design started happening. And the power of this metaverse really can't be overstated for the use case of me, personally. The power to build really beautiful environments and really high textured avatars with all sorts of really interesting interactivity because of their logic scripting system. Every week or two, what these guys were doing, it just kept getting better and better and better. And my expectations were pretty low. I didn't really expect to get that much. I didn't have that much money and I didn't have much time they were going to put in. But as these worlds started getting prettier and bigger and better, I started seeing like, oh, this project is starting to really take on a life of its own. I brought back some of the actors from the heist and then Marinda was kind of new and she came in and my avatar designer, Chris McBride and I, I really challenged him. to really push his limits in terms of highly detailed avatar design. And then, you know, as we've done in the past, we just started iterating. We just started testing and running the story. And the script just kept changing. Like, we've gone through 25 or 30 versions of the script at this point. And just every time the dev guys would build something new or show me some potential of Neos, I would write that into the script. They would show me some cool thing. I'd be like, oh, okay, we're going to write that in. And then along the way, this notion of deeper and deeper agency has been just like, boiling and simmering around. And so it was one thing to build more impressive and bigger environments or build even more detailed and more interesting avatars. But this notion of more and more agency was a really important part of the alien rescue phase. And so not only did I want to give the heroes the freedom to say or do whatever they wanted and train the actors to respond. And we had very good success with that in the heist. Actors are smart and creative people. And it just takes some practice to learn how to move away from a scripted moment into an improvisational moment and back. Like this is what actors do all the time. They do scripted work, they do improvisation. So leading them down a path of pivoting back and forth, this was not, particularly that challenging. But as Avinash had gotten involved in the heist, he really started making me think harder and harder about agency, like from a gaming perspective, and really forced me to think about video game design. And I've probably read four or five game theory books. Because of Avinash, he really challenged me to think about not just a player's agency to say something, but what about their choices? Like how many choices are you going to give somebody? How much freedom are you going to give your hero? And we discovered in the heist, it was so interesting that We planned for the player in the heist to be the hero and save the day. And they were supposed to team up with the undercover cop and take down the bad bank robber. But wouldn't you know it, every single VIP wanted to go with the bad guy, every time. Not every time, but almost every time. It was like, we're trying to make you the hero and they all want to go rob the bank with the bad guy. It was hysterical. I mean, it wasn't hysterical. It was frustrating. But I mean, I was aware of it and I wrote it down. Everybody wants to be bad guy. And Avinash was very good about helping me understand, like, this is what, you know, Avinash has a game background and a Dungeons and Dragons background. like I do, and I started really understanding that the agency is way more than just being able to talk or being able to be recognized. Players, gamers, role players, they expect the freedom to be able to shift and change the story and go in directions that maybe you hadn't planned on or didn't want. And so this was a very, very important part of Alien Rescue was acknowledging that impulse on the player side. And I really built out the storyline of Alien Rescue to accommodate that to the point where if you want to play Alien Rescue as a villain, you can do that. You know, we give you opportunities to do that. Kent, you were there. You saw those moments that popped up. And this was, of course, you experience only part one, but part two, as the story continues, those choices have much more consequences, and the story massively changes, and either goes one big way or one other way. And so, you know, there's a lot to unpack and a lot to talk about here, and I don't want to dominate the conversation, so I'm just going to wind up by saying that this last year, building out Alien Rescue in NEOS has been kind of attacking this experiment on a number of fronts, upping the game in terms of more beautiful and cinematic environments and atmospheres, really digging into high-end avatar design, which I think is a really underappreciated element of VR storytelling, and then doing the deepest dive I could on VIP agency. And this is still evolving. I mean, we're at a place right now where we're halfway through Alien Rescue. We were incredibly lucky to kind of be discovered by Michelle and Liz at the festival. plan on submitting to the festival at all. I was just busy doing my work and they heard about the project and came by and asked for a demo and suddenly like life got turned sideways and we just pivoted away from marching towards the next goal point of Alien Rescue to preparing for the festival. That's been the last two and a half months or so. And now having pushed through to the other side of the festival, I mean, the amount that now we've learned and what we've taken away from that experience, it's hard to state how much we've collectively all learned. So I think what I just tried to tell you is kind of the genesis and somewhat backstory, and I hope I haven't spoken too much. I'm going to mute myself now.
[00:34:17.642] Kent Bye: No, that was great context. And I'm going to share a few thoughts and reflections and then open it up. What I'd love to do actually is to chronologically go down the line as each person was introduced to each of these different iterations and projects and talk about your own experience of agency and from your profession as actors or whatever else and how you start to learn more about your own profession as you start to see this mediated virtual reality world, how that changes acting. And I think this question of agency is really quite provocative because as I've been covering VR for over six and a half years now, I think this is the existential tension between authorial control, where it's just a fixed narrative versus open world exploration, where you can do whatever you want and becomes more of a tool or a game. And how do you maintain that narrative tension when You blend those two together and how do you adapt for that my experience of metamovie alien rescue? temperamentally, I'm probably more like Chaotic good in my day-to-day life, but an actual experience I tend to maybe lean more towards lawful good where I'm very obedient and I follow the rules I don't try to break the experience because there's other people there that I don't want to I make it more about my own agency and finding the edge cases, which we can talk about how to deal with those more gamer temperamental types. But for me, I was very curious about what the story was and how I fit into that. And I can talk more about that. But before I dive into the more content of MetaMovie. I want to just, you know, bring everybody else in the conversation and kind of go down the line. It sounds like maybe Nicole, you may have been the first to be introduced into this realm with Jason. And so I'd like to have you maybe start off and just talk about your entry point into this and some of your experiences of some of these questions that were brought up here.
[00:36:03.886] Nicole Rigo: So my entry point was at the beginning of 2017. At that point, I had been doing something like immersive theater from maybe 2013. And I had actually done even Renaissance Fair stuff, like casts of Renaissance Fair kind of stuff, and that's a very open world. So I kind of came into it with that background. And also I'm not a gamer myself, but I know plenty of gamers and I know plenty of them like to play in their own special way. So in 2017, we started this up supposed to be three or four rehearsals and then kind of just experimenting. And then it turned into three and a half years, which is great. So I guess. It's sort of like a little scary. I think like when you're sort of trained, I actually didn't major in theater or anything like that. I was a music major, classical music. And so that's all very like rules, rules, rules, rules, rules, everything's about rules. And you know, you have to be this and you have to be this and it have to dot your I's cross your T's, all that stuff. And I ended up getting sort of this immersive job. That was kind of the second one by mistake in 2014. And it sort of was like, all of a sudden, All these people are around you and really anything goes and it's kind of addicting and it's kind of fun and you can really make that experience really special for that one person. So when I got involved in the project. I was like, okay, so we're doing this project. And it became apparent, especially with Jason's wife, when she came in and started running around, it was like, you know, this is like a back and forth. This is really like, we're not talking at someone, we're talking with someone and we're bringing them into the experience. And it's really intimate. And VR is so great with that. And I think we've all just kind of learned as we've been going on and on, you know, the heist was a little bit more than that. And we really learned that a lot of people do love to go rogue, and you can't stop them. You gotta let them do it. I mean, and you know that, like, you know, okay, if I'm a gamer, people go into Grand Theft Auto, and they just want to be the bad guy. You know, they just want to get all of the bad guy stuff out of their system. So the way that I kind of approach it now, it's like, you're trying to like give a gift to that person, whoever is in it. And hopefully they're going to give it back to you and you keep creating this relationship. And I don't know, it's been a wonderful experience overall. Um, so that's how I started and stuff.
[00:38:36.965] Kent Bye: The first demo project and then the heist as well. Right.
[00:38:39.786] Nicole Rigo: Yeah. I did an old mystery in new New York. and it was kind of like a 10 minute noir kind of thing. I played two characters in that. I played the victim, the damsel in distress, and then the villainess who wasn't really the villainess kind of thing. So I did that. In the heist, I played like three different characters. And then in this, I'm Z.
[00:39:02.700] Kent Bye: Cool. And then, so it sounds like the heist came and then the Kickstarter, is that right? And then, so Kenneth, it sounded like maybe you were involved with the heist and just talking about your entry point into all of this.
[00:39:12.187] Kenneth Rougeau: It's too bad that Craig is not here. Cause yeah, I know he was been on the other project, you know, longer than I have, but yeah, it's kind of funny. I, I was recently new to High Fidelity. I'd been wandering around and exploring the place for a couple of months working on some of my own, you know, worlds there. And I saw Jason's forum post looking for somebody to come in and play an extra. I was like, I haven't acted since high school, but yeah, I can walk by in the background, no problem. I think I did that exactly twice. And Jason had me come in and I was the practice crash test dummy. I played the VIP several times. And then he started putting me in other roles. I got to be the bad guy. I got to be the hacker kid, you know, whatever. And he'd just throw me into whatever. It's been a lot of fun. Yeah, the heist was an insane project. There was so much wonderfully bad tech, so much interesting things going wrong sideways all the time. And as he says, you know, both of them said, yeah, everybody wanted to go rogue. It seemed, you know, kept things interesting. Yeah, and he called me back to play Baxter here and I've just been thrilled. I'm so glad to have met you guys and to be part of this craziness. That's all I really got to tell you, I guess.
[00:40:15.185] Kent Bye: Nice. And Avinash, it sounds like after the heist, there was the Kickstarter and that is that around the time you came on and maybe you could sort of tell the story of how you got introduced to this and then some of your reflections as what's happened over the time that you've been involved with it.
[00:40:29.423] Avinash Changa: So yes, I saw back in, well, it's almost a year and a half, two years ago, I saw this post on one of the VR subreddits. Like, Hey, we're doing this thing, this immersive theater play. We're doing something called the heist. It's an immersive movie. And I was like, okay, that's interesting. You know, let's check it out. I'll, I'll volunteer as a tester. Cause we test a lot of new stuff and here was this maker on Reddit. It's like, okay, let's jump in. And I did not know Jason. I did not know anything about the project, but. know, let's take a look. And as I jumped into the heist, and I went through it, I noticed a number of really interesting things. Because you mentioned narrative tension earlier on. Well, as a maker, I see VR as these things like you've got something that's called cinematic VR and you've got gaming VR. And when we put people inside a cinematic 360 experience, something that is well-produced, stereoscopic, high-res, high-quality, in those first few wow moments, we give the guests, the users, this promise of real immersion. And then the moment these users instinctively move forward or try to grab something or try to talk with the characters, as makers, we break that promise instantly. I mean, the cinematic pieces are impressive. You get that wow, because everything looks so real, especially when it's stereoscopic. And a lot of people have not seen that before. Then on the other hand, you've got gaming, and that goes a step further. Games like Half-Life Alyx takes a really amazing step in creating this sense of both presence and immersion, because you can move around, you can interact with the characters. But what I think and thought is one of the most exciting aspects of this whole immersive field is not cinematic VR and not gaming VR, but something that is fundamentally new. And when I experienced the heist, or better said, when I experienced the meta movie as a concept, I realized, oh, this is exploring that new field. I mean, as a maker, I believe that the future of immersive is not cinematic VR per se or gaming VR per se. I mean, they are completely valid industries, but in that merger, something new is being created, a new genre, a new medium with a lot of new rules and a lot of new users and a lot of new ways of distributing these things. And the heist was very much in line with that field that we're exploring. And that really caught my attention because there's not that many people that are exploring that. So that is why I was like, okay, I want to talk to the maker of this. Who is this guy? Who is this Jason? And as we got talking, he's understanding what I'm saying. He's understanding the things that we've learned over the past. Because by the time I jumped into Heist, I'd been making VR for about six, seven years. And I speak a lot about these topics at conferences and when I deal with other makers. But most of the industry are either filmmakers that discovered the 360 camera and were like, Oh, I can have my traditional set. I place a 360 camera in there. Off we go. There's a huge, very steep learning curve to understand what rules that we know. I mean, we've got over a hundred years of cinematic experience, but those rules do not translate one-to-one to the cinematic VR world. Same as gaming. I mean, three, four decades of gaming do not define the rules of VR. In the early days of VR, everyone was like, oh, we're all going to be playing first person shooters in VR because that's the right thing to do. Same as a lot of filmmakers thought, oh, that first person POV action shot. you being the hero running across buildings and jumping and doing all these things, we can do that in VR. Well, that's the worst thing to do because everyone's going to get nauseous and be barfing all over the place. So that's suddenly where we're like, okay, these rules do not apply. What is this new thing? And I hadn't met that many people that were realizing that, that were on that same track. So as the conversation with Jason started giving me a better sense of the meta movie and his vision, I was like, okay, this is very much in line with what I've been telling people, what my personal ambition is to do with creating these new worlds and exploring. But also from an industry perspective, this is something where the largest section of uncharted territory is coming up. So that was my key motivation to say like, okay, Jason, you know what, let me explore this thing with you and let's dive in more. And as time progressed, it became clear and clear like, okay, let's support this project. And let's not just coach Jason, but let's become partners. Let's really dive into it. Because, I mean, there's a whole list of concepts and ideas and new things that we can do, not just on the content, but in terms of distribution, in terms of exploring This new area, what I think is, particularly from a distribution perspective, is really interesting about the meta movie, is that it's one of those projects that is taking one of those early steps in defining what this new medium is. And not just in terms of format, but also in terms of the guest, the user. Like in cinematic, VR makers talk about their viewers. With gaming, you talk about your players. In this medium, at least that's the way I see it, is people are our guests in this world that we're creating. So now that this new medium is taking shape, a new type of user or guests will also require a new means of distribution. And I think in that area, we don't have all these answers yet. But that's the new domain. That's what we're exploring. And that's where I think we are learning so much every day. And that's where we've learned a lot during the finish run. Well, there's a lot more to talk about. But I'd love to give the word to Marina because She's been listening for a long time, and she's got a lot to say, I think.
[00:46:18.802] Marinda Botha: No, it's so great just to hear everyone's little bit of history and perspective. It's really awesome. So I saw the Kickstarter project for the heist, and I backed it to be a little firefly, which I did and enjoyed. But I also immediately contacted Jason, because being an actor, I just decided I want to be involved in this. And he was gracious and said, sure, meet me in High Fidelity. which I now know was a test to see if I could get in there. And we did. We met up there and then he invited me to come and play a VIP at like very tail end. And he told me, please come and try and break things. And I thought that is horrible because this is my first impression I'm making on these actors I want to work with. I'm this director and now he's asking me to be antagonistic towards everyone, which I did. And then he invited me back. So I don't think I did that badly. Yeah. And then I joined the cast and I've been involved now for just over a year. And for me, Firstly, being based in South Africa, it means the world to be able to work with your international peers and still stay in South Africa. That's amazing about VR. That is so exciting. And then what Avinash is saying just about this being such a new medium, I'm really excited about that, to see how storytelling is going to change because of this medium. And also because of what has happened now with the pandemic, it could not have come at a better time, this new medium of storytelling, because I do think, I'm sure you can say a lot about that, Kent and Jason and everyone, because it's just going to grow. I really think this type of storytelling is very apt and very useful at the moment, and it's just really exciting to become involved at the grassroots level of it.
[00:48:09.228] Kent Bye: Great. I know there's a lot that was covered there. Avinash, the points you're making there around distribution and stuff, I'd love to come back to that near the end. And before we dive into the actual content of MetaMovie and sort of get into my own experience and some potential areas of spoiler for folks. Before we dive in there, I want to just give a shout out to Fructious, one of the lead developers of Neos VR. Fructious has created a couple of like award-winning game jam games and has continued to be what I think one of the most pioneering, innovative, independent VR developers out there. I've been keeping track of Nios VR, and it's been a while since I've actually talked to him. It's been maybe three or four years, so I need to track him down and just get an update because what he's been able to pull off with Nios VR and digital scripting, and this I think actually is a really super impressive showcase for what he's been able to create with Nios VR. There's a new SVR member, Jared Bittner, also known as circuitry, who has been a big longtime user of new SVR. He's taken me in. And I guess one complaint I have about new SVR, which I think is its strength is that it's so flexible and you can do anything, but with that flexibility, it's so damn complicated. A lot of times it's just like, just even the onboarding for MetaMovie, I would love to have had like a better default settings for everybody so that they don't come in and have to spend 15 minutes fixing everybody's like nuanced settings so that you can get rid of the echo. I mean, that's great that there's that much flexibility, but that's the downside is that there's things like that that have to be ironed out. But from your perspective as a creator, I can imagine the flexibility of being able to dynamically create these worlds and to do the world building at the same time as you're doing the script generation, or maybe I should say it another way, which is there's an iterative cycle there between the script that you've been writing and the worlds you're creating and probably another level there of the actors being able to be immersed and see how they're interacting with it. And I know that my experience of the meta movie going in between worlds was interesting because usually when you go from one viewer chat to the next, it's like loading screen, loading, loading, loading. And this was almost like magic to go from one door to the next. It was almost instantaneous. It was like, what, like, what did we just do here? That's like some magic in the back end. be able to give me some unique experiences. But I think it's worth just calling out the fact that there has been quite a lot of technological development innovation on the back end from this larger Nios VR. And it seemed like a little bit of a white label release, or at least a self-contained way to be able to deliver that to people. But yeah, I don't know if you have before we dive into the actual experience, if you have any other sort of thoughts on the flexibility of what that gave you being able to jump in and out of characters. I mean, when I was doing it, I was like, I didn't realize in the moment of like, you know, being chased around by this entity. And then I was like, Oh, actually, That would be really hard to do with AI that in order to discover that, oh yeah, that's because it was a person who was embodying into that character. You know, there's sort of an assumption I have sometimes that it's like, oh yeah, this is just like game AI, but there are certain things you can do that's so much more complicated when you're able to, you know, Jason, I know you were at least three or four different characters in this piece where you were able to kind of like, You know, not only direct it, but also kind of pop in and out of some of these, you know, secondary roles. But yeah, I don't know if anybody else has any other comments around the platform of NEOS before we sort of dive into the, uh, the rest of the actual content.
[00:51:39.249] Avinash Changa: So as you mentioned, NEOS can be extremely overwhelming. just because it's so incredibly flexible. But that's also what makes it interesting. With a lot of these platforms out there, they're often geared to consuming content. You've got professionals that make these worlds and enthusiasts that create things. And most of the people come in and just dive into, for example, VR chat, just to meet up with other people or to watch like big screen, watch a movie together. But Neo is just fundamentally created to enable people to create their own worlds. Now, with that power comes this whole complicated setup. But what that also means is that we have the flexibility to make things simpler. Like for the meta movie, when we first did the demo for Liz and Michel from Venice, one of the first things they mentioned was like, ooh, we love this, but this is really complicated. If our Venice guests are going to come in, how are you going to deal with that? So we started brainstorming and like, hey, actually, the way Frubsius has built this platform, it allows you to do these things. I discussed it with Jason and Jason set up a meeting with Frubs and that was my first time that I actually met him or actually in VR met him. And as he started explaining how he had constructed the framework of NEOs, it became clear to me like, oh, we can actually do this. We can make this interface simpler. Well, as you already mentioned, a lot of people were still struggling with some of the settings and dealing with your microphone, etc. But it was already a lot simpler. People could log in to the system, they were brought into the MetaMovie automatically at the right time, we were ready for them, we could have people ready to onboard them. And yes, we had to deal with microphone settings and a couple of little things, but compared to the full Neo's interface, this was already a world of difference. So, and moving forward, just having the power of this platform allows us to make this even more accommodating, more seamless and easy for people to jump in. And this is something that, in my opinion, there is no other platform right now that would be able to be this flexible and give us this amount of creative flexibility on that level, on that onboarding part. That's just my perspective on NeoSend. I'm super thankful that not just what Fuxi has created, but also how open he is to collaborating and to suggestions. And during the Venice run, he was there, he was on Discord. If there was something I noticed and I told him, hey, we're seeing this, he was like, sure, I've got an idea, we can fix that. And he would jump on and fix things. And that's something that, yeah, like I said, no other platform would have been able, we wouldn't have been able to do this on any other platform.
[00:54:24.074] Jason Moore: I don't have much more to add to that other than, A, it's the most powerful metaverse engine that I think exists. B, it's one person developing it. He doesn't have a team of people working on the UI. Trust me, he knows the UI needs work. And he makes it, you know, he does it on his own. And, you know, it's in beta. He's never said that this is a full release platform yet. It's still, Nios is in beta. So what we've got here, I think, is something so powerful to be almost magical, really. I mean, the running joke in Nios is anything is possible. Like, if I were to ask one of the devs on our team, you know, can we do this? They just laugh. Like, they don't, it's not even a valid question, really. Like, of course we can do it. We can do anything. It's Nios. You can do anything. And you know what? They have proven that to be correct in my assumption. They're doing things that I know other, it's mind-blowing. It's truly mind-blowing. And I think we're just, we're seeing something very special in its infancy. And so of course we're going to see some rough edges, but let me tell you, in a couple of years, Neos is going to be the VR, the metaverse that people are talking about. It's a Wild West world out there of emergent metaverses, you know, being birthed and burning out and dying. So, of course, there's no guarantee that any one of these metaverses is ultimately going to survive. But I'm so excited that Neos is my home, and I hope it doesn't go anywhere because I want to be developing on this platform for as long as possible. It's insane.
[00:55:50.870] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that it's a Patreon funded project as well. So there's people that are funding it and he does probably the most updates and coding and it's the most innovative platform that I know of right now. And the fact that you can do scripting, he's created even like a visual scripting language, which is like, what? And like, it's. Like you have a VR chat that's built upon Unity and like Udon scripting, and that's still, there's security concerns that they have with having anybody upload stuff. But at the size and scale he's at now, you have maybe more security risk, but more flexibility to be able to create that. And which I think that you really were able to take advantage of in this piece in terms of really making it feel the closest that I've seen into like a one-to-one parody to any other immersive VR game that I've had. You don't get that level of interactivity and agency within other experiences, like in VRChat, because you have this whole secondary Udon scripting language that is already locked down on top of the Unity, on top of everything else. So yeah, sort of this custom rolled operating system was able to do things in this experience that would just not be possible in anything else. And I think that's what also for me, what I noticed when I had this experience, because it's like, oh wow, you know, I've never experienced that before because it's like, well, well, there's probably a good reason for that. Well, let's dive into actual my experience and start to get into areas that are potential spoilers. If people still want to experience this, then I recommend stopping now and trying to get one of the roles. But maybe let's start with the hero role versus the Firefly role, because This is a challenge that I think in the marketing of this piece where it said you were going to play the hero. And I talked to some people are like, Hey, I thought I was going to be the hero. And then they get the email and then they're like, they're not the hero. They're a Firefly. Even as I was talking to other people in the press corps, I was like, Hey, what role did you get? Did you get the Firefly or did you get the protagonist? I'm like, Oh, actually, I don't even know. I don't, I didn't read close enough to know. Let me check. And I went and I was like, Oh, you're a Firefly. And then it's like, ah, I kind of want to be the protagonist. And then. was fortunate enough to be in a situation where someone had trouble getting in to play the role. There was some sort of technical glitch. I don't know what was happening, but you're able to figure it out eventually. But I could have had an opportunity to have my first experience of MetaMovie as a Firefly, but I'm glad that I bailed out and I was able to come back and be the protagonist because I feel like it was an awesome experience. It was amazing to be able to feel immersed to that level. But let's first start about that dynamic of There's a lot of people who want to be the hero. And it's marketed as being the hero, but not everybody can be the hero. And so you had to make a choice of making accessible for people to be able to experience it live in a spatial way, but not have the lines and be able to have that full level of agency.
[00:58:31.047] Jason Moore: I mean, I think in terms of marketing, we don't really have marketing yet. I mean, we got a poster and a website and the poster says, you know, starring you, and maybe that's misleading. But, you know, if you look at the website, I think it's fairly obvious that, you know, there are two modes of intersecting with this work. Most of the time, people understand that. We misfired there, it sounds like, but we can certainly think about how to market that a little bit better. But, you know, the Firefly now I bought, Firefly was kind of the, we literally had an avatar that was a Firefly for the heist and you flew around and you perched on little tables and stuff. And Ken would always joke about swatting them with the fly swatter. That was a running joke in the heist. And so it made more sense to make it more sci-fi for Alien Rescue, so we had little iBots. But the idea of the Observer certainly grew out of the deep concern about scalability. I mean, after sinking many thousands of dollars and many years of my time and energy, you know, the big question, once people saw what I was doing and if they liked it, the big question was always, well, how the heck are you ever going to scale this up and make this profitable? And that question has kept me up every night for the past three or four years because I desperately want to scale it and want to make it profitable. And I know that like, well, you've got all these live actors and you've, you know, you've got to find a model. And, you know, I look at kind of traditional theater models. I think really hard on stuff like Slick No More, the New York based immersive theater piece. And, you know, these guys have live actors and, you know, they're making money. Of course, they're selling a lot of booze and I haven't figured out a way to sell virtual beer yet, but I'm working on it. So the Firefly concept was born out of the notion of like, well, we've got to make this more accessible to people. And so, you know, I came up with this idea of this kind of passive observer as a kind of a second tier experience. And there's so many interesting ideas and so many conversations we could have just on this one tiny little piece alone. I think important things to consider are that there is a wide range of audiences and there's a wide range of people's desires to be interactive versus passive. So you've got some people who relish the idea of role playing and some people who that terrifies them. the idea of being a passive iBot or Firefly to some audiences is actually more appealing as you talk to them and kind of debrief them and ask them questions. There are definitely people who've been through a meta movie who do not want to be the hero or the VIP. Too much pressure, too much anxiety, too much stress to have to contribute. It's more than they really want. And the idea of being able to just watch and still be a part of it is intriguing. And then there's this really interesting kind of middle space, which we've just, it's so delightful to explore this idea of iBots. I'm going to use the word iBot because that's what we're using now. I'm sorry, my dog is playing in the background. This idea of agency within the Observer, there are so many really interesting areas to explore there. We had this delightful moment on the heist when we first started running with the Fireflies. Fireflies on the heist had little claws and you could grab things. Unlike the I-Bots in Alien Rescue, we took away their hands, mostly to make it more performant. But in the heist, we ran a session with a VIP, and we're in the middle of the big takeover, the big bank robbery. And one of the extras was acting and cowering in the corner in fear. The main action was kind of over here, but there was an extra cowering in fear. And the fun thing about being an iBot or a Firefly is that you can observe different parts of the story. You don't always have to observe the main part of the story. You could fly over here and just keep an eye on an ancillary character. And so this one firefly flew over to the extra and I was observing everything like invisibly from above, I think. And the extra said, help me, help me. And the firefly flew out of the bank. And then a couple of moments later, the firefly came back and there had been a previous scene in a diner where we had a couple of 3D models of Coke bottles that we were drinking. And the firefly came back into the bank clutching this little Coke bottle and dropped it into the hands of the extra. And it was one of the early moments of like, I started using the term shared storytelling, because this was the moment when this little firefly who wasn't supposed to have any agency at all, went and discovered on their own a way to be noticed, to be a part of the story. And it was magical. And I've been delighted at that moment ever since. And we continue to explore. In fact, every iteration of Alien Rescue during Venice, We were constantly talking amongst ourselves about this notion of iBot agency and how we could involve them in the story more. And we started asking the hero to give them tasks and talk to them directly and get them to wiggle their iBot around or dance or work in pairs to get your attention. So there's this really interesting wide kind of range of wants of agency on our audience's part. And we've just hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of exploring those possibilities. But I do think it's important to understand that you've got different people who want different areas of agency in there, and we'll just keep trying to exploit and explore that.
[01:03:25.243] Avinash Changa: If I can add to that, because you said everyone wants to be this hero. To Echo Jason, that's not always the case. I mean, we've even had people during Venice who registered as heroes and who watched the trailer who were like, oh, I want to be this protagonist. And then as their show comes up, we send them out this little pre-flight email like, hey, we just want to check in with you. We want to make sure you're all set. And these are a couple of things. And then suddenly people start to realize, oh, I'm going to be speaking, I'm going to be interacting with this world, I'm actually going to be in an experience that is a lot more immersive than I had actually considered. And yeah, like I said, that's terrifying. But even during the onboarding, I mean, all these people come in at the same time, they get their instructions, and we've got 15 of those AI bots flying around. And suddenly, there's a technical glitch with the hero, and the hero suddenly is not there. We go in and we say, oh, hey, everyone here, you've got a golden opportunity. You can jump in. You can be the hero. Fly up to me and take the part. Silence. No one would volunteer. Everyone wants, which comes to shove. People can be quite intimidated and almost, yeah, scared. Like, oh. I mean, it sounds appealing, but you know what, let's not go that far just yet. So I think that looking at this from a scalability standpoint, and who do we cater to, there is going to be, and we've seen that, there's quite a large audience of people that are really comfortable saying, I'm just going to hang back, look around, observe, and you know, let's do this. And there's people that are like, yep, they're very gung ho, they want to explore, they want to just run around and even try and break stuff. And there's a lot of steps in between. There's some people who are like, oh, I'm an AI bot, but you know, no one's paying attention to me. That gives me the sense that I can go off track and explore these hidden dark nooks and crannies that the hero is not exploring, because that kind of veers away from the core storyline, apparently. But I can do that because I'm an iBot. No one's paying attention to me. So that balance between not being the hero and not being completely passive, but finding this area in between, that is, I think, where we're seeing a lot of new types of users jump in and finding a certain appeal in the meta movie. So I think that's one of the new interesting areas to explore.
[01:05:53.393] Nicole Rigo: If I can add to that, just for a sec. Okay, so we're sort of a work in progress, first of all. And second of all, as an actor, there's a huge difference, but some overlap between interactive theater, interactive media, and immersive. And they're not necessarily the same thing. And I think right now, we're really trying to figure out where that balance is. And we're making inroads on that, which is good. But just because you're immersed in a place does not necessarily mean you're directly interacting with the actors. It doesn't necessarily mean the same thing. Also from having done a lot of interactive theater and immersive theater, a lot of times if you have a group of people coming through an immersive space, there's one or two people that you see, they want to join the show and they want to be part of it. And then the other 15 people are just pretty content to kind of like enjoy that they're in this 360 environment. So I think we'll find our balance and we're getting there, I think.
[01:07:00.820] Kent Bye: Yeah. In my experience, as I'm getting immersed into this world, there's all these onboarding questions. Okay. Like who am I? What's my character? I have to choose the planet I'm from. I'm like, what are even the names of the planets? And I just sort of made up, okay, I'm, I'm from Saturn cause that has a ring and And it was like, probably not called Saturn, but it looked like Saturn. But as I'm being introduced into this world, I'm thinking about a lot of things. I'm thinking about, okay, I have all these iBots. And so as I'm entering in, I'm like, how can I stay connected to these bots? And so I was like, bobbing up and down, seeing if they could like mirror me in some ways. And just like to feel like I was connected to them. Cause you know, they're going to be there. And then there was this moment, I think it was you, Marinda, that were playing Ursula. And Jason was playing little helper bot that was helping me out. And, you know, the forgot that there was a battery didn't get charged. And then you say something very disparaging. And I was like, but Hey, you know, it was like, I like him. Don't be so mean. And it was like, and in that moment afterwards, I was like, Oh shit. Like I'm supposed to be like an improv actor, like, yes. And, but there was something that you were doing that was like, okay, who, what's my character. And does that feel like an alignment? Like, how would I react in that situation? Would I. say something. And so I felt like it was like this very interesting negotiation between bringing in parts of my own character that I want to preserve, but also the opportunity to play with new aspects of my character that Maybe in this contrived context, I would do things that I would never do in any other context. And so I was mostly just thinking about, okay, how can I just be authentic to who I want to be in this moment? And I know there's lots of temptations that Axe was trying to give me throughout and I was trying to be nice, but also build rapport and trust because he's my teammate, but he's wanting me to do all these bad things. And I did not want to go rogue. It turns out maybe I'm in the minority there, but. And there was a moment also with Unicl playing Z where you were not calling Axe what he was preferring to be called, Baxter. And then you kept calling him Baxter rather than Axe. And I was like, wait, what do you prefer to be called? And then So it was like this weird, deliberate misnaming of somebody and not listening to them. And I was like, hey, like call them Axe. I mean, once we called Axe, like, you know, it's like, but that was my, even though we were cousins, that was my introduction. And just to be able to remember everybody's name. And the other thing I just sort of say as I was sort of having this experience is that it was really quite profound to have everybody know my name and say my name in that experience. Because, you know, I've done a lot of VR, but I've never had people like in another room yelling my name. And there's something about that cocktail party effect when you hear your name, that your attention lights up. And so, and I'm sure people may pick their gamer tags or whatever, they may create a fake name and not use the real name. But as I was immersed in that, having my real name used in that context, it was also really cool. And for me, my experience of going through the whole experience was, like I said, I was trying to be very obedient and not try to break the experience, but I really wanted to see what the narrative was. And I just appreciated feeling like I was a part of something that was live and the liveness of the live moment, I think is a question that comes up a lot as I do a lot of these immersive experiences is like, how can I interrogate this experience to be convinced that this is live and it's not pre-recorded and very early, Mirinda, when you were coming in, it almost sounded like you were like a pre-recording. I couldn't quite tell. And then when you responded to me, I was like, okay, this is like actual real. I'm having a conversation here. It gets me grounded into that, being in the relational field with other people and that social presence and that depth of that social presence is really quite powerful. And just to be embodied in the character. Yeah. And all the different levels of presence, I feel like it was some of the deepest experiences that I've had. But I wanted to maybe kind of just open it up to the actors, you know, because you are interfacing with a whole different types of temperaments and different things that you're learning things that you have to deal with. Just curious to kind of open it up if you wanted to reflect on the context of experiencing as I went through, if I was like a edge case in some ways of doing things that other people don't do, or if everybody is an edge case in some extent, or this whole experience of being involved in a production like this during like a major film festival and having a whole wide range of different temperaments and types of folks go through this experience. And I'm just, I just love to hear, you know, your experiences of being an actor within this experience and just kind of open it up to you to kind of, uh, share some of your reflections.
[01:11:28.707] Marinda Botha: If I can quickly jump in, I just want to go back to what you mentioned about feeling that within the character you were playing that there was a part of you in the root of the character was you, but you were trying to also think of things you personally wouldn't do, but you would like to do as a fictional character. And that is exactly what acting is. I mean, for me, every character you play has got some kind of root of you, of the person who you are within it, I think. But that's also the reason why actors do what they do, because you get to play all these other characters and stuff that you would never do in real life. So it's really interesting that you say that, because that's exactly, that's acting. So if you've already experienced that in that moment and not being an actor, but you naturally got that, that's wonderful to hear. And also the thing about what type of player or guest you are, that first scene is quite important on The Black Hawk. We use it to gauge, well, throughout the show, we gauge what type of player you are and we adjust the way we perform to how you act and react. But being as it's the first scene, it's definitely our first chance to see what type of player you are. Just the first initial questions like, how are you? How are you feeling after your cry? sleep, you know, just to see, do you, and even do you stand still when I say my first line? Some players just rush through those rooms and others keep really still and listen. And yeah, that's our first chance to gauge what type of player you're going to be. And also the thing about saying your name, that's very deliberate. We use that because we know to hear your name, that really focuses your attention and make sure that you know that you are the center of attention for that moment. So it's very deliberate to use your name. And it is, like you said, it's enjoyable to hear your name and it triggers your interest. Yeah, I think I'll hand it over to the other actors to say more.
[01:13:19.346] Nicole Rigo: Let's see. So the experience was actually pretty good. Most of the heroes that came through, I thought they definitely could color outside of the lines, but it wasn't like they were being nasty or rude or abusive or anything like that. The most outside of the lines we had was one guest that sort of halfway through the show just kind of decided to do whatever the hell he felt like, and it was like this weird shift. I think we all know which one that was. But most of them, they kind of got into the role playing. Some of them were a little shy. Some of them were a little But I think a lot of people that came in, they wanted to do the experience. They wanted to make the most out of it that they could. And so we were just trying to listen intently and be like, okay, how can we best give this person the experience they want? There was one character that came in, I think it was Tony, he came in as like a party animal type. And so I did adjust my character to be a little bit more like, oh yeah, we all party, we all have fun. And I think I spilt some chemicals on the floor or something, which in most iterations of Z's character, she probably wouldn't have done. But you kind of like make these little shifts to kind of make sure the guest is getting the experience that they want. As far as doing a big film festival, of course it was quite an honor, but I actually in VR doing this compared to a lot of forms of immersive theater, I actually feel really safe because there's only so much that can happen to you. You're not, as I said to my castmates backstage, I think one time I said, well, you know, the horses aren't going to get spooked and we're not going to like end up rolling into the river because we're, which actually almost happened to me once. Like the worst thing that's going to happen is we crash out and we improvise until everybody gets back on board. And it was also great because our team really clicks. And so we kind of bounce off of each other. So it was just really fun. It was a pretty low stress experience for me personally. But yeah, that's basically it. Low stress, giving the guests what they want, trying to cater to them as much as possible. And that's how I feel it went, I guess.
[01:15:28.343] Kenneth Rougeau: Yeah, I agree completely. The film festival was a lot smoother experience than I thought it would be. It was a whole heck of a lot of fun. But as far as the VIPs and the differentiation in their styles, it is different every time. I would say that the majority of the people who come through do tend to, as you did, Kent, they're there, they're interested in the story, and they do play along for the most part. As we were talking, there are others who go right off the rails. We had one this week who had no interest in the story, was just looking to explore every nook and cranny and get through. blasting his way, you know, through whatever he could. And well, we catered to that as much as we could up to a point, you know. But yeah, as they're saying, we try to pay attention not only to your name, but to the backstory that you create. You tell us, you know, you've got certain specialties. We'll try to remember to mention that or make use of it at some point in the show, you know. We take all of this in, you know. and then just improv around it, you know. It's an amazing experience. Yeah, it is. It's completely different every time within, you know, certain parameters. Nice thing about Alien Rescue is, unlike the heist, the heist wasn't anywhere near as linear. You had these big open city blocks, and if the guy wanted to, he could just run off. you know, down the street and ignore the story and just go exploring and you have to herd cats back and get them into place, you know. And we don't run into quite as much of that here on Alien Rescue. There certainly have been a couple of occasions, but for the most part, even the setting, you know, leads itself towards sort of a linear progression. So it's a little easier for us to keep you boxed into kind of where we want you. And of course, we know our story beats and stuff. On occasion, we've had to juggle them around, you know, like three card Monte style, but we try to hit them all whenever possible. We skipped one yesterday during our, I think our last performance or the one before actually, that was Tupac, right? Who had some controller issues and suddenly he was moving at half speed and then suddenly he couldn't move at all. And so we kind of glossed over one part of the story that we usually get to and just kind of carried on, but he made it all the way through, he's a trooper. Yeah, it keeps us on our toes. I've never considered myself good at improv. It's the kind of thing I always tried to avoid, you know? But I feel this has been a really, really good exercise for me. And yeah, I love working with these guys. As Nicole said here a second ago, we've got a cast that just clicks. One of the things about Alien Rescue is there's really only a few of us working on it. And so we've got this tight camaraderie, you know? We've got each other's backs. If one of us drops a line, the other will pick it up, you know? If we skip a beat, we'll try to cover for each other as much, you know, whenever possible. That's my two cents.
[01:17:56.313] Jason Moore: I would also say that I think one of the, for us, it's fun, Kent, when you came through, you were almost like the ideal hero for us, I think on some level, in that you were invested in your character and you're playing, as you said, kind of lawful good, which is easier for us because we, this is very interesting balance between agency and story. And I think my position is that it's not all one and it's not all other. Like we want to give you agency, but we have a story to tell, and this is a really important part of what this project is about is that I deeply respect and love traditional cinema and traditional cinematic story structure and character development and kind of free and open roleplay like LARPing and all the roleplay stuff that happens in a lot of VR sets. That's interesting, but that's not what we're trying to do over here. And catering to every hero's whims is not anything that I'm interested in as a creator, but I'm also not interested in railroading somebody through a linear story. I'm really interested in that very tiny space, that Venn diagram between the two. And when somebody like you comes along, it gives us that opportunity to kind of hit the sweet spot on some level, because you're not being disrespectful, you understand that you're part of a live ensemble, and you get that, like, bending or breaking the rules might be enjoyable for you, but is detrimental to the greater shared live experience. But that said, you still found ways to make it your own, and you made your own choices, and you made funny comments. you were kind of on your toes and responsive and that's the kind of experience that we love when we get to have a bond with our hero and they say stuff that is unexpected but they don't try to ruin it or they don't they don't look for ways to purposely exploit us. that's like the ideal. But what's even more interesting, or something else that's part of this project, because we are, in terms of the ideas that I'm trying to explore and the avenues that I want to exploit, there is a laundry list of things that we're not even there yet. And I do think that it's a moment where we've got this incredible chance to talk to you, this amazing VR journalist, And so I just want to get the opportunity to put some other ideas out there for other content creators. If they're doing a deep dive here and they're really trying to think about what this type of storytelling might be, I just want to throw out that there is this other intersection between hero and castmates and storytellers that we have not yet explored, but I hope to in further iterations of Alien Rescue. Right now, we're really interested in choices and giving our players opportunities to make kind of binary choices. Play good, play evil, go left, go right, choose that door, choose that door. These are things that are difficult, absolutely, and challenging to pivot in the moment. But we have a pretty good handle on it, and that stuff is there. But that is really just the foundation for something that I'm hoping that like Alien Rescue 3.0, or maybe it's going to take a new narrative to explore. But there's a connection between the hero and the storytelling whereby, and this is theoretical, and this is stuff that I've gotten from like doing game research, but I do believe it's possible. And right now we will end up in Alien Rescue with about six different scripted endings. major kind of a positive and a negative scripted ending so you're going to end up as kind of a heroic or end up as a villain you know if you end up siding with Z all the way through and ignoring Baxter then you're playing kind of a heroic route and there'll be a couple of options at the end for how your journey might end but it's going to end in heroic sense or You know, if you are like some of our audiences who like to explore their dark side and who want to be aligned with the bad guy, you know, you will have that opportunity. If you keep saying yes to Baxter, that's going to lead you down another story. And there's a three or four scripted negative endings, or not negative, but dark side endings that are all there. And we're not really even there yet. We know where we're going, and it's going to take us practice to pull that off, but I have complete confidence that we'll do that. But there's a whole nother level, and we're not going to get there for like a year, but the next level is allowing our, and this is pretty advanced, I'm saying that it's going to take not just advanced work on our part, but we're going to have to train our audiences to get what this is. Because we're still, every single time, we're basically teaching people how to role play. And some are better learners than others. Some have done it and some haven't. But eventually, with the right set of heroes, I imagine endings to our stories that are completely unexpected and have never been scripted and have never been rehearsed. Endings that none of us, none of the writers, none of the actors have actually really thought of, but maybe we've hinted at. So I've got little seeds and little characters and little pieces of lore and content that I will sprinkle in later on into the experience when we are up and running like a fine-tuned machine, which will allow really creative heroes. And this is going to be like an advanced level. This is going to be like Kent after you've done it two more times. And you've kind of, you feel like you've gone back and explored the dark side and you've pushed us around a little bit and you've kind of tested the boundaries. And now you're feeling, you know, like this is a game for you. Like you've, you know, this is not a one-time movie in my mind. I would imagine that you might want to come by and check out version 2.0 and check out the dark side. And I imagine a Kent going through on the third or fourth iteration. And now you're kind of a pro at this, like an experience. role player in Dungeons and Dragons or a high-end gamer and what you're going to do is you're going to be a little bit bored of the traditional hero ending which you've already experienced or maybe you've seen a Twitch stream of it or you're advanced enough because this form of storytelling has evolved and you kind of see the paths and you reject those paths because they're too obvious for you. But what will be there will be the pieces, the character work and the world building work. There will be ways for you as the hero to solve the story, to get to the ending in a completely new, completely unexpected, never before done avenue. There will be a path that only can be created because you are making very specific, very advanced choices. It may not be completely clear in the way I'm vocalizing it now, but I see it very, very clearly in my head. And that to me is the ultimate goal. And this is coming out of a quote that I read in a game design book a couple of years ago, when a game designer said that his biggest thrill was watching players find ways to win or achieve in his game that he never in a million years expected. this magical intersection between player and designer or storyteller and audience member, where we say, here's your agency and you take that and you do something that has never been done and has never been even imagined by us. And like I said, it's kind of hard to explain, but I see it and I know how to do it. I have the pieces in place. And that to me is like, that's the goal. That's where we're going with this thing.
[01:24:26.153] Kent Bye: I can add to that.
[01:24:28.349] Avinash Changa: So, Jason just mentioned training our audiences. Now, something that you did, Kent, is while you were onboarding, you were already trying to find a shorthand between you as a hero and the iBots. You were trying to get into a language, like you're bopping up and down, can the iBots do that as well? Because once you go into the world, they don't speak, but By doing that, you're instinctively creating a tool for yourself, like, oh, I can, if I have this shorthand, I can send them to explore. I have these, they become functional to me. That is a very different way than some other heroes might go through. You're an experienced gamer, an experienced VR user, so you can do that. Other people might come in and they don't even consider that because they're so overwhelmed by all of the things that they are experiencing. So in that sense, what's even more challenging than just the process of onboarding, which as you experienced with some technical issues here and there, is accommodating this very, very broad diversity of guests. I mean, some are experienced users, some are completely new. That is what's both very exciting, but also very challenging. But that is also where I think we will find to Jason's point, users that will go through a number of times, that will find completely novel ways to interact with the characters, interact with the iBots, interact with the world, because there's a lot of stuff in the world that not everyone will explore. But getting to understand that language, getting users to or guests to understand like, oh, it's not necessarily gaming rules, it's not necessarily linear narrative rules, but it's something new, also requires users to be creative and to say, oh, I'm going to do something that I would never do in a different type of game. And yeah, with the way you came in and trying to find that shorthand, I think that's a good example that we will hopefully see more of. But it's also a challenge for us to see how can we create a process and a system that will inspire people to do that, that will encourage them to color outside of the line, so to speak.
[01:26:30.068] Kent Bye: Yeah, having a more either explicit or implicit communication through the iBots would be interesting to see how to do that in the future. And, you know, as you're talking about, you know, unlocking these different endings, it reminds me of like the structure of Facade with Andrew Stern and Michael Mateus, where it's essentially like you're building a trust and rapport for each of those characters. And then once you've built enough trust and rapport with that, then new things get unlocked and you kind of have to balance one or the other, because they're mutually exclusive trust, like building trust in one actually makes you not build trust with someone else. And so you have to both build trust, but also break trust in different ways in order to really achieve the different endings and facade. And so what's that mean to be able to build trust with each of these different characters? And would there be specific storylines that you could only get if you were to cultivate a relationship with that character? And what does that look like? But I wanted to just kind of like wrap things up, ask my final question here, just cause we're kind of running out of time. Finally, just curious what each think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be and what it might be able to enable.
[01:27:38.978] Kenneth Rougeau: Jason's like, no, no, no. Well, we're aiming for that ready player one kind of experience, you know, where you really are just in, you know, a full on virtual world that reacts to you and, you know, that you feel like you're a part of it with, you know, within whatever experience you're taking part in. Allowing you the agency to go and do and be who you want to be in virtual reality is the ultimate end game, I think, for this thing. As far as the meta movie goes, we're certainly trying to give people a taste of that, and I think we're closer than anybody else out there, you know, to doing that. As you see, it takes a whole hell of a lot of people and a cast and crew, and yeah, it's difficult to make it personal, you know, for each one person every time, but that's what we're doing. As Jason said, you know, we're really trying to scale this thing up and getting the spectators in. I'm really interested in seeing what we can do about giving all of them more agency, as Avinash was saying here. That'll be intriguing. But yeah, at some point, it's just going to be this whole other thing. It's going to be a, well, not to call it second life, but it will become your second world outside of reality. You'll probably spend more time interacting with people in there than you do out here in the really real world, especially with the pandemic and all that going on right now. I certainly spend almost my entire life online, either in VR or other social spaces and places, making friends and talking to people all over the world without ever leaving my chair. That's my two cents. Next.
[01:29:04.344] Marinda Botha: I'll go. I think we're going to see a whole spectrum of storytelling experiences from being immersed in the world, but still wanting to have the whole storytelling responsibility be on the shoulders of the authors, the creators of the VR experience, up to, as Ken is saying, the whole Ready Player One version where you have complete agency to the guest and there'll be numerous iterations in between. I think it's going to become like different genres of storytelling within VR and you'll have a taste for if I can compare it to theater you'll rather want to see a drama or musical theater or whatever cabaret or whatever. I predict for the future within cinematic VR or narrative VR there's still going to be these stages of authorship, where does the authorship lie? Completely with the creators, completely with the guests, or stages in between? And I think creators and storytellers of VR experiences are going to choose, or maybe dabble in all of them, because you're a creative being. So that's my prediction. I think there's not just going to be one new way of telling stories. Within that, there's going to be a plethora of different ways of genres of storytelling within VR, I think.
[01:30:25.282] Nicole Rigo: Yeah, so I mostly agree with you, Marinda. I think that basically, it's hard to predict what somebody will want. What I want is different. I'm sort of in the middle between extrovert and introvert. My husband's a real introvert. Something like what we're doing, he would be like, nope, not for me. He would want something a little bit more automated or something that he could sit back or whatever. So I think that our project in particular is fulfilling a particular need. And we're actually doing a pretty good job, I think, of doing a range of things. We're doing something like for that hero that wants that special connection, we're giving them that. For the iBot that wants some, they can do that or they can sit back. So I think we have a range there of what we are doing well. And I think that eventually we'll keep fine tuning it. But really, it's kind of hard to predict. And so I think VR is going to be a lot of different things, like Miranda said. In some cases, it's going to be more like where it's your real world with that extra layer on top of it. You know, we've already seen bits and pieces of that that exist in other types of things, like different types of even mobile games, or it's like there's reality and then there's this extra layer on top. I'm just looking forward to continuing to make connections with people and hopefully making an even more intimate kind of experience for those who choose to have that.
[01:31:51.123] Avinash Changa: Now, predictions of the future, I mean, that is, of course, a huge question. But I think in terms of the meta movie, there's a couple of things that are, I think, really relevant. First thing is that I'd say VR is not just VR. I mean, of course, we've heard AR and MR, et cetera, et cetera. But there's also technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning and all these new technologies that together, in my opinion, form this new industry that's immersive. These are experiences that will allow a user to be immersed in these different worlds. And what particular technology is used for that is secondary. It's more about the experience and the connection that the user has to the world. Part of that, what we'll see down the line is, of course, a future of tech, as in it'll become more realistic. We are already seeing a lot of photogrammetry and a lot of photogrammetry is already being supported in NEOs. But down the line, volumetric content, to Jason's point, to make these worlds more realistic and as realistic as possible. What we're doing now, at least in our studio, in terms of getting realistic human avatars, human-like avatars, in there through volumetric technology, we're doing really interesting things. Down the line we'll see streaming codecs for live field content and all of these things that are just building blocks that will make these worlds visually, auditorially more interesting. Then down the line, we'll also see that, I think, the definition of what storytelling is, is going to change. Because with storytelling, we always think in linear, we think in branching narratives, we think in gaming, and I would say with branching narratives in gaming, that can go a lot of ways. It can work out really well. It can also lead to things like Mass Effect, where people really get invested in the storyline, play through these worlds, play through these branches, play it as either an evil character or played awfully good, expecting these different outcomes, and then at the end, you don't deliver on that. That's something that I think is going to be really important to do, but also in terms of what is that ending going to be? Is that something that feels like a complete linear narrative, or is it going to be more of an open world type thing? And that brings me to, I think, my third prediction. With projects like the Metamovie, we're creating these ongoing living open worlds. Now, I see this as one of the early steps of creating a fundamentally new industry. As in, let's say you have an actor who plays a bartender. And to Ken's point, you can now work from home, especially with the whole COVID situation and what that's going to mean for the future. What if you are a real life bartender and you have the skills to make people feel welcome in your bar? you know, have these chitchat talks and et cetera. What if you could say, oh, I'm going to get a job in VR working as a bartender in this virtual bar. And that's just what I do X hours a day. Why would I play a role? So it's for as a maker to say, oh, we want this persistent world. We want to have a living, breathing world with a bar. Let's get a real bartender in there. get a VR headset, get paid 15 bucks, that's the current US minimum, I think, paid an hour and suddenly, hey, we've got a living, breathing bartender, instead of trying to work that into an AI or something like that. But at the same time, I also think that the meta movie will open up new jobs for actors, for people that want to work from home, for people that want to explore more of these new opportunities and these new ways of storytelling. So I would say those are my three predictions of the future of VR. More realism, different definition of storytelling, and a completely new definition of what it is to work as an actor inside a film theater or in this case virtual movie set.
[01:35:33.690] Jason Moore: Yeah, I mean, I think I would say the human connection. I mean, I think what we're seeing, especially during the pandemic, you know, I've had people write to me after the meta movie saying that it was a small miracle in their lives, having been locked down for months without having any type of interaction with people and to spend an hour with us. where they felt like they were with friends again and they felt like they had just come back from a camping trip or coming back from playing in the streets with their friends all day, like this notion of connecting. I mean, I think, you know, I'm a storyteller. I want to connect with audiences. I want to make people feel. I want to bring some joy and some happiness and some love into their lives with any type of story I tell. The great thing about immersive interactive virtual reality storytelling is that it just raises the ante on all of that. It makes everything more. So the connections that we build are so much more powerful. And so my hope is that as the technology evolves and as these new ways of communicating, these new ways of telling stories evolve, that we'll just refine the process and start to reach out and touch more and more people. Our ultimate goal, I think, is to send our audiences away with a smile on their face and some warmth in their heart. And especially the liveness can't be really overstated. This feeling that you've had a communal event, you know, you've gone to something and you were with these people. And what's so fun about shared storytelling, which is you just don't get in any other type of storytelling, is that you didn't just go and watch a movie with your friends, you went and created a movie with your friends. I mean, if you and 10 of your buddies all did Alien Rescue together as like a group, imagine how crazy and fun that would be. And I just hope that we just continue to get more and more opportunities to just refine this process. Also, like I just hope that it can be widespread. Like right now, the VR scene is very limited to people who can afford it. And I really hope that like the democratization of VR and the, I just hope it becomes something that is not an elite upper 10% of us afford this stuff. Like we need to find hopefully a way to make it as ubiquitous as a cell phone or, you know, as ubiquitous as the internet. That's the hope on my end is to see it grow and see it progress and then see it expand.
[01:37:43.686] Kent Bye: Hmm. Again, I just wanted to thank you all for joining me here today to be able to unpack all of this and to dive into both the history and the context and the lessons learned. I think there's so many different things that are happening here that are really innovative when it comes to the future of immersive storytelling and addressing some of these existentially hard problems when it comes to the balance of agency and narrative tension and this role playing live into a movie. I think this is, you know, like Kenneth said, this is what Ernest Cline talked about in Ready Player One as one of the potential futures of the medium. And I think that not only is it going to be replaying existing narratives, but like you are all envisioning Jason, like moving into this realm where it's like organic and this complex nonlinear system that's emergent and different each time based upon who's there. So that is terribly exciting to see where that all goes and how you approach a dramatic arc that makes sense for each of the characters to continue to grow and evolve through all that and how to do that. it's nobody really knows. And so I think it's great that you all are doing all this pioneering work and continuing to innovate and discover new things about the medium. So thanks again for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you.
[01:38:52.582] Kenneth Rougeau: Thanks for having me. Thank you. It's an honor. Thank you.
[01:38:57.223] Kent Bye: So that was Jason Moore. He's the director of the Metamovie Presents, Alien Rescue. And then we also have a co-producer, Avinash Changa, as well as the main cast of Nicole Rigo, Kenneth Emergeaux, and Miranda Botha. Craig Woodard was also part of the cast, but was not able to join us for this conversation. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, like I said at the time, and I think still stands today, this is one of the most immersive experiences that I've had a chance to have in VR. Just to be able to be a character and to really live into that character and to be able to make all these different choices. I thought the production design was very well done. It felt very high quality. And just the way that you're able to go from scene to scene, you know, like I said, usually when you're into these different immersive experiences, there's like loading times as you go from one scene to the next, but all that is loaded in and just super streamlined and all the different customizations or happening within Neos VR, I think overall create a really cohesive experience. And the time that I did this conversation from a year later at the Raindance, they did actually iron out a lot of the other onboarding and user interface issues. And so that was pretty much streamlined by the time I saw it the second time. There's some different frictions that I think came up with just Neos being kind of a different platform that has its own way of doing things. And sometimes it's very customizable. And if you don't have the settings correct, then it can create a little bit of havoc. There's a bit of like sorting out through that the first time I saw it but this last time there wasn't any of that at all and I think what was interesting also for me is just to hear a little bit more of the evolution in the history of all the different prior projects and experimentations that they've been doing for years and years and years and years and really this question of agency and how you really provide these opportunities for characters to be able to make these decisions. I'd say most of the different choices that you're making within this piece have some binary forks that can go into the road either going to be on the good side or the bad side, but also there's still a lot of middle ground in terms of the ways in which you can customize your character. The first time I said that I was some sort of anthropologist, and so that was kind of a weird thing to be within the context of these experiences, which there wasn't ways that I could really play with that as much. This last time I actually chose to be a professional philosopher, which is kind of an oddball choice, but ends up that there's a lot of different ethical and moral dilemmas that are presented to you as the viewer. And as role-playing a philosopher, it just allowed me to think out loud and talk about the different ethical choices that were being presented to me and to have these different group discussions about whether or not that would be ethical or not. I think actually there's a lot about this experience that is about making these different ethical choices and the conflict that happens amongst different characters based upon different evaluation of what is ethical and what isn't. So I think it ended up being kind of an interesting choice to dig into the story a little bit deeper. Having gone through it once, I think it was, like Jason said in this conversation, the more that you do it, then you start to find other things that you wanted to really experiment with. I thought that as I went through the second time, I was going to be more interested in really exploring the different aspects of going down this bad path. But I think because of the different relational dynamics of this particular experience, it's almost like you have this portrayal of these other characters, and one of them is your cousin. And I guess the payoff for that was that you get this kind of virtual money. I think if the payoff is something like you get to experience something that's amazing and experienced within the virtual world, that would be more of an incentive for me personally to be able to betray or go against other people that are in this relational dynamic. I think there's also different aspects of needing to lie to other characters and there's certainly been a number of different experiences I've been in where it's like an immersive theater piece that was at Tribeca a number of years ago where it's like this escape room type of thing and they have these actors that are coming in and you have to like lie to their face. Well that's a whole thing to be able to be put into the situations where you kind of have to like you know sneakily lie your way through these different social dynamics and You know, there's plenty of games that are like that, like Among Us or Werewolf or, you know, these kind of social dynamics games where you need to convey to the larger group other information that isn't your full authentic self. For me, that wasn't as interesting as I was going through it. What was more interesting to me was to look at this interface between Who am I? Who do I see as my identity? What kind of character do I have as a human being? And then, as I'm role-playing these different roles, then how much of that personality and those characteristics am I going to carry forth, and what is going to be context-dependent upon doing things that I would only do because I'm playing this character? And so for me, I think that's the more interesting thing about these different types of experiences that you go into them and you presented with a bunch of different choices. And as you reflect upon those different choices, then it's either context dependent where, you know, the choices you made are completely dependent upon this contrived immersive theater. experience that you're going on this adventure, or it could be a part of your essential character. When you are presented with similar types of choices, then it's something that you would normally always do, even in real life. And trying to find the balance between what is dependent upon the context and the character that you're playing versus who are you as an individual and what your essential character is, I think is part of what is the most fascinating for pieces like this, because it's an opportunity to go into lots of different contexts and having going through it now a second time, another time and place with a similar context and these similar conditions and to see how I want to react the same way. You know, just the misnaming of Baxter and calling him Axe or he wants to be called Axe and they're calling Baxter or vice versa. I forget what he preferred to be called. But anyway, there's these moments of that where there's a group consensus against one of the characters and, you know, just to be an ally to this person who wants to maintain his new identity, and if people are using him by his dead name, then, yeah, it just felt kind of weird. But I think overall, just to be into these different situations where there are these moments of improv, I like to think about it as these moments of potential where you're not quite sure what's going to happen, and you have to reveal different aspects of yourself. And I think what Jason was alluding to there at the end is that as he's thinking about this script that has six written parts, to think about in the future, are there new ways to find your way through these different experiences? It's essentially these group of characters, and they have agency within themselves to know how to progress through this linear experience. And if there's completely new ways of achieving the goals that have never been done before, then that within itself becomes a challenge for people going through it multiple times. to see how you could achieve similar goals or explore all the different variations by creating new narrative novelty. I think for the actors that are there as well, it also pushes them to push their limits in terms of what they've done before and what they're capable of when it comes to being presented these different solutions. They have their different story beats, but I think there's also some flexibility with how the script is written to be able to go down these various different paths. So it's quite an interesting provocation to think about how there would be endings that would never be scripted, but yet they were co-created by the quality of the moment that was arising and everybody contributing to some novelty in the moment. So having the script as a baseline to give a structure to the overall narrative, but to give a lot of freedom and flexibility to the different actors to help direct how things start to unfold. So yeah, kind of interesting to think about these things. And for me, really fascinated to hear not only history of this project and from all the different people involved with it, but also some of the different variations for, you know, as they're dealing with these different characters. There's a thing that's been going around with the immersive theater community for a while, and I'm not sure exactly where it originated. I tried to find the original source and citation, but I couldn't quite. But there's the idea that you have skimmers, people that are just skimming on the top. Then you have people that are dippers, so they're actually getting into the water. Maybe they're snorkeling. And then you have people who are the deep divers with the scuba gear, who are going as deep as you possibly can. I think it's the divers who are more likely to be the ones who are temperamentally predisposed to want to be the hero character and the protagonist and to have the most agency and to really push the experience to its limits. Then there's other people who maybe just want to be the dippers and the skimmers, and there's the iBots that give them this anonymity but be able to have the freedom to be able to have their own immersive experience that goes above and beyond the different type of interactivity or agency that the protagonist would have. I think this is one of the first experiences that I've seen, at least, that started to really have this tiered system and that's also been adopted by other different projects after the MetaMovie project. I think it's going to be a way of really bringing economic sustainability to these different types of projects to be able to have the variety of different tiers for different ways that you can engage at different levels. And just the way that they're explaining that I think really detailed that for maybe the first time that I had really considered. I just assumed everybody would want to be the hero protagonist, but obviously that's not the case. There's a wide range of different levels and degrees that people want to be immersed into an experience like this. So the meta movie presents alien rescue is going to be doing weekly showings or so I think for the rest of 2021 and you know it's yet to be seen exactly if there's going to be an official run in 2022 but I highly recommend if you get a chance to go check this out definitely go do it and if you get one of the hero slots. I also highly recommend that. But I personally haven't done the iBot experience, but I've heard from other people that have done it that they found it quite enjoyable. I've gone through it as the hero, and there are certain branches of the narrative where I don't have much agency to be able to go check out what's happening with the other characters. Just to see the overall dynamics, I think it would be fun to actually see it from the iBot perspective. So, definitely go check it out. It's highly worth whatever money that they're charging. They just need to be able to find a way to really make this sustainable. But I hope they're able to make a real good run of it, because I think there's so many innovations that they've come up here, and to actually pulling this off. I mean, this is kind of the dream of different aspects of the holodeck, or in Ready Player One, you have the flicks where you're actually kind of embodying different characters within the movie. This is just more of a LARPing live-action roleplay, elements of Westworld. so dystopic as you're going in and commuting these human rights abuses against these AI characters in a larger sociopathic context, but more the fact that you're engaging in these characters in these worlds of existing storylines, and it's much more of a linear experience than an open-world experience. But yeah, just taking into the future where all these immersive storytelling futures are headed. I think this metamovie project is ahead of its time in the sense of it's really pushing the limits in terms of embodying this fusion between the conceits of narrative storytelling and film and theater, but having all these live action gamifications and immersive theater aspects to it as well. So looking forward to it getting out into the world and for more and more people getting a chance to be able to experience it for themselves. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listen-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.