laura-wexlerDinner Party is an immersive exploration of Betty and Barney Hill’s alien abduction story that premiered at the Sundance New Frontier. Rather than using normal alien abduction tropes, writers Laura Wexler & Charlotte Stoudt chose to use the spatial affordances of VR to present a symbolic representation of each of their experiences to highlight how vastly different they were. Betty and Barney were an interracial couple in New Hampshire, and the encounter with aliens was a positive peak experience for Betty, but Barney had an opposite experience that Wexler & Stoudt attribute to his experience as a black man in the early 1960s. Inspired by passages of Barney’s hypnosis recordings posted online, Wexler & Stoudt expanded Hill’s story into an immersive VR narrative at the New Frontier Story Lab, and collaborated with director Angel Manuel Soto to bring this story to life in VR.

charlotte-stoudtDinner Party is the pilot episode of a larger series called The Incident, which explores the aftermath of how people deal with a variety of paranormal or taboo experiences. Wexler & Stoudt are using these stories to explore themes of truth and belief such as: Who is believed in America? Who isn’t? What’s it feel like to go through an extreme experience that no one believes happened to you? And can VR allow you to empathize with someone’s extreme subjective experience without being held back by an objective reality that you believe is impossible?

Dinner Party is great use of virtual reality storytelling, and it was one of my favorite VR experiences I saw at Sundance this year. It has a lot of depth and subtext that goes beyond what’s explicitly said, and I thought they were able to really use the affordances of VR to explore a phenomenological experience in a symbolic way. It’s a really fascinating exploration of radical empathy using paranormal narrative themes that you might see in the The X-Files or The Twilight Zone, and I look forward to see what other themes are explored in future episodes.

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