Tender Claws’ The Under Presents is a landmark experience in the evolution of immersive storytelling. It packs in so many narrative innovations, novel game mechanics, experimental VR interactions, and even includes live immersive theater actors in a four-month run starting on November 19th.
Tender Claws is probably most well-known for their critically-acclaimed Virtual Virtual Reality, which seamless blended open world exploration with a very well-written and humorous narrative. They’ve been working on The Under Presents for over two years in collaboration with immersive theater troupe of Piehole. They’ve cultivated an innovative fusion that’s part VR game, part narrative, part music platform, and part experimental playground for live immersive theater researching the question of what exactly the magical “live” aspects of intimate one-on-one interactions in a social VR space.
The Under Presents experiments with time loops both a gameplay mechanic, but also as a narrative conceit in order to explore the story of eight characters who set off on a ship. The experience has a masterful on-boarding process that introduces you to this world and how it stretches across space and time, the unique locomotion system that warps space and time, as well as some of the methods for how to navigate the narrative portions of the experience. It’s probably best to just play through the experience before reading too much about it, and so feel free to pause and just check it out if you already know you’re interested in discovering everything for yourself. I played through the first third of the experience during a press review period and so there’s a lot about the narrative and story structure that I’m still actively exploring now that the finalized build is available.
What’s really quite unique about The Under Presents is that for the next four months, there will be live immersive theater actors who will be roaming around the multiplayer areas of the experience. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age sci-fi novel dreamed of reactive actors or “ractors” who would be paid to roam around virtual worlds acting out interactive stories, and so The Under Presents may be the first consumer VR experience that’s employing a set of actors for an initial four-month run of performances that run around the clock. Tender Claws producer Tanya Leal Soto said that they have the ability to monitor the number of users who are roaming around the multiplayer areas in order to help with the capacity planning for populating the world with these live actors.
The actors will be primarily colliding with the users of The Under Presents in what are known as “one-on-ones” within the immersive theater world. These one-on-one interactions with actors are usually randomly sprinkled through immersive theater shows like Sleep No More, but receiving one is rare and kind of like winning the lottery. There’s usually hundreds of audience members in an immersive theater show like Sleep No More, and so there’s only a tiny handful of intimate interactions that happen, and they’re usually up to the actor’s discretion to chose who will receive a highly-customized experience.
Other immersive theater shows like Then She Feel architected their show in order to optimize for these intimate one-on-one interactions. However, these shows only have a throughput of 15 people at a time for this two-hour experience. Because the The Under Presents doesn’t have any space constraints, then they’re able to spin off virtual instances where they’ll have immersive theater actors roaming around who are based initially in New York City and Los Angeles. Time will tell how they deal with scaling this out and how probable it will be that you will run into a live actor, but they’re trying to recreate these intimate interactions in a virtual space.
I was able to have four different one-on-one interactions with live theater actors in my two different press review periods at Sundance and this past month, and there’s definitely a unique quality of having a live interaction. As a user in The Under Presents, you can’t speak and so you’ll be forced to use body language and gestures in order to communicate. Director Samantha Gorman hopes that this will create different elements of emergent play with users, and she commented how it’s really quite amazing how much of someone’s temperamental energy and character can still be transmitted into the virtual space. There are a number of recorded interactions in the experience, and so the live interactions with actors stand out in how there is an emergent conversation that can unfold where there’s an asymmetry of information loss much like playing a game of charades.
Because the live actor can be very specific in how they react to muted users, then it creates a very special live moment where you get to be taken to a secret place, given more context about the world, and perhaps even taught a few tricks of ritual magic. It was immediately obvious to me when I was interacting with a live human and not artificial intelligence. We’re still quite a ways away from artificial general intelligence that could pass this type of Turing test of a live interaction, and so Gorman will be researching these interactions as part of her Ph.D. thesis that she’s in the process of actively researching writing with this project. There’s a lot more insights about emergent conversations and emergent play that she’s sure to find, patterns of user temperament, as well as the component parts for what exactly makes a live theatrical moment in VR so magical.
I had a chance to talk with Tender Claws producer Tanya Leal Soto as well as the co-director of Tender Claws Samantha Gorman, who also conceived of, directed, wrote, and directed the live immersive theater actors. We talk about the inspiration for The Under Presents, their collaborative process, and how she architected the interactive story.
Gorman said that she had surreal sci-fi / horror writer Brian Evenson develop the initial treatment, but she found that she needed to add an additional spatial treatment that determined how stories unfolded in parallel, but also how the story of the space unfolded. They developed their own motion capture solution that allowed them to do on-the-fly motion capture that was extremely efficient in being able to contain somewhere between 12-16 hours of motion capture data for entire experience. There are eight characters that each have their own storylines, and Gorman said that there are different stories and endings that are unlocked as you see a certain percentage of each of the character’s stories. Gorman also said that they developed their own set of customized tools in order to visualize and architect the parallel story lines that were unfolding across the ship as the coordination and timing was both very interdependent and multi-faceted.
Piehole was also very critical in helping to fill in the gaps for the characters in this experience. They would often improvise character traits, but also help to flesh out the characters by having different actors embody the avatars as they walked through the virtual sets. Stories are usually produced in a pretty linear fashion, but The Under Presents would take a highly iterative approach where acting would happen in virtual scenes with roughly sketched and temporary virtual props, and then the final art product was produced based upon those recorded motion captured interactions. So they were blending in the traditional waterfall approaches like the story and character treatments with a much more iterative design approach with improvised acting and bottom-up exploration. This would be fed back into the script, and then iterated on through multiple passes.
Soto & Gorman also said that Piehole was instrumental in recruiting many of the musical performances from the New York City artist scene who are featured on the stage, which serves as a centralized hub and multiplayer space. They were able to capture the essence of a live musical performance while being able to leverage the affordances of virtual reality to have a much more theatrical & surreal production than would be normally possible given the budgets of a indie musician. I found myself captivated in watching a number of performances while other users were roaming around performing ritual magic transmutations on interactable objects.
The Under Presents really does sit at the cross section of an indie game, experimental narrative storytelling, VR experience, and art piece that incorporates many influences from the theater world. Gorman has a background in theater and seemed happy to get back to her theater roots to explore how VR is able to create many site-specific theatrical interactions. Ordinarily there would be a lot of down time when following around characters who aren’t doing much in this type of immersive theater piece, and they actually have the characters blink in and out of existence in order to minimize dead time and make editing the narrative a lot easier as well. There’s a Matrix-glitch mechanic which actually helps you hone in on the narrative moments where something interesting is happening either through a monologue or dialogue with the actors.
Gorman also said that she was taking inspiration from other indie games like Braid for navigating space and time, the more passive narrative VR experience Invisible Hours, emergent play mechanics from Journey, the French theorist Guy Debord’s concept of dérive where “participants drop their everyday relations and ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’” They also took narrative inspiration from the sci-fi novel The Invention of Morel, which inspired the story that involves time loops. Gorman said that she is using virtual spaces to explore narrative structures that go way beyond simple branching narratives, and that virtual reality allows her to play with time in a narrative that goes beyond what any other medium can provide. There are many levels in which they’re exploring the bounds of time and space.
There are many puzzles and mysteries contained within the underlying structure of this experience that are a joy to discover. There’s also so many innovations when it comes to VR locomotion, motion capture, live immersive theater actors, an entire behind-the-scenes control schema for live actors to seamless navigate and perform actions in virtual spaces, scrubbing through a narrative collaborative and emergent play, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with narrative structures once you’re able to navigate through space and time. If you’re interested in tracking the evolution of storytelling and interactions within virtual reality, then The Under Presents is a must-watch experience that I suspect will continue to grow and evolve over time as a community forms and the many hidden secrets continue to be discovered. The Under Presents is is available for the Oculus Quest for $19.99, and was released on Tuesday November 19th, 2019.
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