Immersive Storytelling Experiences edition

This is a quick scamper through some of the best narrative-driven immersive experiences on the Oculus Quest/Quest 2. This is a list for those of you searching for narrative gems — those immersive experiences that may be closer cousins to film, theatre and documentary than they are to PC and console gaming.

Note: recommendations presume age 13+ age in line with Oculus user guidance.

Travelling While Black
Director: Roger Ross Williams
Production: Felix and Paul Studios
2019, 20mins, Seated, 3DOF, Free

Two older black men and a young boy sit around a table, deep in conversation at Ben’s Chilli Bowl in the USA.

Centred around Ben’s Chilli Bowl, a venue with a decades-long reputation as a safe space for Black American travellers, this is a powerful story about racism through the decades and today. We hear from patrons of Ben’s Chilli Bowl about the daily dangers faced by people of colour as they try to exercise basic freedoms in the US. Set aside some uninterrupted time for this one, including a little while to sit with your thoughts and feelings afterwards.

Gloomy Eyes
Directors: Fernando Maldonado, Jorge Tereso
Production: Atlas V, 3DAR,
2020, 30 mins, Standing, 6DOF, £2.79 (usually £5.99)

An animated zombie boy and a dog with a severed hand in it’s mouth stand on a precipice in front of a giant full moon
An animated zombie boy and a dog with a severed hand in it’s mouth stand on a precipice in front of a giant full moon

A beautiful and brooding mini-drama. Gloomy Eyes is a love story about Nena, the daughter of an oppressive leader, the eponymous anti-hero Gloomy, a zombie outcast, and the sun which, despairing of human treachery, has decided never to rise again. Narrated by Colin Farrell, this fictional and allegorical tale takes full advantage of VR’s capability to give you a god-like view of an unfolding and captivating Tim-Burton-esque narrative.

The Under Presents
By Tender Claws
2019, Unbounded run time, Standing, Interactive, 6DOF, Free (~30mins free with in app purchasing to extend)

Abstract avatar in a golden mask looks at a partially buried clock in a desert scene. Ruined wooden buildings in background.
Abstract avatar in a golden mask looks at a partially buried clock in a desert scene. Ruined wooden buildings in background.

The Under Presents offers a heady mix of immersive theatre, mystery, puzzle solving and social VR. The vibe is curious and surreal. Something along the lines of a David Lynch movie, coupled with Journey by thatgamecompany, and laced with a touch of old Hollywood and the wry humour of Rick and Morty. Added to which the whole thing feels like it has been luxuriously soaked in single malt whisky whilst the earth was buried in an extinction-level sandstorm. Whether it be for a general visit or to attend a live performance (if The Tempest comes back, book tickets immediately), I have found myself returning to The Under Presents time and time again this year. Despite the fact l am still not quite sure what it’s all about!

Where Thoughts Go
By Lucas Rizzotto
2019, ~20min, Sitting/Standing, Interactive, 6DOF, £7.99

A small black orb with glowing eyes floats about a serene body of water. Other, white glowing orbs float in the distance.
A small black orb with glowing eyes floats about a serene body of water. Other, white glowing orbs float in the distance.

Enter a dreamlike world and consider five soul-searching questions. If you are comfortable doing so, you can record yourself answering these questions and add your voice as a glowing, blinking orb to the scene. The beauty of this experience is that this is not just about you and your thoughts, but the discovery that your answer takes its place amongst a constellation of the thoughts of those who have answered these questions before you. You can spend as much time as feels right to you listening to the myriad voices as others anonymously share their beliefs, memories, confessions and personal tales of love and loss.

Baba Yaga
Directors: Eric Darnell and Mathias Chelebourg
Production: Baobab Studios
Coming early 2021, 27 mins, Standing, Interactive, 6DOF, £unknown

This is perhaps the moment when VR goes Hollywood. With voice acting from Kate Winslet, Jennifer Hudson, Glen Close and Daisy Ridley, this is something of a tour de force. The story sets you off on a quest with your sister Magda (Ridley) to find a cure for your dying mother (Close) in an enchanted forest (Hudson). You will be pitted against the witch Baba Yaga (Winslet) guardian of the forest and asked to make a series of choices that effect the story’s ending, and give you pause to consider humanity’s role within nature. Baba Yaga premiered at Venice and Raindance Film Festivals this year, and will be released exclusively on the Oculus store in January 2021.

The Key
Director/Producers: Celine Tricart and Gloria Bradbury
Production: Lucid Dreams Production
2020, 15–20 mins, Standing, Interactive, 6DOF, Free

This is one of experiences where telling you too much about it is unhelpful so you might just have to take my recommendation on this one. Really accomplished storytelling, a strong aesthetic and a powerful wider context.

Wolves in the Walls
Director: Pete Billington
Production: Fable Studios
2019, ~40 mins, Standing, Interactive, 6DOF, £6.99

Young animated girl holding a piece of paper and with a cuddly toy pig under her arm looks at the camera.
Young animated girl holding a piece of paper and with a cuddly toy pig under her arm looks at the camera.

“Because when the wolves come out of the walls, it’s all over.”
Based on work of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Wolves in the Walls expertly mobilises the affordances of VR to (sometimes literally) hold your hand and guide you through a thrilling adventure with 8-year old Lucy as she tries to discover what is hiding in the walls of her house. Wolves in the Wall combines young adult thriller intensity with Pixar-esque visuals and a masterclass in how to lean into the strangeness of being both present and intangible in virtual reality. This is a compelling 3-part epic, and it seems the team at Fable Studios are just getting started. The lead character, Lucy has recently starting to extend her reach beyond the narrative as a virtual being, with all sorts of experiments going on behind the scenes.

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness
Directors: Amaury La Burthe, Arnaud Colinart, James Spinney & Peter Middleton
Produced: Ex Nihilo, ARTE
2016, 20 mins, Sitting/Standing, 6DOF, Free

Glowing blue partial images of a tree and a children’s playground on a black background
Glowing blue partial images of a tree and a children’s playground on a black background

Now the grand old age of four (which in VR years makes it eligible for a bus pass), this is one of those pieces that I find myself regularly circling back to when I am introducing new people to VR, working with students, and talking about what this whole XR thing is all about. Notes on Blindness shares the story of John Hull as he reflects on his experience of gradually becoming blind. We hear John’s voice via audio cassette diary entries that he made during those years and this privileged access to his personal reflections, tracking his emotional and cognitive states is really affecting. The visuals and audio are a beautiful expression of the story, and all of the elements feel lovingly and sensitively intertwined.

Home After War
Director: Gayatri Parameswaran
Production: NowHere Media
2018, ~20 mins, Sitting/Standing, Interactive, 6DOF, Free

A war-damaged building in Fallujah, Iraq and the words HOME AFTER WAR
A war-damaged building in Fallujah, Iraq and the words HOME AFTER WAR

An intimate visit to the home of Ahmaied Hamad Khalaf, an Iraqi father who returned with his family to Fallujah after the fighting subsided. He appears to speak to the participant directly, and invites us to explore his war-scarred home, sharing his own heartbreaking experience of returning to a city that remains unsafe and irreparably changed from its time under the control of IS (Islamic State).

Step to the Line
By Richard Laganaro
Production: Defy Ventures and Oculus
2017, 12 mins, Seated, 3DOF, Free (you will need to download ‘Within’ which is a curated content app, then search for ‘Step to the Line’)

A line of prisoners (mostly black) face a line of prison staff (mostly white) whilst a women with a microphone walks between
A line of prisoners (mostly black) face a line of prison staff (mostly white) whilst a women with a microphone walks between

Shot on location in a Californian maximum security prison, this documentary places you in the centre of an exercise conducted as part of an entrepreneurship training programme. A facilitator addresses a line of inmates, facing a line of staff and volunteers and asks them to take a step forward or backwards depending on their relationship to questions such as “I’ve lost someone I loved to gang violence” or “I’ve earned four year college degree”. Our role as a viewer is to witness this process, hear from those involved and to consider our own response to the questions and the circumstances of our lives. The encounter feels quite different to a ‘flat’ documentary, and despite being a few years old now, Step to the Line still stays with me, and has more than earned its place on this list.

Paper birds: Part 1
By Federico Carlini and German Heller
Production: 3DAR, Baobab
2020, 19 mins, Standing, Interactive, 6DOF, £3.99

A young boy with a cloth cap carries a large accordion on his back as he crosses a wooden bridge at night.
A young boy with a cloth cap carries a large accordion on his back as he crosses a wooden bridge at night.

If you have already seen Gloomy Eyes, Wolves in the Wall and Baba Yaga from further up this list you may be starting to spot a few immersive storytelling tropes. The naïve but menacing magical realism, the stop-frame animation of the visual styling, the languorous violins, and the peering into miniature worlds can all start to feel a little familiar, perhaps surprisingly so for such a new medium where almost anything is possible. That said, the story-craft and design of Paper Birds is really rather wonderful. Early on I was swept into this fantastical world through cleverly integrated hand tracking. Within moments I was whirling my arms and body around my living room in time with a tiny accordion played by a solemn boy sat on the dockside. I love virtual experiences that keep me in my body in this way, making my solid-self matter somehow, rather than urging my mind to be transported, leaving my messy body behind.

Despite not technically being narrative-driven immersive storytelling experiences, honourable mentions should go to AltSpace which is a fantastic Social VR platform, and a gateway to innumerable events, gigs and happenings with other VR users. Also to Beat Saber, which is a deceptively simple rhythm game that can make you feel one with the music, and never ceases to bring me joy.

If you enjoy exploring this kind of content, and are interested in getting involved with immersive storytelling as maker and/or researcher, applications for MA Virtual and Extended Realities at UWE Bristol will be re-opening in January 2021.

Senior Lecturer for Virtual and Extended Realities, Programme Lead for MA Virtual and Extended Realities at UWE Bristol. Based in @BristolVRLab.