New York City dates announced for immersive take on A Christmas Carol: Feb. 23 - Mar. 24, 2019 at Future of StoryTelling's Story Arcade.
On paper, the relationship between immersive theatre and virtual reality seems clear, but few experiences have been able to harness the intersection of the two mediums in practice. Immersive theatre provides the intimacy and agency of real-world interactions, while VR allows for experiences that transcend reality and the portability of mass distribution.
Jack, Alice, Terminal 3, and Draw Me Close are a few experiences that have channeled this confluence in a meaningful way, and now there's another important contribution -- and innovation -- to the canon: Chained: A Victorian Nightmare.
The experience is an adaptation (of sorts) of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. But in it, participants don't encounter a retelling of the story itself so much as an experience that forces them to "become" the central "Scrooge" character.
"I started thinking about the stories that I've loved over the years that really hinge around a central character," Chained Director Justin Denton said. "And for that it was A Christmas Carol hinging around Scrooge. But what happens when you don't want to empathize with the character? You need to be the character. I can't make you be Scrooge. So instead I pulled Scrooge out of it and actually inject you into the story."
When the experience begins, you enter a physical room where a real-life Jacob Marley greets you and ultimately seats you in front of a mirror. You are warned that only you can go where you are going -- after all, it is your life to account for. From there, Marley hands you an Oculus Rift. When donned, a virtual representation of the mirror appears before you. Suddenly, a hand reaches out through the mirror. When you reach back, your hand meets another real hand -- and it pulls you into the Victorian world of Chained.
This is the first of many instances in Chained where the real and virtual collide. Each of the ghosts (Past, Present, and Future) and Marley are physical actors in space with you, tracked in real-time to create a virtual character that appears before your eyes in the headset.
Suddenly, virtual Marley materializes before you and takes in a long, rasping breath. Like any VR experience, you see Marley as a virtual character. Unlike any typical VR experience, you hear that character physically in the room with you. Circling you, Marley asks you probing questions about your life -- what do you miss most about childhood? What do you cherish most in this life? In my experience, when he put his hands on my shoulders, chills zipped up my spine and behind my ears. That's the moment I knew that Chained was something truly remarkable. And there's only more from there.
How Chained was Created Uniquely for Immersion
In the span of an experience like this, which runs between 20-30 minutes, there's no way to fluidly establish a backstory for Scrooge, so instead of going that route, Denton made this experience about the participant. The point is to cause audiences to reflect on their own lives. Where a narrative arc does exist, it's your personal progression from the Ghosts of Past, Present, and Future -- and the eerie environments they inhabit.
"Scrooge is a caricature; if you really look at at him, he's the best of us and the worst of us," Denton said. "He actually encapsulates everything that we are, even though we view him as despicable at the beginning. There's no way for me to do that with the hundreds of people that have come through this. That's just not possible -- nor would I want to. I want you to come in with your own thought processes whenever you come in and you're asked those questions."
The questions in question are not meant to be seen as a test or challenge -- they are moments to reflect and guide your internal experience of Chained.
"Let's say you answered a certain way about your past and then you're now past the three questions and you're deeper into it," Denton said. "Marley disappears, and in the next moment, you are now like, 'Man, I really should have answered this way.' That's in your mind, you're carrying it with you. To me, that's just as successful because it's not a test."
One of the strangest and most remarkable things about Chained, in fact, is that in the context of a "horror" experience, you find yourself reflecting on that phone call you blew off with your family or friends, the gratitude you feel for the simple chance to be alive.
"The entire goal is to make you take account of your life," Denton said. "It's not to make you feel guilt for it, it's not to make you have regrets. It's to genuinely look inwards and take account. And how frequently you do we do that on a daily basis; how often does a piece of art get us to do that?"
Background & Preproduction
Looking at the art for the experience, it's easy to see why it's categorized as a horror experience (but don't go expecting jump scares). As it turns out, the connection between A Christmas Carol and horror is something that's been long brewing in Denton.
"I grew up with A Christmas Carol," Denton said. "It was something that my family read every Christmas; we would actually take turns reading the chapters. But the other part about my family is that we're huge family of horror buffs and as the years would go on reading this story, my imagination for what these spirits would be kept getting darker and darker."
Denton knew he wanted to do something special at this intersection -- and given his unique background in both immersive theatre and digital interactive storytelling, he wanted to produce something that pushed the boundaries of immersive storytelling. Around the same time, Ethan Stearns, Executive Producer at Madison Wells Media (MWM) -- and ultimately Executive Producer of Chained -- reached out to Denton, a longtime collaborator, in an effort to bring innovative new work to the fore. Stearns is best known in VR circles for producing Alejandro Iñárritu's Academy Award-winning CARNE y ARENA, and to him, producing Chained was a matter of evolving the industry by working with the artists he trusted could pull it off.
"I've been working in this space for about six years now, and over the last couple of years I started realizing that I wasn't getting to the real growth of this industry," Stearns said. "I wanted to do something that was truly pushing out, pushing the boundaries of what VR can do, and to put a stake in the ground for who MWM is, both as a company and what we're trying to do creatively: how we support creators and the stories they want to tell and help them get those stories into the world."
Right now, immersive storytelling is still young -- and often experimental. But one thing the pair knew from the jump was that they needed to produce something that could only be experienced through immersion.
"I think the best content is the content that feels like it was purpose built for the particular implementation," Stearns said. "A really strong goal of ours during the writing phase of this was to make sure it feels like there was no other way to tell this story."
What excites him about immersive experiences like Chained is how they can usurp user attention from typical distractions.
"I feel like one of the things that VR gets knocked for so often is that it's not a social thing," Stearns said. "I think that what I find interesting in modern media is that, like, my kids, while we watch a movie, want to play with an iPad. So often we're multitasking. I think VR uniquely isolates us in experiences; it serves a really great purpose in focusing you in a story in a way that no other medium can."
And Denton is one of the best immersive craftsmen in the world -- notably in how he thinks through user experience and physical interaction design.
"Where I think immersive theatre and VR, basically any immersive media, is quite often different is that -- and this is really ironic because VR has been called an empathy machine a lot -- I don't have to make you empathize with someone else," Denton said. "I don't have to make you connect with someone else's story. It's your story. And so to pull that away, it becomes much easier because now it's not about me trying to say, 'Do I relate to this character?' It's me relating to myself. I'm actually looking in as opposed to having to go, 'Well, how does my life compare to this? And what does that mean for me?'"
But executing on that promise was no small feat.
"We did a lot of workshopping to get the story to work the way that we wanted," Denton said. "You can do that all you want, but once you're actually open for business...people react differently. All the planning and the world didn't prepare us for the first two weeks of being open."
As an interactive experience, Chained had to make space for participant agency. That meant that once they opened their doors to the public, a whole new round of learning, iterating, and redesigning began.
"The reactions that we got were fascinating," Denton said. "It's a testament to the talent that we have -- how beautifully they still made it work -- but we had to make tons of adjustments. There were anticipations that we had of the way certain people would react, either based on how they moved, the way they'd answer a certain question, the mindset that they entered the building with. We [realized we had so much more] to prepare for the different kinds of people that would come through to make it the best experience it can be for them, as opposed to our little metric of like, 'Well, they're going to react one of so many ways.' No, they're not. You have no idea what they're going to do. And we need to respect that and make it as good for as many of them as we can."
Creative, Design, & Intimacy
The most powerful aspect of the piece is the relationship between the physical and the virtual. In that sense, the relationship between the actors and the participants is the single most important driver of the narrative, even though that is experienced almost entirely in a virtual setting.
"The power of presence of another human being in a space with you is so strong, regardless of whether it's virtual or it's real," Denton said. "I have the benefit here of putting amazing digital makeup on whoever I want to and making them become anything. That doesn't mean that any character in VR, even if it's controlled by a real person, will have that effect; you do have to take lessons learned from immersive theatre; the way in which you are brought into an experience is extremely important."
For that, participants had to be onboarded and oriented to the experience -- and since many had never tried VR before -- these lessons from immersive theatre, which many location-based VR experiences (or "location-based entertainment," or LBE) leave out, proved invaluable.
"Onboarding is something that is very, very well thought through in immersive theater and is often pretty overlooked in LBE VR," Denton said. "This is an experience about vulnerability. You come into a space where you're not in control, then you put a VR headset on -- VR is vulnerability. And so we actually tried to use that in an emotional way very quickly. Right after you're brought into VR, you're asked the questions. It's the first time you're really interacting with this character and you're now having to answer questions."
Both Denton and Stearns acknowledged that some might experience social discomfort being thrust into an unprecedented environment like that. According to Stearns, Denton wanted it that way from the earliest conversations.
"It was something that Justin was always very adamant on, making sure that although you might not be comfortable, that's okay," Stearns said. "And because of that, he's both sets a tone for the user and kind of focuses your vulnerability so that you better live in the environment."
The virtual characters were also something that Denton invested deep thought into crafting. For that, he teamed up with Aaron Sims Creative (ASC). Aaron Sims's background as a sculptor proved invaluable for the process of making virtual characters who would represent actors in physical space -- which simultaneously brought a new edge to the oft-represented characters.
"One of the challenges was trying to figure out how to make new versions of these characters from A Christmas Carol, which been done seven ways from Sunday," Denton said. "Well, we're actually going to reference the text from the original novella. The funny thing is, I ended up working with an artist from Iran named Ehsan Bigloo who was part of ASC, and he wasn't familiar with the story. The chances of getting a concept artist who's as amazing as he is, who also doesn't know the story...it was perfect. He would read the text and then just start coming up with these designs and ideas that were completely otherworldly and they weren't bound to this stuff that's just hardwired into all of our brains. And so he came up with this completely different aesthetic for these three spirits; I feel like that has a lot to do with why it has a lot of the field that it does."
The work ASC did was so in keeping with Denton's hopes that he ended up bringing Aaron Sims on as the Art Director for Chained. And when you move through the experience, the quality shows, each environment and character feels like a fresh take.
"He was very meticulous and coming up with this Gothic version of a Victorian London for us that plays really well into game engine," Denton said. "We were all trying to figure out [how to avoid getting] into this uncanny valley territory, but I also didn't want to do the cartoony thing that a lot of VR has done. The combination of Ehsan with his creature designs and the overall art direction I think is why it has such a unique look to it, and why it feels like a finished product."
In particular, the Ghost of the Future feels calcified and demonic, imbuing the last act with a palpable dread. As it turned out, this was the very first character Bigloo created -- and he concepted it perfectly on the first try.
"He nailed it out of the gate," Denton said. "The Future, even on paper when you're reading Dickens's description -- it's a reaper. And it's like, everybody's got a concept of what a reaper is. It's really difficult to get away from it. Ehsan and I started talking more and more and we decided to get away from the flowy reaper that we all know, but still stay in some territory with a hooded figure and long fingers but everything else can be reimagined."
So in the conversations leading up to Bigloo's concept, they discussed reimagining their reaper by flipping the notion of how death deals with light.
And we started thinking about, 'What if he feels like he's actually absorbinglight?'" Denton said. "So, as opposed to going the black-hole methodology where it's completely devoid of light, we actually wanted to trap it. There's a subsurface quality where there's light underneath, it swims underneath the surface. If you stare at it long enough, that's when you start trying to pick out faces and your brain goes into overdrive."
We started thinking about what happens forever: things calcify, they turned to bone, and so here it's actually cloth that gets stuck in place and then turns to bone," Denton said. "So it has this like pourous bone quality with that light moving underneath it."
Portraying the Ghost of the Present, meanwhile, posed the greatest challenge. The solution was to create an impossibly large man -- and the effect in the experience is palpable.
"Playing with scale in VR works well in any piece," Denton said. "And in Chained, when you've got a real person that's already touched you and all of a sudden there's a real person that's impossibly large, you actually feel that person encroaching on your space. There's a very religious quality to the look even in the description of that character in the novella, it's kind of an ideal version of man, so we started thinking, 'Well, what if we mixed that with kind of a pagan sensibility as well? Even his beard is made of roots -- it's not hair, it's actually roots that are coming from his face."
Distribution & The Future of Storytelling Story Arcade NYC Pop Up
Chained's first run took place this past December and January in Los Angeles. At the time, no future dates had been announced, but one thing both Denton and Stearns knew for sure was that this experience was meant to stand alone, not appear alongside 20-50 other experiences at a festival or the hundreds available at major industry conferences.
"When we started building this piece, a sentiment that both Justin and I shared was that we wanted to bring it to public," Stearns said. "Like we actually wanted to bring it out to people and not bring it to a festival first."
These days, that move flies in the face of the normal distribution model for VR/AR experiences; typically, creators try to debut their work at a major festival like Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, or Venice to generate buzz. But Stearns explained that when he and Denton charted the distrbution of Chained, they wanted to do it in a way that welcomed non-insiders, enthusiasts, and industry professionals alike.
"There's so many conventions and so many festivals, you can go all year round and you're hanging out with the same people, [the new work is] impressing those same people, and trends and concepts for what the industry is reverberate within that community," Stearns said. "I found myself over a couple of years realizing that I wasn't getting to the real growth. We weren't getting to growth because we weren't talking to anybody. We weren't bringing the content to anybody. We wanted to bring it to a [public] audience because we felt like that helps expand the knowledge about VR's capability to people outside of that smaller subgroup."
This move also challenged Denton and Stearns to produce a completely finished piece of work that would appeal to people with no understanding of the technology -- meaning they wouldn't be as forgiving as those who more intimately appreciate the complexities of the technology and build-out.
"There's a lot of times in the festival space -- especially when you're dealing with a lot of technology -- that we get forgiven for our blemishes," Denton said. "It's one of those things where you can create something that really isn't complete yet, and that's okay. I think that's actually a beautiful aspect of the festival circuit, because you can go and try things out. I wanted to create something that felt like a complete end-to-end product where the tech melts away."
Because these participants are buying a ticket, rather than ambiently walking around a conference floor or festival showcase, Denton knew all the technical aspects of Chained had to be air-tight. The payoff for this bespoke model is a degree of artistic control in generating his intended experience.
"At festivals you get to try a lot of things, and in one day you [might do] a dozen of those and you've muddied all of them up in your brain," Denton said. "None of them have the impact that any one of those creators intended. With Chained, it's a bespoke experience, and I think that plays well into what I'm trying to do with you emotionally in that space. If you were to do this and then go off and do six other things, I've watered down my own product just by where I've put it."
The latest installation of Chained is at Future of Storytelling's Story Arcade in New York City, a pop-up featuring 7 other curated pieces. To preserve the intimacy of the experience, Chained is ticketed separately (or as part of a deluxe bundle). It will run there until Mar. 24, 2019.
While that's the last known run of Chained, Denton also mentioned that there might be more in the works when it comes to Chained.
"The Chained IP is something that I don't feel done with," Denton said. "It's such a fascinating version of Dickens's world that I'd love to see in another medium."
To see Chained in New York City, visit the official Future of Storytelling Story Arcade portal.