Quite a few of us have now come to the conclusion that VR ought to be a fantastic addition (or an alternative) to embodied, interactive experiences.
Larp, theater, exhibitions, etc, offer infinite possibilities of movement and of sensorial stimulation, while VR offers infinite possibilities of travels and of hypersensorial fantasies.
A match made in heaven.
One week ago, I had the chance to get an idea of the state of art of hybrid experiences in “Europe”, from the side of “immersive-interactive theater”.
Why settle for who you are, when you can be more? We will open your mind so wide you will be able to lucid dream, or as we say, SLEEP™* . You will be able to random access your subconscious mind and control it. In one 90 minute appointment, you will earn more, have more followers, more fans, love more, more, more, more…Sweet dreams, SOMNAI. *may cause acute death*
As advised by many (most importantly, by my supervisor Christy Dena), I went to London to try out SOMNAI by Dotdotdot.
SOMNAI costs £38 with tax, for about one hour. During that time, the audience navigates several floors of a building, with a staff (hosts and actors) of 6-7 people per session.
The experience is played in teams of 5-6, involves basic interaction with actors, high quality theatrical settings, spatialized sound, projections, and, of course, VR.
The topics of that I will review are the following:
- Roleplaying and human interaction,
- Multiple spaces and artistic identity
- How to improve it – from my standpoint (if the precise reviewing part doesn’t interest you, jump there directly)
I am truly happy to know such ambitious projects have been brought to life (over £3 million! ) and encountered success. It makes me hopeful for the development of hybrid VR experiences and I am very grateful to all those who are pioneering this field. It takes guts and a spark of creative madness.
Nevertheless, like people who are used to playing artistic larps, I tend to be particularly critical of immersive experiences; the larp community is constantly pushing the boundaries of the field, while remaining mostly non-profit. Despite my fussiness I’ll state clearly that I do think it is worth trying SOMNAI.
This article might seem severe, however my intentions aren’t to bash the experience, but to anticipate pitfalls in future projects, and further explain my take on narrative embodied experiences.
Now starts the harsh spoiling, stop your reading here if you want to approach SOMNAI with fresh eyes (still on in London until mid June).
You are going to SOMNAI, a seemingly exclusive sleep clinic, in order to explore your dreams. The experience starts with two staff members wearing a serious face and placing you in a booth to scan you with their tablets.
Then, you’re sent to the vestiary, where you’re invited to trade your shoes, purse and phone for a pair of thick padded socks, a fitbit and a warm dressing gown; epitome of British comfort. We were all sweating under all that, but who could blame londoners for not anticipating hot weather?
From there, you enter the antechamber of sleep.
In front of the statue of Hypnos, you meet an actress, playing the role of a semi mystical semi android guide, that will lead you through the different steps of your journey.
The narration and message as I understood it, is, chronologically, the following:
- You decide to go to SOMNAI in order to explore your dreams. This is true diegetically and extra-diegetically; we all decided to partake in an “immersive experience about dreams”. As it so happens, a similar analogy is also present in Lone Wolves Stick Together.
- After you have explored some extravagant dreamscapes (sky, forest, sea, canyon, space…), you’re asked to make a moral choice: do you want to go further, explore your dreams and “become more”, or do you want to pick solidarity at the price of the fulfilment of your desires?
- Facing death on a hospital bed, which is supposed to be your rebirth, you deal with the consequences of your choice: if you were selfish, your death will bring you angst, if you sacrificed your dreams for the better good, your death will bring you light.
Getting out of SOMNAI, I felt inspired by the overall experience, but I didn’t feel I got anything to take with me, in terms of narration and reflexion.
While I did like the progressive diving, I thought the plot was quite basic, with a Manichean-christian aftertaste that didn’t resonate with me.
Playing your own part
In SOMNAI, you are playing yourself.
You are not granted with a character; and the guide often takes you back to your real identity, by using your real name and asking you personal questions.
One can argue that we’re always playing different versions of our own role, but performing your identity in fictional settings is abrupt and disruptive. In other words, having to interact with people whom you know are actors on duty feels quite artificial; the audience is playing along because it has to, or “for fun”, but in a detached way. There is hardly any room for make believe.
I think, however, that this ambiguity is a committed stance from the creators: as mentioned above, SOMNAI is a mise en abyme of wanting to dream. The narration is about people going to a company of sorts that is dedicated to dip individuals in dreamland, and you, as an audience, are going to this theater – in theory – in order to live an engaging, mesmerizing experience.
Intentional or not, I thought the blurry boundary between the “real self” (sorry for writing such a philosophical nonsense) and the SOMNAI self, to be an obstacle to the players/audience’s greater engagement.
Which leads us to human interaction
In this team-based interactive theater, there are two types of human interaction: interaction with the actors -which they generally initiate and lead- and interaction with the other players.
Because you are playing your own part, and because there is no instruction advising not to do it, you’re very naturally inclined to even further break the fiction by discussing with the other players as yourself.
In all forms of roleplaying games, this is referred to as “being out of character” and it is considered to be the quintessence of “immersion” wrecking.
If the magic bubble is repetitively pierced, then, our meta awareness overrides our candor and we start seeing the strings, and, even worse, seeing ourselves.
Apart from our guide, I interacted with three other actors.
Our interaction was minimal: I stood still on designated areas, listened to their monologues, and answered simple questions (“what’s your name”).
In this type of very scripted settings, and in the absence of directions and of character, there is an implicit contract between the audience and the staff: do not mess with them, do not move around too much, and respect the schedule.
This, for me at least, cuts all means for the player to be creative, which is quite frustrating.
As a larper and a gamer, I have a taste for having at least some agency and some freedom. The lack of power over the environment is yet another element that makes the experience less plausible.
As for the interaction with our guide, it is very clear that she is here to lead our path, and give us some narrative content that felt more like temporising than enhancing the fiction.
Finally, in VR, there was absolutely no interactivity, should it be with the players or the environment: turning your head, walking, that’s it.
Real Space / Virtual Space
SOMNAI successfully alternates between surreal real spaces and virtual ones. It starts off by a series of rooms representing the “before we fall asleep”, and then, we get our first taste of virtual reality.
Virtual Reality starts without headsets, and stages the moment we hit the hay. We crawl inside a 1 meter high quilted circular room and rest on pillows. After a brief narration from the guide in this extremely claustrophobic space, the music takes over.
The “ceiling” opens on a dome, on which psychedelic space animations are projected, they rotate, trick us into thinking we are turning around.
A clever touch was to display an animation of Hypnos, identical to the statue in the first room: I find such anchors to bring cohesion to complex experiences.
Overall, this part of SOMNAI reminded me of the feeling of laying on a flat, wide field and contemplating the stars: at times, it seems you’re flying over the sky, at times, it seems you can sense the Earth rotate.
A familiar sensation that I thought was a brilliant thing to fiddle with, when exploring the idea of half-sleep.
That moment gave me thrills and was the high pick of my experience.
After that, VR is used to take the audience in their dreams. The guide refers to the headsets as to “sleeping masks”, bringing them cleverly into the diegesis.
Multiple spaces and artistic identity
The rest of SOMNAI mostly involved moving around from one dream to another, which was exciting at first but soon became underwhelming.
It is however great to see how natural it felt to put on the sleeping masks and jump right into VR, and it was all the more efficient in the first VR room, where the enchanting fluffy sky settings were a sensational first step towards dreamland.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the disruption wasn’t from real life to VR, but from one physical space to another. Having such a big space to navigate, technology to set up, and possibly a staff working on several sessions at the same time (this is a speculation), there were some waiting times.
When you’re in an “immersive space”, everytime you stop to wait alone seems very long and ends up breaking the magic.
I realise the staff is trying to proceed as smoothly and as fast as possible, however it is a design issue to leave the audience alone with nothing to do, other than looking at walls.
More problematic than that little practical annoyance was the content of the “dreams”.
There are countless experiences of flying, magic forests, suspended bridges or space animations out there. Unless a project brings a new artistic identity to those themes or displays a graphic/technological improvement, there’s little interest to develop them over and over again.
By doing so, the creators rely entirely on the idea that their audience is unlikely to know much about VR or video games (to me, the graphics were quite close to what I saw in World of Warcraft – Vanilla (2004)). If that seems to be mostly efficient, that isn’t very inspiring or stimulating for those who do have expectations.
Likewise, the desire of displaying many sensations is at the cost of a distinguishable identity and of a rich narration. SOMNAI ended up feeling like an “immersive experiences tasting” where all dishes have their little findings and their big shortcomings.
This is true both for the dreams in VR and for the snippets of immersive theater, which are diluted in a sea of references and tropes: a technocratic corporation in the lines of dystopian movies or Black Mirror, creepy children and creepy toys, manichaean moral dilemma, psychedelic Alice in Wonderland, greek mythology, etc.
I’m particularly aware of these issues, considering that Lone Wolves Stick Together is also a project with different stops that have different themes. One of my challenges is to work on a signature identity that will allow for variations without over-fractionning the experience.
Last but not least: emotional safety
On SOMNAI’s website, you can read the following: “We are sorry the experience is not suited to under 18s, sufferers of motion sickness, dizziness, psychological or neurological disorders. We are sorry the experience deals with adult themes that some will find confronting, disorientating or uncomfortable.”
First off, “psychological or neurological disorders” probably covers the great majority of the population, even more so, the population interested in weird theater tech experiences.
Then, there is the question of what to favor between safety and mystery: although this is still a controversial topic in larp communities, most of us have come to the conclusion that precise trigger warnings will protect players from being brought to difficult places, which is more important than preserving the surprise.
In the case of SOMNAI, I believe they should be less generally restrictive and more precisely protective, by being upfront with the themes and sensations they are staging.
This could be in the lines of “If some themes are potentially sensible to you, or if you do have phobias, please read the following:
The experience is not suited for people suffering from claustrophobia and vertigo.
Avoid it if you do not want to deal with the following themes: dead children, experiencing death, being locked up.”
Personally, I’d remove the whole “dying in a hospital bed” part. Not only is it abrupt, it doesn’t bring much in terms of narration and seems there to put a subversive end to the experience, which ended up putting a bitter end to mine.
As for the rest, a safety brief before the game would be more than welcome.
Being in an imperfect VR while having to walk on an unsteady bridge is scary, and that might be mostly because you are blinded by the headset from your real life environment.
I found the scariest part of these moments to be the doubt: will there be some matching unsteady element in my real environment that will make me trip and/or fall? While we can rationalize this is unlikely, who knows how far entertainment is willing to go in order to hook you on adrenaline?
While I’m definitely in to explore fright in VR (I kept hoping the flying would end up in sharp diving), I am less interested in being scared I might fall over something I can’t see.
Possibilities of improvement: developing characters and simplifying the experience
Most of the issues noted above can be fixed by granting players with developed characters.
Developing the characters
- They will be part of the fictional world and the dissonance between reality and performance won’t be affecting their engagement.
- Similarly, making a moral decision will be more impactful: while players are aware nothing will happen to them in entertainment settings, they will fear for their character, for their fate and life is affected by the fictional world.
- This will give them means to interact both with the actors and with each other. During the necessary waiting time, they will be able to keep each other busy, especially if the design gives them a topic of interaction.
- The experience’s universe and narration will have to be in tune with those characters background and agency, therefore more coherent: In what world are they evolving? What brought them here? What are their individual dreams? How to put anchors to their story in the experience?
- Actors that have to roleplay together will feel less artificial. No more pre-written long monologues to passively watch (which makes it hard to remain attentive) but semi-equals (“NPCs”; non-playing characters) to structure the experience.
Simplifying the experience
While it is important to plant the seeds for future times where our technology might match better our ideas, it might be even more crucial to be able to simplify our vision when it’s dragging the whole experience down.
This issue wasn’t that central in SOMNAI but I thought I’d mention four points:
- Grand sound, in a small room with no seemingly diegetic source doesn’t feel surreal; it feels disruptive and amusement parkish.
- Rather than developing a multiplicity of common VR environments one might want to focus on a few creative ones, which would hopefully also make room for more unique graphics
- If the experience involves alignment between VR and real space, all the virtual objects – at least of the same type – should have their match in real life. It is quite off putting to be able to touch the mushroom on the left but not the one on the right.
I believe a solution would be to have less objects in the VR space, but to align all of them.
- One regret that was expressed by several players was that they hadn’t been able to explore the impressive sets we visited. Instead, we had to sit and listen to (non mind-blowing) monologues. If players have room and time to simply explore the settings in VR or in real life, they will get an engaging feeling of freedom and of discovery.