Imagine finding yourself in a Victorian-era mystery, complete with dark spirits and a haunting quest of self-discovery. Now imagine you’re doing all of that while wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset, with live actors talking to you, holding your hand, guiding you through their dream-like world.
That in a gist is “Chained: A Victorian Nightmare,” a new location-based VR experience that debuted in Los Angeles last week. Produced by MWM’s MWM Immersive unit in collaboration with Here Be Dragons, “Chained” combines VR with immersive theater for a very unique and moving interpretation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
The experience was created and directed by Justin Denton, whose 13-year work history in Hollywood included stints as VFX supervisor on movies like “Battleship” and “47 Ronin.” When Denton discovered VR, he also began to explore the immersive theater space, which seemed to closely mirror the potential of VR to turn viewers into participants.
“I don’t think of this as a VR experience,” Denton recently told Variety following a demo of “Chained.” “I think of it as an immersive theater experience that uses VR.”
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One of the interesting aspects of “Chained” is that it uses immersive theater as a kind of gateway to the world of VR. Viewers/participants enter a Victorian-era styled room, where they are met by an actress who prepares them for their spirit journey while staying in character, taking down their name with a fountain pen in an old log book, and ultimately handing them the headset to send them off into the VR world.
Once in VR, audience members meet and talk to some dark spirits, who adapt the story on the fly based on these conversations. “There is no pre-recorded dialogue of any kind,” Denton said. “No one will have the experience that you just had.” Actors, sounds, and animation help to guide the audience’s attention, but how people will actually respond is somewhat unpredictable. “People just behave differently,” Denton said.
To account for this element of surprise, Denton and his team decided not to pre-record or pre-render any of the spirits. Instead, “Chained” uses live actors and real-time motion capture to animate the spirits on the fly. The result is an extremely immersive experience, with animated spirits reaching out to you and their hands actually touching yours.
“Chained” also uses a number of other physical cues for heightened immersion. A spirit may hand you an apple or ask you to sit down on a bed. However, compared to other location-based VR experiences, “Chained” uses these cues sparingly and only if they’re in service of the story.
Likewise, “Chained” doesn’t use the latest and greatest in location-based VR tech, opting for a tethered headset instead of a VR backpack. However, you’ll quickly forget about the cable floating over your head, and not even realize that you walk around in a space that only measures about 25 square feet, thanks to set changes that work like dreamlike transitions from small and intimate rooms to much bigger spaces. “All of the technology is in service to the story,” Denton said.
Another difference between Denton’s piece and location-based experiences like ones from the Void: You’ll enter the world of “Chained” alone, as it is decidedly not a social experience. “I definitely want to play with multiple people,” he said. “This isn’t the story for that.”
At $40 a ticket and slots of 25 minutes for each participant, “Chained” is very much a bespoke VR experience, admitted MWM Immersive executive producer Ethan Stearns, who previously produced Alejandro González Iñárritu’s award-winning VR experience “Carne y Arena.” The company decided against optimizing for throughput, and instead wants to use the Los Angeles debut as a way to introduce the world to the story of “Chained.” “We are looking at it as a launch event for the content,” he said.
To that end, MWM Immersive ultimately aims to produce a home-based VR version, but also bring “Chained” to other cities next year. “We see it as an opportunity to launch something very special,” Stearns said.
“Chained” is scheduled to run in Los Angeles until Jan. 6. Tickets for the show are currently sold out, but new tickets are being made available from time to time.