The Invisible Hours as “Immersive Theatre”

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by Charlie Gallagher

We have all interacted with a classic detective story in the past. With so much media devoted to this genre—novels, movies, video games, and even board games—you would think there is not a lot left to do. After all, everyone knows the butler did it! However, in 2017, Tequila Works came up with a truly original idea using VR technology, “The Invisible Hours.” It plays like a movie, but it is interactive like a video game. The story is predetermined—you cannot change it—but you have the freedom to experience it from an infinite number of perspectives. So, what is it? Is it cinema? Is it a video game? Is it VR? Originally, I was quite skeptical about the game’s verdict about itself, that it is “immersive theatre” (The Invisible Hours). In this post, I will test the title against virtual reality games and cinema to evaluate the game’s verdict.

The clearest difference between “The Invisible Hours” and a more traditional cinematic experience is the ability to interact with objects. Everyone begins their journey as Gustav steps off the boat and onto the dock. Some of the first interactive objects are the gun lying next to Tesla’s body, the gong mallet, and the electrical switch. Throughout the story, the observer will also find a variety of objects, some of which are clues and some of which are Skyrim-like trinkets.

Erika Ishii discovering some of the available in-game haptic interactions.

Even though they have very little meaning, the last remnants of a quest from 2011 that refuse to leave your “quest item” saturated inventory, something about them is just cool to look at. The objects in “The Invisible Hours,” are like that too. Surprisingly, watching others interact with these objects can hold someone’s attention as well. As the observer moves their input devices, whatever those might be, you really get a sense of the object in 3 dimensions. Unlike a Skyrim  inventory model, which feels sort of like interacting with your parent’s priceless vase, you can shake these. Of course, the objects do not have any weight to them, but something about the motion of grabbing and shaking is so much more real than just twirling a 3D model with a joystick. In my experience, this is also true when you are only observing someone else’s gameplay. So, it is clearly different from cinema, but that does not make it virtual reality because it is not an influential interaction—one that has any effect on the story.

With the original Skyrim on PS3, even though you cannot interact with the majority of objects outside of your inventory, you still have the occasional bucket, shovel, or body you can drag around. This seems much more like an actual virtual reality experience, even if it is lacking in the haptic department. “Press X to drag” is hardly the same as moving the Vive’s controller, but the “X” button has something else going for it.

A player of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim uses the drag mechanic to manipulate a bottle.

It creates an interaction that means something. Interactions in the admittedly beautiful and immersive world of “The Invisible Hours,” are not the same. They are augmented spectatorship. When the observer takes the Luger in front of Gustav or steals his briefcase in the opening scene, the characters just ignore the intrusion, as if it never happened.

Gustav could not care less about the floating pistol in his face.

Of course, you could argue that the press “x” to drag mechanic is not very much of anything, but in some cases, it does indeed affect the world, like when you put a bucket on a guard’s head and proceed to steal something without so much as a peep other than the occasional comment about arrows and knees.

Buckethead

In Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim placing a bucket over a shopkeeper’s head effectively blinds them, or at least it did before it was patched.

You could also point out that that there is haptic interaction in the menu, but I do not consider the menu to be part of the game. It is more like a mini-game. Dressing up a menu in this manner can be interesting. Certainly, the hidden terminal in Treyarch’s 2010 “Black-Ops,” added quite a bit of interesting retro content, but at the end of the day, it is still just a main menu. Further, some objects in-game are important to the plot, like Bernhardt’s nose (unfortunately not something you can interact with), or the various pamphlets found throughout the game. In interacting with them, you are advancing the plot, but only so far as you advance your own understanding. The story goes on around you, even when you find a clue that brings the plot together. Secret scenes and “spirit radios” may result in somewhat more interaction but only superficially.

On the other hand, the ability to move around and control your viewing angle is decidedly closer to a video game than it is to cinema. Although, when we play a video game, we expect that our movements will affect what happens. For most of a playthrough, the plot will advance independent of where you are, what you are doing, or what you are looking at. This is a major reason that the “Hours” experience is distinct from VR gaming.

At the same time, the ability to change the point in time you are viewing from is a lot more like home cinema where you can rewind at will. There are so many clues and tricky plot points to miss. Supposing you do not miss them, you will still no doubt be confused, at least at first. Like a confusing movie, you can go back and make sure you understand anything you missed. Alternatively, if you are bored by one piece of dialogue, you can fast forward. There are times where you might want to experience from only one character’s perspective, but at that point in time, they will not be doing anything interesting. As you follow another character, you may converge into a scene you have already witnessed. This sort of feels like watching a movie you have already seen, albeit from a different perspective. Fast forwarding is useful here as well.

Something about making your own stage directions with the HMD on is a little bit disorienting. This would obviously never happen in cinema. The experience is likewise different from a video game, but this is because of its implications. Here, if you miss an important part because you are having trouble turning around, it is not quite the same as it would be in a more interactive environment.  In a game, when you fail miserably to accomplish an objective because of a lack of familiarity with the controls, that can sort of go along with the gameplay. One example is Assassin’s creed.

This is a clip from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, one of the franchise’s best titles. The control inputs for a back-eject are simple, but cinematically, Ezio’s performance is complex. This leads me to not feel as foolish when I fail a back-eject, despite input simplicity.

Movement in Assassin’s creed, especially the later titles, is semi-cinematic. You direct your characters actions, but the character knows quite a bit about what to do. When you execute a back eject and fail miserably, you feel like it sort of makes sense. Back ejects are rather difficult looking, after all. It feels like you could hardly blame Ezio for your foolish mistake. Here, when you are spinning around trying to get a sense of what is going on, it is completely different. It feels like you have suddenly forgotten how to walk, and your vision is cutting in and out.

Erika Ishii demonstrating the difficulty of turning around while still facing the camera. You will notice the same flashing as during a teleport.

Presumably, you get better at it with practice, but it also seems like one of the main reasons for the follow character mechanic. The presence of this mechanic seems to acknowledge difficulty or at least the presence of a learning curve. The problem with the follow mechanic is that it changes the experience from first person to a sort of fly on the wall point of view. This moves you further away from interacting with the world. It looks more like I would imagine “Headsight,” an early example of proto-VR, might have felt. “Headsight” essentially gave the point of view of a security camera.

Erika Ishii making use of the “follow character” mechanic

You could argue that the follow mechanic is just another valid way to interact with the story, and you would be right, but it is certainly less of a virtual reality experience in that it is one extra barrier between the observer and what is actually going on. It also takes away much of what little interactive agency you have. It left me wondering if the controls could have been tweaked. Of course, sometimes it may be interesting to watch a scene from a fly on the wall perspective. If that is the observer’s preference, there is nothing wrong with it; however, it seems more likely that this is for people who are annoyed by the choppy viewing above. That being said, observers in restrictive viewing environments and those who are less mobile will obviously appreciate the mechanic.

The natural product of all the control afforded to us is circular storytelling, and that is where “The Invisible Hours” really shines. Even if we had all experienced the story for the full session, it is unlikely that we could have fully appreciated this property. It is a product of the interplay between changing camera angles, locations, and times that allows the observer to experience the story from a variety of perspectives. In fact, circular storytelling essentially requires this variety. You will never understand the full story by merely following Gustav around.

Here we have the “spirit radio” one of the main drivers of circular storytelling. It only activates at the moment a character dies, in order to use it you are almost required to go back in time. Immediately after, we have the one of the menus, an easy way to change your location, view, and time.

Cinema, at least in its presentation of events, is mostly linear, even if the events themselves are not. Typically, in storytelling videogames there is some element of choice, but in one playthrough, you are mostly stuck in a linear presentation of events, at least the first time. “The Invisible Hours” is nothing like that. It gives you the choice to create your own perspective. This choice does not change the actual events of the story, only how you perceive them. In this way, the title is quite distinct from both cinema and more traditional video games.

You might ask what makes this different from spectating, a common feature in many multiplayer video games. This is different because spectators are not typically bound by many of the physical rules of the game they are watching. When you spectate your friends in a first-person shooter, you are usually free to take the camera anywhere. Occasionally, there are games which only allow spectating from the view of the player, but this typically occurs in competitive gameplay during matches, where spotting could give some players a competitive advantage. It hardly compares to the sort of active spectatorship in this single-observer experience.

More traditional video game spectating, as seen in Modern Warfare 2 (2009).

“The Invisible Hours,” can teach us much more about how to create an immersive experience with quickly evolving VR technology than either video games or movies alone. As a sort of hybrid between cinema and virtual reality, it also has a lot to teach us about the relationship between cinema and VR. No doubt this game will be referenced as turning point for study in the future, especially as the field of video game studies continues to grow.

Ultimately, “The Invisible Hours,” is neither a piece of cinema nor true virtual reality. In many ways, it is the best of both worlds. It offers the aging detective story we have all experienced many times in an entirely new and amazing way. Even almost 3 years post launch, the experience is as timeless as the genre it brings to a new generation of equipment.

 

Trailer

Games

Bethesda. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda, 2011.

Tequila Works. The Invisible Hours. Tequila Works, 2017.

Infinity Ward. Modern Warfare 2. Infinity Ward, 2009.

Ubisoft Montreal. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Ubisoft Montreal, 2010.

Treyarch. Call of Duty Blackops. Treyarch, 2010.

Youtube Clips

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