Immersive theater has become extremely popular in the last few years, particularly in New York and Los Angeles. Rather than plunking an audience down in front of a stage, immersive theater invites guests to become the protagonists, often requiring them to walk, crawl and maneuver through sprawling sets and interact verbally and sometimes physically with actors. Some shows even require audience members complete tasks or solve puzzles before advancing to the next part of the story, similar to escape rooms. Virtual reality offers a similar immersion. While each medium offers something the other does not, both seek to fully envelop an audience member in a narrative. That’s why it should delight you to know Skybound, the company behind The Walking Deadand Outcast, has announced its plans to develop Jon Braver’s interactive play Delusion for VR.
If you haven’t seen Delusion, it popped up in L.A. during 2011’s Halloween season. Los Angeles has a slew of haunts every year, and Delusion is by no means the only immersive show (it’s also reluctant to call itself a haunt, though the stories they tell are often the gothic horror variety). It is, however, one of the most popular, with tickets that routinely sell out right after they’re released. Even after only its inaugural year, it managed to attract Neil Patrick Harris as a producer for its 2012 show.
Skybound’s VR adaptation will surround Delusion’s 2014 Lies Within show. Written by Braver and Peter Cameron, Lies Within places you in the year 1947 and in the home of Elena Fitzgerald, a dark fantasy author who has vanished, along with her daughter. You are one of her biggest, most dedicated fans, and you have broken into Elena’s estate to suss out clues as to where she’s gone. However, inside her home, her creations had become reality.
Skybound and Braver have worked together to create new characters to inject into this fresh adaptation. As such, instead of it being a first-person experience where you are only you, you’ll be able to experience the story via multiple perspectives as those characters explore their surroundings.
“You’ll basically be able to follow a couple different PoVs whenever you watch, so you won’t have a strict autonomy, but [it’s not as if] you won’t be given any choices,” Rachel Skidmore, Skybound’s director of media development, told VRScout.
The experience won’t be like a game, necessarily, but, as in the play itself, there may be objects one must locate to move forward or other tasks that raise the stakes beyond a simple viewing. It will also mimic various pieces of the live show, where guests must hide, crouch or otherwise escape monsters inside Elena’s estate.
One might recall the game Steady Rain, which is ostensibly about a father who is searching for his son, who has been kidnapped by a serial killer. However, you’re not just that dad. You’re also an investigative reporter and a private detective, and each of those perspectives are crucial to getting the entire story. One might also recall GONE, a VR series that Skybound created with Wevr and Samsung for Milk VR. GONE also tells the story of a missing child and her mother, but because it is in VR, the viewer has several choices as far as what to look at while the story unfolds. There’s a re-watch value there, as paying attention to different focal points reveals different pieces of the whole narrative.
The same is true in live immersive theater. For instance, I went to Delusion’s most recent show only last week. This show, His Crimson King, is a vampire tale, full of the all the tropes any bloodsucker aficionado loves. We entered a dilapidated mansion and had to navigate the often deadly rivalry between the two distinct bloodlines that dwelled within. MILD SPOILER AHEAD: At one point, I was sent on a weapons finding mission only to be locked into a coffin and dragged, still inside said coffin, into another room where an indecisive vampire couldn’t decide if he wanted to feed on me or not. What’s key here is that I had no way of knowing what was happening to my friends while I was being primed for supper by my vampire kidnapper. I mean, sure, I could have asked them, but I will never have that actual experience unless I buy another ticket and go toDelusion again. I’ll never have every one-on-one interaction unless I go several times. But I could if I could replay the scene as someone else, multiple times. The tangibility of being thrashed around by a vampire wouldn’t be there, but it would offer me a complete narrative without requiring me to buy another ticket and physically go through it again.
“That’s the idea,” Skidmore said. “We’d like to provide those different PoVs for that very reason, the FOMO that you might have from not doing the same thing as your group. It’ll give you a chance to experience the story in different ways.”
Of course in VR, I might not necessarily have a group. While VR would be a more solitary way to experience the show, Skidmore doesn’t think it’s necessarily isolating, and that people will still want to discuss their own experiences with others.
“I hope that this gets people talking. You can’t repeat someone else’s experience,” she said. “In the same way that there have been conversations about GONE…I think there will be conversations about [Delusion].”
Right now, Delusion is Skybound’s focus for this type of adaptation, and Skidmore says they chose Braver because he’s “a great creator” and they’re excited by his vision. That may extend to Delusion-themed comic books or other media, too. So, at this point, it’s not clear if Skybound will take on more immersive theater adaptations, but Skidmore said Skybound would love to create additional VR experiences in the future. We’d love to see a VR version of The Tension Experience or Creep, and perhaps the most exciting thing—if VR were to become a common companion to immersive theater—would be the ability to experience these narratives without physically traveling to the cities where they’re mounted.