Release date: october 2017
Developers: Tequila Works
Creative Director: Raul Rubio Munariz
Narrative Director: Rob Yescombe
Genre: VR, detective story (whodunit), sci-fy, narrative experience, virtual immersive theater
I’m very excited about this game, I could never imagine I would like it so much! When it was released in october 2017, i could not play because i had no VR device, I bought PS VR just one years ago. I’ve been trying a lot of VR titles in the meanwhile, some of them very funny, but no one interesting for VGArt purposes. Nevertheless i’m VR enthusiast, I think it’s a technology still in its childhood but it has great potential to display in the next future.
One day I remembered of TIH and decided to buy it: love at first sight! It has solid narrative structure, long play time (very rare for actual VR titles), great actors performances, good graphics. It introduces a new virtual experience and a new form of interactive storytelling with good results, such to inspire future works. For such reasons, I think it’s a masterpiece, a milestone.
What is this!?
The Invisible Hours is an Agatha Christie style murder mystery, a classic whodunit just as And Then There Were None; it is also heavily inspired by C. Nolan‘s movie The Prestige. Six people with an obscure past (among them the famous inventor T. Edison!) are invited by famous scientist Nikolas Tesla to his mansion on an uninhabited and isolated little island. Tesla is murdered. Among the suspects there is also his blind butler. Who killed Tesla and why? Why had Tesla invited such people?
TIH is not a movie nor a traditional game, it is immersive and interactive virtual theater, something new never experienced before! It comes with 3D virtual scenery, the island and the huge mansion are entirely built with Unreal Engine 4, achieving great realism. Characters are motion-captured professional actors. Player is no one of the characters, he is like an invisible man free to move through the 3D scenery. You can influence narration in no way! Other characters are not aware of you, you can go through them like a ghost! You’re just like a spectator embedded in the drama performed around you in an enormous 3D VR stage!
Your main task is to “hunt” the story!!
You are not in front of screen or stage where characters act and story unfolds. You could stay still in the same place, in a room or in the garden, for about an hour and you would miss the entire plot! Yes, just one hour plot, divided in four chapters! But playtime can be from four to seven hours long! How can it be!!??
The seven suspects in the mansion continue their stories in real time throughout the game, even if the player is not there to see them! This means there are seven different but intersecting stories all happening at the same time. You need to make careful decisions about where to be, and when, in order to unravel the mystery. You can decide to follow only one suspect, but you’ll be missing multiple other scenes happening at that exact same moment elsewhere in the mansion. The story is always alive, whether you’re looking or not, just like real life. Here it comes the fun! You can stop, rewind or forward time whenever you want! So you can stop the time, make a tour of the house or island in order to check the seven suspects, then you can decide which suspect to follow. Once you’re satisfied with what you’ve seen or heard, you can rewind time and follow another suspect and so on! You can also collect documents, photos and clues for a better undertanding.
You are a plot hunter!! Story is there, but you must spy characters, listen to their dialogues and collect documents, photos and clues in order to rebuild the plot. You are engaged in a voyeuristic task! Spying the different characters will reveal surprising events! You can even imagine to be a film director moving the camera through the 3D virtual stage, and composing your own movie with the moviola! By analisying clues and documents, you can discover further events and explanations that are not showed or told. It’s really a tricky mistery, with a great ingenious script! Browsing the web I noticed that not all players understood further implications and hidden details of the story, so i’ll write a complete explanation one of these days. However you can enjoy the game even without understand such further implications and details.
You cannot influence story, but narration is literally in your hands. You’re really free to move in space and time. You can also have incomplete story or no story at all. You can even decide to follow only one suspect at time through all the four chapter, and then replay all the four chapters following another suspect and so on! I don’t recommend such approach, it’s better to toggle between the several characters in the same chapter! There are a lot of narrative possibilities but only one plot! The key is the intersection of events related to the seven characters. Sometime they are alone, in their rooms or doing something no one has to see… Sometime two or three or more of them are meeting and talking to each other in the same place. They interwoven in real time! It’s like a complex and accurate clockwork mechanism. It’s like to have multiple stages at the same time but always in different places, and every stage is synchronized to each other, so that characters can interchange giving the illusion of a drama acted as a whole or a movie filmed in one shot in the enormous manor.
Immediately I thought of Rope by A. Hitchcock, classic camera spiel filmed as a whole shot on a single set, a dining room in a New York appartment, aside from the opening establishing shot street scene under the credits. To say the truth Hitchcook made ten shots. Each shot ran continuously for up to ten minutes without interruption. Camera moves were carefully planned and there was almost no editing, just to paste the ten shots. The walls of the set were on rollers and could silently be moved out of the way to make way for the camera and then replaced when they were to come back into shot. Prop men constantly had to move the furniture and other props out of the way of the large Technicolor camera, and then ensure they were replaced in the correct location. A team of soundmen and camera operators kept the camera and microphones in constant motion, as the actors kept to a carefully choreographed set of cues. The extraordinary cyclorama in the background was the largest backing ever used on a sound stage. It included models of the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings. Numerous chimneys smoke, lights come on in buildings, neon signs light up, and the sunset slowly unfolds as the movie progresses. Within the course of the film the clouds— made of spun glass — change position and shape eight times. (Wikipedia)
No doubt Hitchcook realised a not easy experiment. Well, TIH is a much more complicated experiment!
There are no manor, no walls, no rooms, no furnitures, no dresses, no make-up, no objects, no clues, no documents, no island, no rain, no sky, no sea, no music, no sound, etc. etc. etc. Everything is virtual, built with Unreal Engine 4! Only actors are real but motion captured! Single scenes were filmed one by one in a single real large white room! Every scene needed to be distribuited along the script at the right place and at the right time, perfectly synchronized, in order to give the illusion of one whole lively drama. Developers built the island, the manor and the whole virtual reality precisely fitting the scenes!
Let Rob Yescombe, narrative director of TIH, explain the hard work to realize the game!
“”The Invisible Hours is built out of dozens of motion captured scenes that all have to begin and end at different times – but must all fit together into one giant sphere of uninterrupted story. Before you can even begin, Spherical Narrative (that’s the name of such special form of storytelling) is trapped inside a paradox: you have to know how long every single scene is going to be – to the exact second – before you write it, because the length of every scene is dependent on the length of all the others. However, with this very rough view of the story, we could start to design 2D floorplans based on the spatial and dramatic requirements described in the outline. We knew we were going to need a very flexible environment layout, to help insure against human error later down the line – so that meant additional rooms and multiple routes into each space of the mansion – but it also needed to feel believable and accurate; this is a real-world setting after all.
We tested about thirty 2D layouts against the outline. This gave us a broad sense of what was required, but it couldn’t give us the specificity we needed to progress. The final layout of the mansion is dependent on knowing where scenes will take place, how long they will take, and how far and fast each character will walk between them.You can’t finalize any of those things until you have a script – but you can’t write the script without already knowing them. Ultimately, I had to set myself specific times for every scene and plan to stick to them, no matter what. Once I committed to all those times, we could build a 3D animatic around it. Keep in mind that we still don’t have a script at this point. This was a definite risk, and perhaps if this was not an independent production we might not have been allowed to take that risk. Now knowing the location and length of every scene, we could build a whitebox and extrapolate in an animatic the routes and speeds of each character. There were a handful of layout tweaks here, but generally what we planned in 2D stayed put.
With the animatic complete, I could start on the scripts proper – knowing the exact time limits I had set myself for every moment of every scene. The on-paper version of Spherical Narrative is challenging enough – but putting it into actual production is where things really get complicated. Every piece of this spherical jigsaw needs to fit together precisely. If even one scene runs a few seconds long (or short) it has a huge impact on everything that follows – across every story thread. If this was live theatre, one actor arriving a few seconds late into a scene is no big deal – the rest of the cast can ‘fill’ and improvise while they wait; but here we have seven hours of scripted animation. That flexibility and margin for error simply does not exist. With so many time dependencies, the chances of things going awry were incredibly high. So we knew we had to find ways to protect ourselves. And as a low budget production, we couldn’t risk going to the mo-cap shoot unprepared in any way. To tackle this, we spent a full month rehearsing every single scene against a stopwatch. A logical thing to do in principle, but there is also a very high risk when rehearsing this intensely, that the humanity is driven out of the actors’ performances. So, I spent significant time doing deep character exercises with the cast to maintain a balance between efficiency and emotion. But again, a leap of faith was necessary here: we drilled scenes until they were within a four second margin, and trusted that we could tighten the gaps on the shoot itself.
For the shoot itself, we opted for traditional facial and motion capture. Even though we didn’t want to edit motion within the scenes themselves, we knew that adjustments to traversal speeds could save (or add) a few seconds between scenes if we got into a bind. On the shoot, we had to track data very, very carefully: the project amounts to an unprecedented 2,240,000 frames of character data in Motion Builder. As such, it proved to be one of the most complex motion capture shoots in videogame history. But once processed, it was a relatively conventional pipeline to assemble the data inside the engine. But ultimately, all of this planning and mathematical effort has been in pursuit of a narrative naturalism inside VR – it really does feel ‘alive’ when you’re inside it. We’re proud of what we built, and we really hope other devs will try Spherical Narrative for themselves.“” – Full article here
Fascinating, isn’t it? Result is really incredible. Sometime you can notice characters have a few and short dead times, necessary to perfectly synchonize different scenes; but it’s like they have deep thoughts in their mind or they are not to sure what to do next or they are searching for someone or something or they are afraid to be the next victim… Result is very realistic.
Ingenious story, tricky mistery, great actors performances (the best i can remember in a game), divinely written dialogues, innovative narrative experiment and VR experience (the best for now). What do you want more from life? If you are doubtful about VR, I think that just playing The Invisible Hours is worth of money for the device! You can buy the title for 16 euro/$ during special sales; i paid 40 euro because i was very impatient, and I don’t regret, it’s worth of every single penny!
Obviously there are some defects to underline for improving similar experiences in the next future.
a) I don’t like teleportation. It’s a defect of so many VR games. You can move only through discrete steps. I think it would be better to let the player choose the preferred locomotion option. I hope developers will distribuite a patch allowing for usual continuos locomotion by left analog stick or hand controllers. Nevertheless, if you play standing up, you can take some steps through the scenery, giving you a deeper sense of immersion; I suggest to leave free space around you.
b) As said before, a better synchronization of characters could be reached thanks to a greater budget.
c) With PS VR and PS4 standard (not PRO) the experience is a bit blurry, I know nothing about other devices; however this is a matter of technology.
d) Music in the background doesn’t play continuosly, it stops everytime you teleport yourself from room to room.
I have also few ideas about how to improve such kind of virtual and narrative experiences, it’s a matter of interactivity; but for mixing interactivity with complex storytelling you need advanced in-game AI. We can hope for major technological improvements in the next future.
TIH introduces a new interactive experience and a new form of interactive storytelling making good and innovative use of VR technology, so it could inspire future works. If you’re interested in my emotional involvement: yes, I found TIH very funny, engaging, compelling, surprising, immersive. I felt immersed in the smart and original story, enchanted by great actors performances and dialogues. I felt like one of the earlier spectators amazed by former short films of Melies at the beginning of the XX century! Just a sensation, do not take it literally. The emotion to witness and “live” something new!
Not VR, I’ve been trying VR for months now, it’s already old to me!! VR is fundamental, necessary part, but not the only nor the main one. I’m talking of the specific experience offered by the title. Nevertheless, for someone it’s not so easy to appreciate something new. A lot of early critics and spectators were indifferent or negative towards the first movies at the beginning of XX century; they preferred old good theater…
P.S.1: Starting from april 2018, TIH can be also played without VR devices on ordinary flat monitors, thanks to a later patch released by developers! I absolutely recommend you to play only in VR. TIH didn’t sell enough in its first months, VR was not so popular at the time. So I think that developers or publishers decided to sell a not-VR version. I think it’s good for financial purposes but not good for art purposes, because VR is vital part of the artwork. I recommend you to buy a VR device and play TIH, it’s worth of every single penny!
P.S.2: The Invisible Hours was developed for virtual reality by Tequila Works and published by GameTrust; it was presented at NEXT during the prestigious Festival de Cannes 2017.
P.S.3: I suggest you to play standing up so that you can take a couple of steps around, increasing immersion.
List of actors
Henning Valin Jakobsen Gustaf Gustav
Mark Arnold Thomas Edison
Katherine Carlton Flora White
Uriel Emil Nikola Tesla
Fiona Rene Sarah Bernhardt
Grahame Fox Victor Mundy
Bentley Kalu Oliver Swan
Patrick McNamee Augustus Vanderberg