Immersive entertainment is a wide-ranging term that can encompass everything from virtual reality and theme parks to haunted houses and interactive theater. But no matter the flavor, one thing all immersive media share is that they’re in a constant state of exploration and evolution. Unlike film and TV, which both have a framework of generally accepted conventions and tropes, most immersive work is still trying to figure out what audiences respond to. Creators keep inching toward the mainstream with every new brand activation, escape room, and Westworld-inspired creation.
It’s fairly common to see one discipline looking to another one’s successes and failures for inspiration, and that’s precisely what Robert Kirkman’s Skybound Entertainment does with its latest virtual reality series, Delusion: Lies Within. Directed by Jon Braver, and based on his 2014 interactive play of the same name, it tells the story of Virginia (Britt Adams) and Daniel (Brandon Bales), fans of missing fantasy author Elena Fitzgerald who get lost in her mysterious mansion where her literary creations have come to life. It doesn’t mesh with real-world physical environments like The Void, and it doesn’t try to break new ground in terms of real-time performance. Instead, Delusion is a showcase for how immersive theater productions can be an effective reference point in the design and staging of cinematic VR experiences.
Braver has been producing the Delusion series as immersive theater productions in Los Angeles since 2011. Audiences enter a location — usually an old, run-down mansion that’s been transformed by the production team — and move from room to room, interacting with live actors as the story unfolds around them. Imagine the New York-based immersive theater show Sleep No More, mashed up with classic Sierra On-Line adventure games, and you’ll get the general idea.
In the theatrical production of Lies Within, the audience took on the role of the devoted fans exploring the mansion. For the VR experience, however, the new characters of Virginia and Daniel serve as the focal point. The audience watches as they would in a traditional film, albeit with the ability to examine their environments in 360 degrees at any point, as the two characters trek through a forest, reach and break into the mysterious mansion, and begin to discover some of the secrets hidden within its walls.
The entire four-episode season runs about half an hour, and aesthetically, it feels as if it’s pulling from both film and the theatrical show in equal measure. Braver’s camera is constantly in motion, even in scenes in small rooms. But the movement is subtle and restrained, providing a cinematic feel without causing the kind of disorientation that stems from aggressive camerawork in VR. The performances, on the other hand, are pleasantly theatrical. There’s a tongue-in-cheek, almost camp vibe to some of the characters, and while they might feel out of place in a traditional film, in the context of virtual reality, they have a playful whimsy.
Then there’s the staging and overall camera placement. In some cinematic VR pieces, like Felix & Paul’s Miyubi, the camera is forced into a certain position because it represents the point of view of a particular character. Others opt for more traditional framing. With Delusion: Lies Within, Braver blocks and shoots his scenes to provide the same kind of point of view that the audience would have in one of his theatrical productions, and the voyeuristic feel grounds the entire experience. In one moment, you’re huddled in a corner while a wild-eyed woman named Ruth (Sarah Jo Provost) faces off with a sinister figure called the Alchemist (Larry Cedar). In another, you’re trapped underneath a table with Daniel and Virginia, as a towering demonic puppet (it’s creepier than it sounds) staggers toward them. They’re subtle filmmaking choices, and viewers are still just passive observers. But by letting the theatrical show inform the camera placement, the piece solidly delivers on the sensation of being physically present in the house’s various rooms.
Delusion viewers weren’t always intended as mere passive observers. According to Braver, the project was originally going to have a dash of interactivity in the form of two branching scenes. In each case, the audience would have had the choice to follow either Daniel or Virginia as they split up, mirroring the kinds of choices audience members could make in the theatrical production of Lies Within. But after consulting with companies like Google, Braver says they eventually decided to strip the option from the piece, largely because it would make it easier to distribute the experience across multiple platforms.
From an audience’s perspective, however, the change no doubt resulted in a superior finished project, too. Given the way Lies Within works, any kind of sudden, choose-your-own-adventure branching option would have upended the experience’s mechanics, suddenly introducing choice in an experience that’s otherwise designed to be viewed in a more passive manner. “Interactivity,” no matter how minimal, can often be used as a gimmick to hype interest in these kinds of projects, and deciding to nix the idea in Lies Within is a welcomed bit of restraint.
Adapting immersive theater to VR, or at least using its design principles, certainly isn’t new. Third Rail Projects, the team behind the New York immersive show Then She Fell, consulted in the development of the Neil Gaiman VR adaptation Wolves in the Walls. An LA-based immersive dinner party called The Willows recently released its own VR adaptation through the Amaze VR app, and Oculus is working on a project that will combine motion-captured, live immersive actors in a VR environment in what’s being described as a combination of Sleep No More and the indie game Journey. It’s natural for the two disciplines to inform each other, but Delusion: Lies Within makes the strongest case yet that immersive theater shows could be a ready source of new content just waiting to be mined, particularly if the productions in question are suited to becoming dark ride-esque adventures.
Effective forms of distribution and monetization, however, are still a concern, and Delusion: Lies Within is no exception. The project debuted in April at the Overlook Film Festival on the Samsung Gear VR, and I recently tried it a second time at Skybound’s offices on the Oculus Go. But how the project will eventually be made available to the public, and on which platforms, is still being decided. Lies Within is technically a series, and a giant cliffhanger ends the first season. The second, which would complete Virginia and Daniel’s story, is already written and ready to shoot — if the first season finds a home and some success.
But this is also just one facet of Skybound’s larger vision for Delusion as a property. The company has become known for aggressively pursuing multiple platforms, bringing its comics series to TV, VR, and gaming, and producing original digital shows like the now-canceled Scare PewDiePie. There’s a similar plan for in place for Delusion. Skybound is developing potential comics, TV, and podcast adaptations, and tickets recently went on sale for the sixth immersive theater production in the series, Delusion: The Blue Blade. But Lies Within has no doubt already served as a crucial proof of concept for Skybound, opening the door for an entirely different kind of audience to explore Delusion’s dark fantasy world.