Christian Cantamessa has writer credits that include Red Dead Redemption and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. To put it simply, he knows how to tell a great videogame story. But, when he started his first VR project, StartVR and Vive Studios’ Awake, he noted that no one really yet knows how to do the same inside a headset. Awake’s first episode makes some important strides in getting us there.
The first installment in this eight-part series is a technical marvel, with some of the best volumetric capture (a process of recording realistic human performances using an army of cameras) I’ve yet seen. Most importantly, though, Awake doesn’t merely exist to showcase this new technology; it builds a captivating narrative around it.
We follow Harry (played with conviction by Jake McDorman), whom we join resting in his home, beaten and beleaguered. He’s tortured by memories of the past; his desk and walls are littered with scattered memos and rambled drawings as to the whereabouts of his wife, Rose (Analeigh Tipton), his home is in disarray and he awakens with seemingly insane groans and murmurs. It’s a distressing sight, one which we begin to unravel as we go on a journey back through his past.
Awake uses striking imagery, uncomfortable proximity and VR’s ability to put the impossible right in front of your eyes in order to craft an experience you won’t soon forget, then anchors it all with excellent performances. There is an element of visual wonder here that few can rival, including a literal storm in a teacup and a recurring glyph that’s hypnotizing in itself, but they’re simply pieces in a larger puzzle. We’re teleported from one scene to another with dizzying regularity but each has its own ideas on how best to enrapture its audience, be it simply relying on the strength of McDorman’s weary performance alone, overwhelming the viewer’s sense on a visual and audio level or forcing them to witness tragedy that unfolds as if it were really happening right in front of them.
The sum of these parts makes for a rollercoaster that’s never anything less than fascinating and often quite affectionate. More importantly, though, the relationship between Harry and Rose becomes quite involving to explore as you’re pulled in towards them in their most intimate moments and often given personal stakes by having uncomfortable actions unfold right next to you. Awake is always aware that it needs to fight for your attention in the right place at the right time, and the piece does a brilliant job of holding it.
A touch of confusion is unfortunately added in too, though. Awake’s supernatural elements had me struggling to pin it down tonally, sometimes striking me as a thriller and at other points appearing more like a somber character study. Like Harry, I was left guessing what was real and what was all in his mind, but I couldn’t work out if this was intentional or not. Without knowing how the rest of the series is going to unfold, it was difficult to say if I was meant to be feeling satisfaction at the episode’s conclusion or if I should be guessing what’s going to happen next. There’s a need for a little more cohesion here.
There are also moments in which the volumetric capture clashes with the otherwise-traditional VR environment, like when characters pick things up. It’s not a deal-breaker but it is somewhat distracting.
Still, as a competent piece of mature storytelling, Awake’s first episode has few equals in VR. It’s a piece that understands the purpose of telling a story in VR and isn’t afraid to wrestle with new ways of involving you in a story. For that alone, you need to see it.
Final Say: Must See
Awake is available now on Viveport for $7.99 with HTC Vive support. Oculus Rift and Windows VR support is coming soon.