You have to admire Baobab at least for its persistence if nothing else. Its ever-growing catalog of endearing VR animations has a throughline of progression, each feeling more assured in immersive storytelling than the last. Its latest experience, Bonfire, makes similarly significant strides in promising new directions.
Interaction is at the heart of Bonfire, and it yields potent results. You embody a scout sent to a distant alien planet to investigate potential colonization. After a rough landing, you’re forced to take shelter around a fire with your AI companion, Debbie (joyfully played by Ali Wong). There, dimly lit in the gentle flames, you’re treated to a close encounter with one of the planet’s inhabitants.
Fans of Baobab’s past work will find themselves right at home amongst the tongue-in-cheek tone, fantastical score and splendid visuals. But Bonfire has its roots in work beyond the studio, harkening back to early introductory VR like Oculus’ Farlands demo. In some senses, this too feels like a technical showcase, laying the groundwork for further adventures to come. There are sparks of invention all the same; playing a game of fetch with your new alien friend brings a few minutes of virtual delight, as does trying to tempt them into snatching a marshmallow from your hands.
It’s the narrative’s sharpness, both in scripting and pacing, that keeps a smile on the face. Bonfire has wit in both speech and action. You’ll find it in Wong’s lines, delivered with an enthusiastic naivety as she serves you cricket-flavored rations. But it’s also in the punchy animation, that stops and starts at an erratic tempo, giving the piece an unpredictable edge. It helps, too, that audience participation is an essential ingredient in the narrative.
There’s more work to be done, though. Interactions here are charming to no end but also feel somewhat limited in scope. Bonfire is brilliant but brief, and I wanted to explore more of the world around me and spend more time with the friends I’d made.
Bonfire exposes Baobab to a world of deeper storytelling possibilities, then. With that comes huge technical challenge, the kind we’re only just starting to see overcome in other experiences. For Boabab, it’s a promising start in a new era. Where it goes from here will be the real story.