Age of Sail stayed with me in a way that no other VR experience has. I mean that quite literally; as I sit here typing up my thoughts on Google’s latest Spotlight Story, I can still feel myself bobbing up and down on the rough waves that you brave alongside Ian McShane’s world-weary sailor and Cathy Ang’s defiantly optimistic rescuee. Now that’s immersion.
Directed by Oscar-winner, John Kahrs, Age of Sail is a 12 minute VR short that you can see as a 2D movie or inside a mobile VR headset, but it’s best viewed via a Steam download on Rift and Vive. It’s a piece about the changing of the guard and finding a place for yourself in the new world, two topics that it explores with an on-the-nose metaphor and a touch of warming affection.
We join McShane’s William Avery on his modest sailboat, bellowing with laughter as he sings along with his full crew to an old sea shanty that’s cut short by the roar of a tiny steamboat signaling the beginning of a new age. The next moment, we’re several years into the future and another boat 20 times the size of that dwarfs a now isolated and considerably more haggard Avery. A girl falls from the side, whom he somewhat reluctantly rescues. Needless to say, Ang’s enthusiasm and sentimentality don’t make for a good fit on the cramped confines of the deck, seating you in the middle of a touchy pairing.
There’s mood here unlike anything seen in prior Spotlight Stories. As the two clash and the wind begins to swirl you find yourself lost in the drama of both character and element. Waves rise and you go with them, the deck swings and sways as does your stomach. You get the sense that Kahrs deliberately embraced sea sickness instead of straying away from it in an effort to put you right there on the boat. At one point, lost amongst the waves, you can even dip your head in and out of the water as you’re tossed around by a violent sea.
Internal conflict represented by grey skies and stormy seas might not be a new concept to traditional cinema, but Kahrs uses that immersion to find new layers for it here. It might work a little too well for some to handle.
But there’s reason to endure. Age of Sail has some remarkable cinematography to it, especially in its opening minute when steamboats drag your head around as you try to keep up with the future. It’s a clever bit of scene-setting, which Kahrs continues to demonstrate, reminding you of the kind of efficient story-telling we’re used to seeing on the silver screen. It’s also a hint that filmmakers might be starting to really grasp the language of VR.
All of that’s enhanced by a rustic art style worthy of its shaggy seadog of a protagonist. Spotlight Stories are known for being easy on the eyes and this is no exception, even with the largely dimmer color palette at work.
Ultimately Age of Sail might not have the gut-punching emotion of Pearl or the charm of Rain or Shine, but it does bridge the gap between the high-end construction of traditional cinema and the raw immersion of VR quite admirably. This is a VR sea shanty that might leave you with a few knots in your stomach, but I assure you it’s worth enduring.
Final Recommendation: Worth Watching
Age of Sail is available now on Steam, YouTube and Google Spotlight Story’s iOS and Android app for free.