There is a phrase I like to use when talking about virtual reality, toddler wonder. It is that sense of childlike wonder you experience in the best virtual reality experiences available, the ones that grip you and never let you go as they pull you into the scene. The ones that make your mouth drop open, that make you laugh and cry, the ones that truly engage you emotionally. That is what Henry is. Toddler wonder brought to life.
It wasn’t just the animation, which was on par with Pixar’s best work. It was the sense of innate connection that Oculus Story Studio was able to achieve with the character. That level empathy was incredibly powerful.
Famed college basketball coach Jim Valvano once described a ‘full day’ during a moving speech given prior to his death, “To me there are three things everyone should do every day. Number one is laugh. Number two is think — spend some time time in thought. Number three, you should have your emotions move you to tears. If you laugh, think and cry, that’s a heck of a day.”
In the ten minutes I spent with Henry, I had a heck of a day.
The experience we were shown opens with a ‘trailer’ where we are introduced to Henry. The scene is set in a fully black void with Henry positioned in front of you as Elijah Wood begins to narrate the scene and introduce you to Henry’s story, which is tragically comic. Wood tells us all about how Henry is a hedgehog who has no friends because he loves a little too hard and wants to hug everyone he meets.
As Wood walks us through Henry’s story, Henry responds expressively and you feel the twinges of joy and despair as he moves along his emotional spectrum between the two. As this is all going on, as a viewer, you are able to move around Henry (although the setup I experienced this on was fairly tight in terms of space) and he follows you with his head as you do, always maintaining eye contact (unless you actively look away). This moment, according to Edward Saatchi, one of the producers of the experience, was meant to help establish a sense of “character presence,” as he called it. “When we built Lost we realized that you needed a moment to look around the environment to help establish a sense of presence in the scene,” he says, “but with a piece like Henry we need to establish that same sense of presence with the character.” Which is why the team included this intro for the demo, it helps you to establish a connection with Henry that carries into the feature.
As the trailer ended the attendant cues up the full experience. Once again, Elijah Wood’s voice engulfs the user, as he tells us again about Henry’s tragic origins, this time told through a series of paintings that appear around the viewer as the scene continues. As Wood finishes his narration the scene fades to black again, before fading into Henry’s home. The transition employed here is interesting, as the scene first brings in the center focus on the “Happy Birthday” sign hanging from the second floor of the hut, before opening, like an eyeball to the full scene. This was a purposeful way of exploring transitions, says Saschka Unseld Oculus Story Studio’s director.
I glance around the environment, behind me is a bowl of blueberries the size of grapefruits, along with giant acorns and pinecones. Right away a sense of miniature scale is established. I am given a brief moment to breathe in the environment, before a start hearing a faint buzzing behind me. I turn around to see a ladybug flying around the scene, pulling my gaze around the room as I followed it. This is that moment of establishing a sense of environmental presence that Unseld spoke about recently in a blog post on Story Studio’s website.
I spent this moment soaking in every detail I could. From the little quills left in Henry’s bed below to the hole poked in the living room chair to my left, the environment is filled with elements that tell more about the character’s story. This is something that virtual reality uniquely brings, that ability for you to discover more about the characters by simply exploring the environment at your own discretion.
After about 30 seconds, I can hear a rustling coming from the Kitchen as Henry makes his first appearance slightly off camera. Were there more space in the room I would have been able to walk over to the kitchen door and peer in a bit more to see him making his birthday cake.
The ladybug settles, and Henry trots out proudly carrying his birthday cake, which is a giant strawberry surrounded by cream with a lone candle on top. As Henry is making his first appearance in the scene, he makes eye contact briefly with the viewer, a moment that helps to establish that sense of connection.
As a viewer, we are not actually in the scene, there is no body below me nor do I have the ability to physically interact with the scene but the moments where Henry stares expressively into the camera are among the most emotionally impactful I have had in VR. It proves you don’t need a physical presence in the scene to feel truly Present.
At this point in the narrative, it becomes difficult to write more without spoiling the experience, so if you want to enter the experience fresh feel free to skip past here and read my concluding thoughts at the end.
[Warning the next bit contains spoilers of the full experience]
Henry places his cake on the table in front of us and begins squeaking a bit to himself, before pulling out a pile of confetti, throwing it in the air and smiling as he blows into one of those party favors that everyone has at their stereotypical birthday party.
This moment of joy however is very short lived as the first moment that tugged on my heartstrings settled in. Henry looks over into the camera with a look of sadness that says a thousand words. You feel his loneliness as you stare back into his eyes. I felt mine begin to water as I went to dab them under the headset in the manliest of ways. (A brief tangent – it will be interesting to see the sociocultural effect VR has on the whole ‘men don’t cry’ cliche. When your eyes are hidden under a headset, you feel more safe to allow yourself to be vulnerable.)
Henry sighs, bringing me back into the scene, as he lights the candle on his cake and closes his eyes to make a wish. At this point we hear the only spoken dialogue in the whole piece, “I wish I had friends.” (The reason behind the dialogue in this case, according to Max Plank one of the producers at Oculus Story Studio, is that they wanted to ensure users knew exactly what the wish was, as some people in early tests had been confused.)
Suddenly, the flame on the candle glows as sparkles of blue light fly off it and the light in the room dims. The blue light dances beautifully around the room and you as Henry stares in amazement, before finally landing on a set of animal balloons, which twitch to life.
The balloon animals begin floating around the space dancing and moving around the viewer as the smile on Henry’s face grows lager by the moment. I connected with his joy in that moment and felt the smile spread wide across my face. But the joy was short lived.
A balloon floats close to Henry, who reaches out to give it one of his trademark hugs. But, of course, being that these are balloons and Henry is a hedgehog, it pops in scene shattering fashion. In an instant, the magical dim blue lighting disappears as we are snapped back into daylight. The balloon animals pause for a moment before freaking out, darting all around the room, bumping the walls and windows looking for a way out as Henry chases them apologetically.
The balloons lead him upstairs and over and edge, as he pratfalls into the cake on the table below sending pieces of cake spewing all over the room. As Henry lifts his now cream covered face and spits out the candle, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a moment of comedy buried in the lighthearted tragedy, but it was a short lived comedic beat.
Henry shakes it off and looking into his eyes you can see he is defeated. As he picks himself up and sulks over to the front door to let the balloons out, I once again felt the tears begin to well up in my eyes. There was something immensely sad about this moment, and I truly felt for the poor little guy. The balloons gather by the door and appear to converse with one another before zooming out, slamming the door behind them. Henry looks into the camera with a devastating expression of complete sadness.
This is the lowest moment for Henry and us as a viewer. In the moment the film feels like a dark, but brutally realistic, look at loneliness. We breathe in the moment with Henry as he mopes back to the table. After a short beat however, there is a knock at the door causing Henry and I to whip around towards it (the positional audio was particularly effective in this beat).
He gets up and walks tentatively over to the door and opens it. In rushes the balloons, this time carrying with them a turtle shell. Again they sweep through the room directing my gaze as I followed the shell before they gently set it down next to Henry.
As he leans in to examine it, the turtle pops his head out of the shell causing Henry to step back. As the turtle gets up you can see the levels of excitement rise as Henry realizes the balloons have brought him a friend. He looks down at his quills which are covered in cake and plucks a piece from them, handing it to the turtle.
Henry’s eyes widen with increasing joy as the turtle takes a bite and immediately perks up. Overcome by happiness, he quickly goes in and hugs Henry – who is shocked at first by the gesture. Henry finally got the hug he wanted, and best of all he didn’t hurt the one who gave it to him.
The look of shock is only temporary as it is quickly replaced with him looking directly at me with exuberance painted all over his face. I have watched countless films, TV shows, and seen many many VR experiences and I can’t remember ever feeling a stronger sense of empathetic happiness with a character as I did in that moment. I felt every ounce of jubilant relief that emanated from Henry’s character. It was authentic, it was transformative.
The scene fades white around the two as Henry embraces the turtle again, and Elijah Wood’s narration once again trickles in, putting a happily ever after close to the wonderful experience.
[End of spoilers]
Henry demonstrates everything that is brilliant about what this medium can be. While the level of interactivity was lacking (you had no physical presence to interact with the environment beyond watching) it was more than made up for by the expressiveness of the characters, and the empathetic beats where Henry looks into the camera.
These moments were very important to the feel of the film. According to Unseld, there were “earlier versions of Henry where he didn’t look at us, that felt artificial, because you’re there. I was there….I think he has to acknowledge us in order for it to feel natural because there is no 4th wall.” After seeing the film, I completely agree. What made Henry so incredible wasn’t necessarily the ability to look around the gorgeously rendered environment, but rather the strong empathetic connections the medium allows you to achieve with the characters.
Planck described it nicely to me, rather than being present in the scene you get the sense that you are Henry’s Id, the reflecting pool for his soul and emotions. That sense of connection places you deeply in the character’s mind allowing you to feel true empathy with the character’s emotions. I have felt this before with longer formed content like TV shows where I spend hours getting to know the characters and love them, but Henry managed to make me truly care in a short ten minute span.
Henry will be released with the CV1 as a piece of bundled content, along with the rest of the Oculus Story Studio content. But those attending Oculus Connect this year will have a chance to view Henry themselves as it will be one of the showcase pieces of content at the event.