VR, it would seem, has some parenting problems. Whether it’s the wistful lingering memories of Dear Angelica or time-traveling trips of Assent, the ordeals of our elders have served as an unexpected source of storytelling for many an experience as we’ve found our footing in this new medium. Perhaps it says something about how VR creators are trying to learn how to make content without the guiding hand of previous experience, or perhaps it’s all just one big coincidence.
Either way, Lucid is a fantastic new take on these familiar themes.
Lucid is the latest flagship piece from Breaking Fourth, the studio that brought you Ctrl. Whereas the team has deviated from its theatrical roots of late with pieces like Opinions and Bro Bots, this marks a return to the engrossing kind of drama the studio made its name on, complete with some of the tricks it’s learned since.
This touching piece follows a mother and daughter relationship through the impossible landscapes of the mind. We open inside the mindscape of Eleanor which her daughter, Astra, is exploring with the help of an experimental new technology. But Astra isn’t simply on a psychedelic field trip; she’s there to save her mother. Eleanor is in a coma following a car crash and, in the real world, Astra is beside her wearing a state of the art headset that allows her to dive into her mother’s mind and try to pull her out.
But it’s easier said than done. Eleanor, a renowned children’s author, has taken on the identity of one of her most famous characters and is busying herself exploring the scenes she created in her stories, which Astra has come to know by heart. In the real world, both characters appear as real people but, within Eleanor’s mind they become plucky, cartoonish adventurers kitted out for an amazing journey.
Lucid is an exercise in both world and character building. As Astra strives to jolt her mother back to reality we visit giant treehouses, snowy planets and underwater marvels. This is an experience that takes full advantage of the sheer impossibility of VR, never passing on the chance to take you somewhere new and fantastical.
More importantly, though, it demonstrates how much Breaking Fourth has grown as a VR storyteller and showcases its grasp on what makes the medium tick. Lucid’s best moments involve clever tricks and unexplored territory. There are transitions that transport you to entirely new places without you even realizing and the more dramatic beats put you in the middle of situations you pray you’ll never encounter for real. It’s a sort of terrible privilege.
But it’s that last point that makes Lucid a must-see. It has moments that work so well because it’s in VR, like the uncomfortable invasion of privacy you feel from standing over Eleanor’s real-world body and the dread of being powerless to stop inevitable events as they unfold right in front of your eyes.
If you’ve seen Ctrl then you know Breaking Fourth isn’t afraid to touch on some dark themes and the same is true of this, though there’s a welcome touch of endearing humor to it, too. Eleanor is a fussy, stubborn figure that exudes a kind of humorous existence with everything she does. Ultimately that makes the blows hit harder later in the piece when Astra comes to terms with some of the more recent events in their life, which can be hard to watch. The running time is under 20 minutes and yet Breaking Forth successfully makes you care about these characters enough in that time to leave an impact as the credits roll.
Lucid may be exploring relatively worn territory for VR experiences (I couldn’t tell you how many people’s minds I’ve explored now), but through novel techniques and a focus on characters it crafts something truly memorable. It suggests that we’re moving past the stage in which we figure out why we should tell stories in VR and start capitalizing on what makes them thrive. I can’t wait to see how Breaking Fourth builds on this yet again.
Lucid will be available both as a full VR experience and 360 degree video later this year.