They say the eyes are the window into your soul, and that’s never been truer than in Manifest 99, a haunting, curious new VR experience debuting on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR this week. This short story is one of the most fascinating explorations of VR narratives yet seen, giving new meaning to the ways in which we look and leer at characters with our headsets on.
Manifest 99 is an ambiguous train ride through the afterlife in which you hop between wide-eyed ravens, collecting personal belongings from various passengers and then peering into their backstories to find out more about them. It’s an uncomfortable, quietly disturbing piece in which you’re closer to intruding than observing, encompassing a more sinister side to surveillance than we’re used to experiencing in VR.
The ravens you teleport between linger in the shadows of the cabins, peering at their subjects from their corners and railings. Sometimes characters will try to avoid you, sometimes they’ll try to fight you, but eventually they can’t resist anymore.
“Narratively, it was important that we forced people to engage with the characters on the train,” co-director Adam Volker says on why the piece had to be in VR. “It’s so often that when we meet people or pass them on the street, we don’t look them in the eyes. With a gaze-based mechanic like the one we use in Manifest 99, you are engaging with our characters, and looking into the windows of their souls (literally!!). This type of interaction couldn’t have been achieved in any other medium.”
Eye-contact is one of the most powerful aspects of VR. It can connect you to NPCs in deeper, more intimate ways. It can make you feel shy, noticed and alert. Here it plays a deeper role; a weapon of sorts that tells lays others pain to bear.
“Eyes are emotive,” Volker says. “They tell you how someone is feeling. If their eyes are empty, it’s hard to read their emotions and that can be unnerving. In Manifest 99, the crows are glowing, empty, white vessels, and so are the eyes of the other characters. When you stare into their eyes and connect with the other passengers, you are able to experience their story and learn about who they are and why they are on the train. We wanted to use that connection, in hopes that it establishes a stronger connection between the player and the characters.”
Another interesting part of the piece is that your subjects aren’t humans, but instead animals. A weary solider is played by a bear, for example, that lumbers over you as he sits in quiet reflection in his cabin. “Animals allow us to abstract the personas of the characters,” Volker explains. “Animals also have connotations and mythologies – stories about animals as personalities exist in many cultures. It made a lot of sense for us to employ that technique when we were building the world in Manifest 99. It lends another layer of mystery to have the characters be animals that complement their story.”
Ultimately Manifest 99 leaves its mark with a message of remembrance, respect and preservation. It serves as a touching look into the lives of others and the histories we can all struggle with.
Manifest 99 is out today for $5.99 and comes with my recommendation.