Have you ever convinced yourself that an opinion, however adaptable is the right one? That every argument to the contrary, however effectually articulated only serves to further vindicate this conviction? That’s how I feel about Virtual Reality. Having touched on the subject recently, definitively concluding that VR as a principle denotes an immense potential for gaming and entertainment as a whole, but in its present state is sadly inadequate to produce an immersive experience beyond short, restricted tech demos. I maintain that VR isn’t a viable commercial entity beyond the initial “wow, its like I’m actually there”.
This is a position I’m holding firm on, derived from an extended engagement with Sony’s flagship device the “PSVR”. Sure this isn’t the premium VR headset like the Hive or even the Oculus, but it’s the same basic principle of adorning a bulky, head crushing visor and waving two plastic accessories around like maracas. The potential is ripe for innovation and yet developers have been coasting on the novelty rather than expanding, and that’s probably because most of them are unsure how to best utilise this foreign utility. Well I have a suggestion: “Allumette”.
No Alumette is not a spelling mistake, nor is it referring to a fine Italian liqueur but is in fact a succinct VR tale adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s short story “The Little Match Girl”. Though it deviates from the original source material, omitting the more tragic tone of its literary equivalent, though these darker elements are still inherently implied, it does so without coming across as a pedantic affectation. Simply adjusting characters and environments to accommodate the narrative.
The distinction can be assuaged by its almost exultant setting, a verdant aerial civilisation in the clouds that bears an uncanny resemblance to Venice. Occupied by floating gondolas that glide across thoroughfares between renaissance inspired streets and buildings. It’s a profoundly startling image to observe, but wonderfully realised too. The story, which I won’t go into detail here, though short more than makes up for its narrative brevity with its sheer creative radiance.
You can’t help but admire its beguiling endeavour and the way it conjures this whimsical city. Conveying narrative fluidity through unconventional artistry, compelling vision and with captivating immersion without a word of dialogue. It’s a fantastical city that also belies the tragic vulnerability of the little match girl herself. Your eyes are constantly darting around looking to see if there’s something going on somewhere else, feeling like an omnipotent voyeur observing these events transpire naturally, yet powerless to intervene.
The floating Ark that the little match girl occupies acts as her mobile home and its fascinating to survey her vehicular residence. The exterior isn’t particularly arresting, just a design forged for practicality, but the interior is far more intriguing. Consisting of various ornate gears and levers that enable this bulky craft to levitate, offset by the rustic homely ambience of its quant adjacent quarters that looks more suited to adorning an isolated cabin somewhere in a Studio Ghibli movie, you get a sense that this design was formulated from the memory of some delightful childhood dream.
Yet the most distinctive feature is that you can’t actually see any of this unless you physically move, adjusting yourself enough to peer through the boats façade and to see characters interacting like plausible human beings before they actually emerge. That they aren’t merely idle npc’s until they appear out of the docked vessel, but display behavioural characteristics before they’ve officially been introduced. If you watched this story unfold in a more conventional way as you would a movie, silent and unmoving then you’d probably miss these nuanced little details.
VR needs concepts like this, earnest and experimental premises that passively oblige you to actively move, to tilt your head around the alleyway to see where the coughing noise is coming from. To prompt you into engaging with the story without directly influencing it. Or perhaps your appearance should have a profound implication? There are so many possibilities! Allumette demonstrates not just the potential for VR, but the fundamental responsibility to immerse the viewer.
Allumette isn’t something you play, nor is it something you watch in a traditional sense, but rather something you experience. And that, to me at least is what VR should be.
“Allumette” is free to download from the PlayStation Store.