The demo areas for Oculus Story Studio's first release, Henry, were decorated to make you feel like you were in the middle of a birthday party. A rather sad birthday party in a virtual reality convention, at least.
The short began with a short bit exposition that explained that Henry was a charming like hedgehog who couldn't find a friend because everyone he hugged was hurt by his quills. The narration was done by Elijah Wood, and the opening was illustrated using a series of framed pictures that appeared in front of you. Soon enough you found yourself inside Henry's house as he busies himself with making his own birthday cake, which consisted of a bit of frosting on top of a strawberry.
I sat down on the rug when he came out to serve himself, and the effect was uncanny. I wasn't wearing a virtual reality device and sitting on a carpet inside a hotel, it felt like I was inside a small woodland home of the cute critter in front of me. Henry himself, as strange as it sounds, felt real.
He wasn't an animation, he was a physical presence in front of him, and his little sighs and sad whimpers were somewhat hard to bear. The short piles on the emotions thick and paints with broad strokes, but that's to be expected from the first shorts to be released in virtual reality. This was designed to be something that appeals to a wide audience, and it certainly pulls that off. I felt bad for Henry, and was a bit frustrated that I couldn't talk or touch him in any way. It was a strange feeling; I've never watched a standard film while feeling stymied that I couldn't explain to the characters that everything was going to be alright.
Henry is a short experience, taking under 10 minutes to see the short play out. But it felt comfortable; I was content to sit on my rug and watch the story play out in front of me, while taking some time to look around the environment. Being able to see Henry's home added a level of intimacy to the story that a standard film doesn't have; the fact that you're sharing a physical space with a cute character who is in emotional pain is a hard thing to describe.
Again, the emotions were painted on thick, and there was a bit of the happy-ever-after in the eventual resolution, but Henry was adorable and as a proof of concept for narrative VR works it was compelling. I'd love for the next release to be a bit more subtle and do a bit more showing instead of telling, but I walked out completely convinced in the future of narrative, animated virtual reality.
And hell, he's coming to you for free when you pick up your retail Oculus Rift in 2016.