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April 11th, 2022 | by Agnese Pietrobon

“Incorporating VR’s strength into the narrative backbone of our story” - Arif Khan (BLACK ICE VR)

An in-depth look at one of the latest works we experienced at SXSW 2022, Black Ice by director Arif Khan. Definitely a must-see piece for anyone who loves a good sci-fi story.

Let's face it: SXSW 2022 may have turned out to be a bit confusing for those of us who were abroad and following it online (that website, oh my, that website)... but their immersive selection was simply fantastic.

I'm not just talking about good works, although they certainly were. I'm talking about the stories we found there. Stories that you want to follow and learn more about. Stories that take you inside a different world with characters you're really interested in discovering. Narratives that get you excited about them and what's going to happen next.

Which is something VR lacks, as we've often heard from those working in this field.

Good fictional stories.

I was very vocal here on XRMust about my favourite of the ones presented at SXSW, Lustration VR (episode 1 currently available on Oculus TV), but in the last few days of the event I had the chance to experience something else that went straight to my fandom-addicted brain and made me say, "This is it!". Or, in broader words: this is what we need. Because two things I like: works that have a soul and mean something to you as a human being - which is something immersive technologies have mastered creating (see, among the most recent examples, Child of Empire and On the Morning You Wake)... and fictional works that take the best there is to take from film and storytelling, add that spark that only VR can bring, and present you with a story you get involved in in less than 5 minutes.

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Black Ice, directed and produced by Arif Khan, is one such work, starting with the plot, the story of a young woman who visits a memory editor in a cyberpunk future to suppress the horrible memories of a murder she committed and wants to forget. But of course, memory alteration never brings good things.... (people who still want their memories altered should watch more movies, me think, and save themselves AND OTHERS some grief.)

I've noticed several interviews mentioning the innovative tools Black Ice uses to advance the narrative and the embodiment - and all of this is true: I didn't feel like the character I was playing, but I felt like I was possessing him in some way and that worked for me very well, especially considering that, to reach the memories, he does some possessing of his own (not in the literal sense). Also, I should probably mention in this regard, without giving away too many spoilers, the scene of the “complete destruction”, that really conveyed to me the dramatic and erratic mood of a choice that I already knew wasn't going to end well.

But what really did it for me was not all these details… but the fact that at some point I actually stopped noticing them to simply enjoy the story.

Maybe it's because it takes some of the typical tropes of the sci-fi genre and places them within a work that was made USING a "sci-fi" tool (VR itself); maybe it's because the storyline is exciting and surprising and mixes horror elements with a final scene that is so well done it ended up being one of the most memorable I've seen in immersive works, Black Ice is a production you don't stop thinking about after it's over… and it’s actually one I would like to explore in other media as well. We discussed it with director Arif Khan.

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On the narrative inspirations behind Black Ice VR

A. - I'd like to start with this, a question about the story itself. I've always been fascinated by sci-fi movies and shows that deal with the theme of memories, so I'd like to know more about the origins of Black Ice and what your inspirations for it were, narratively speaking.

ARIF KHAN - As a team, we were interested in exploring the concept of memories, which is such a deeply personal and important topic. And then taking that a step further with asking probing questions like, what if you could control your memories? What would a memory economy look like? What kind of interesting customers would visit a memory editor? These were the types of scenarios we began exploring when first crafting the world of Black Ice VR.

Narrative inspirations were wide-ranging from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, to the imaginative works of William Gibson. Even master short story writers like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson were key influences in helping us shape a unique science fiction world within a short story structure.

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A. - Why the choice of this specific medium to tell this specific story?

A. K. - Exploring environments is one of the most powerful features of VR, and a key aspect we wanted to highlight in Black Ice. At the same time, we also felt exploring a memory was a strong narrative hook, and so threading these two elements together created a unique experience that was taking advantage of VR’s strengths as an immersive medium, while also incorporating into the narrative backbone of our story.

Creating a cyberpunk world using VR affordances

A. - I loved the moment when the slicer erases the entire memory! Everything works perfectly: the images, the obsessive music, the almost physical way in which you tear it apart piece by piece. In Black Ice, interactivity is strongly used for narrative purposes and to help the embodiment. Can you tell us more about the work you and your team did on interactive design?

A. K. - From the very beginning, we wanted the Destruction Level to feel as tactile as possible, to elicit the effect that you’re actually destroying this memory. From there, we immediately started building interaction prototypes, testing haptic feedback, designing sound effects. Even the music grows in tempo as the players progresses through the level, which helps accelerate the tension of the sequence. It took many iterations for us to find the right balance of allowing the player to feel powerful, destructive, and yet also vulnerable at the same time.

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A. - I read on Audiokinetic that there has been a lot of discussion about how the world of Black Ice should look. Can you tell us more about the reasons for this specific vision and comment on the choices you made regarding animation and music?

A. K. - We knew very early on that we wanted to tell a stylized cyberpunk story, but were also aware of our budget and time limitations. These constraints forced us to think about our story as economically as possible and build only the essential elements. One set, one location, only a handful of scenes. We wanted to evoke the feeling of being in this strange cyberpunk office, but do so in a way that didn’t feel uninviting or scary, but full of color and saturation to entice the player to engage with our story. We took this concept further during the memory dives, where we created vignettes and specific colorizations to illustrate Rin’s memory.

Music was a crucial element to the flow of our story and instrumental in driving the tension and momentum of Black Ice. We worked very closely with our composer, Umberto, on creating a soundtrack that reflected the unsettling quality of this dangerous cyberpunk world, yet also mirroring Rin’s quiet vulnerability. We even created specialized music cues which trigger only after the player has done specific interactions. The result feels like the music is recognizing the player’s actions and tailoring the soundscape to their experience. Having these pieces work in concert like this was essential for the team, since we wanted the experience to feel as focused, directed and intentional as possible.

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Giving relevance to a wider audience

A. - What are your plans now for Black Ice?

A. K. - We’re incredibly proud and excited to have our world premiere at SXSW this year. We’re next going to travel on the festival circuit and explore our regional premieres, so players from around the world can have the opportunity to play through our little cyberpunk story. We’re also starting to explore a few early ideas about what Black Ice would look like if we developed the concept into a larger VR narrative piece.

A. - What is the ideal audience for VR, in your opinion? What are we missing to make it more "mainstream" (in the best sense of the world)?

A. K. - Strong stories and characters have been the lifeblood for art for centuries. I think it’s because stories and characters fundamentally serve as a mirror for players or viewers to reflect on their own experiences and perspectives. Essentially an opportunity for them to learn more about themselves through the art they experience. The more we as creators can continue to develop compelling characters and narratives in our VR projects, the more viewers will be willing to dive into more VR experiences. We intentionally created Black Ice VR with a broad audience in mind. We wanted all types of players to experience our story and perhaps leave thinking a little deeper about what memories truly mean to us…for better or worse.

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Black Ice VR is a work developed during the Immersive Storytelling Residency in the Media and Emerging Technology Lab (METL) at UNCSA by Arif Khan (writer and director), Lawrence Yip (XR developer) and Darren Woodland Jr (technical artist). Find more information on the official website.

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