"To see life through a more whimsical lens" - German Heller (EGGSCAPE)
A look at Eggscape, winner of the Venice Immersive Special Jury Prize at Venezia79, and one of the most original works presented at the Venice Film Festival this year.
With the 79th edition of the Venice International Film Festival coming to a close a couple of weeks ago, it is time for reflections on the works shown at the event and what they represent in terms of narrative and technology for the media industry.
Following XRMust's article on the surprising and beautiful The Man Who Couldn’t Leave, directed by Chen Singing, winner in Venice of the gold medal of the immersive section, the Venice Immersive Best Experience, we turn our attention to one of the best works of this edition, the mixed reality experience Eggscape produced by 3DAR and directed by German Heller, whom I interviewed during the event.
Eggs just want to have fun: the beauty of humor in VR
Before the festival started I spent some time looking for a synopsis for Eggscape but apart from the main promotional image I couldn't find much about it. I had hopes, sure, but not certainties… which is why when I reached the Lazzaretto Vecchio, where Venice Immersive was taking place, I was so happy about both the idea I was met with and the simple but beautiful installation the team had built around it.
Starting with the first, Eggscape tells the story of an egg... trying to escape. Call me a child, but I love puns that immediately convey the feeling that there is something funny going on (not for nothing, some festival friends and I have created our own Veneto-dialect version of the name– which we will share with German Heller and only German Heller, because of reasons).
And you know what? There is still too little fun in virtual worlds that when I read the word Eggscape, I booked that piece as my first experience at the Lazaretto even without knowing anything about it.
Immersive works are getting better and better, but one thing I still find missing are comedies: works in VR with a story that is simply funny, that makes people laugh, that makes people smile while doing it. I've seen people very amused by our egg, talking to it, commenting on everything out loud, and for me it was really nice not to see them cry. I mean, we all love to cry over a good story, but sometimes you also want something different, don't you?- German Heller
But why, you may ask, does an egg need to escape? Actually, there is no reason, and that is part of the story and the way it was constructed:
You simply find yourself there, in the middle of the action. There is no reason, there is no one to take you there or to explain the situation. The egg doesn't even seem confused: it simply accepts that this is what is happening - like a dream - and that there are monsters chasing them and the egg has to find a way to save themselves-
This kind of Inception-esque mood, but in Egg-form took me back to the golden days when I was an eight-year-old boy playing my first video games using floppy disks and an old PC.
Usually, even in current video games, there is always a reason why things happen, a long and well-developed story behind them - and mind you, it's something I live for! ...But a work like Eggscape chooses a different and somewhat innocent (plus very colourful) inspiration, and when German Heller cited Lemmings as a reference (a game that I thought was forgotten by all but a lucky few), I realised that Eggscape is more than a video game: it is a way of living media that speaks powerfully to those of us who were there at the time. But it is also a way of creating a new, modern version of that media, one that nods to today's technological possibilities.
Eggscape: meet the installation
We were very excited to be at the festival, we didn't think it would happen! When we submitted our work to the Biennale it was March and we were still working on the piece. We said, 'We'll try'... but then we were selected and suddenly we had less than six months to deliver a complete work! It was crazy, as you can imagine. But we are very happy with the results and the idea we had for the installation. We started brainstorming about it and working on it right away. At one point, the Biennale informed us that it was not going to be necessary. But at that point we had everything almost ready and the whole work didn't even take up that much space, so we decided to go ahead with it anyway- German Heller
Now, for those who are not used to this kind of event... it is not always easy to describe what installations look like without giving away too many spoilers on the story: let's just say that they add that physical something to the virtual piece you are about to try, so that your senses - sight, touch, hearing, in the best cases even smell - are all involved in the experience. Sometimes it is a detail, like the sand-covered floor of Eurydice, een afdaling in oneindigheid, on which both the physical and virtual user walked: it is a nice, artistic addition, but not necessary for the experience to work. Other times, as in Eggscape, what is created around the user is an essential part of the experience: without it some things just don't work - narratively and beyond. And this is crucial to consider when we are faced with a work that plays with augmented reality, as Eggscape does, where the meaning of the work itself is partially defined by the physical elements it is built around
At first we didn’t have much in terms of visuals for the installation. The only thing that was available was the logo… we kept looking at it and at some point we realized: that’s what we’re going to do. Create a setting inspired by that logo and an experience that works all around it-
Merging Eggscape with the everyday world
I love VR but I prefer experiences that don't take you away from the outside world around you. I don't like being blinded by what is happening around me, especially when I share the experience with other people: I want to be able to see them, see how they react. And I know that many people are also a bit annoyed by the idea that others see them with their headsets on, while they are unable to return their attention. For this reason, we have started to explore augmented reality more in recent years with 3Dar. This is where 'IAGO: the green eyed monster' came from and is the main reason for the technical choices behind Eggscape- German Heller
A couple years ago, a friend of mine sold her Oculus because she couldn't stand the idea of watching a work in VR when she was home alone. She tried it for a few weeks, but even the lighter experiences made her anxious and at some point, she just gave up. However, she continues to visit Venice Immersive every year and in this edition one of her favourite works was Eggscape. This was precisely because of the fact that, while maintaining a feeling of immersion (the things I said to that egg and those robots, oh my), Eggscape still allows you to see where you are, where your egg is, connect the two realities and feel somewhat amused but also reassured by it.
This incorporation of the surroundings is particularly significant in the multi user version of the piece – which, in my never-ending love story with Vivaticket, the from-hell platform chosen by La Biennale for reservations of movies and immersive works, I was not able to book. In this version, in fact, one can push the experience in a direction that VR works of this kind do not usually offer: world-building.
The multi-user version offers the possibility of collaborative building of the experience and it was so great to watch people doing it. There was an Italian couple who was so good at adding levels, so inventive at imagining them, that we asked them to get back to us after the festival to collaborate on this! You learn a lot about people by watching the way they build levels and collaborate with each other. Some have such a deep and incredible understanding of how to use the space around them to enhance the game! That's one of my favourite things in this world: the chance to observe others and see how their creativity comes out- German Heller
The decision to make this collaborative building part of Eggscape is linked to the core identity of the work: in the future, we will be able to play with it at home and build the world from which the little eggs need to escape around our furniture, our staircases, the appliances in our kitchen. From this point of view, Eggscape also becomes a way for us to better understand the concept of space and to develop a collateral creativity that allows us to look at our environment in a different way. The possibilities are endless, in this regard, and for the first time I have something I am actively looking forward to in terms of games to buy.
A colorful note on a colorful egg
'I will never look at an egg the same way again', 'I will remember you the next time I cook an egg'. I heard several people say things like these after trying Eggscape at the festival. I was one of those people.
You might be a tough, hard-faced Javert’s type, but even your heart of stone will melt in front of… eggs crushed by the burden of escape. Kinda literally. Even if they don’t actually crack in the same way a real egg would. Pfiu.
At first we did that... but it was shocking and a bit splatter, honestly, so we decided to do something different. Now, when the egg falls and dies, it does it in a different way, more cartoonish. We had different versions of the idea, during the three main development phases we went through. When we started, my brother, Federico Heller, took on the role of director. His approach was more horror, almost scary. But it didn't work and the following versions - first Jorge Tereso took the role of director and then me - were lighter, more colourful... because this is our identity at 3dar, this is the style we like, made of colours, music, rain... and which we have used since the first production we did, Shave it- German Heller
(and if you haven’t watched Shave it, now it’s a good time to do it).
3Dar, for me, has always shown an excellent approach to characters, both visually and emotionally. Whether it's the strange child in Paper Birds, the zombie lovers in Gloomy Eyes or the “cast” of The Great Hoax: the Moon Landing (one of my favourite works ever presented at the Venice Film Festival), there is always something interesting about them. Little Egg, despite not having a story or a name of its own, is a likable character that quickly gets into your head and has a kind of transmedia/gadget potential that might make it more like Super Mario than some of the games we are used to today.
And indeed, the 3Dar team, at the Venice Film Festival, offered stickers with Little Egg (and other characters from the game) in fancy clothes, or dressed as George King of the Jungle (a great choice for the festival that brought back Brendan Fraser, by the way), or as a strange Native American mariachi who now makes a fine display on my laptop case.
A successful approach to an experience that truly takes its potential audience into account and offers them a light-hearted mixed reality that keeps spirits high and guarantees a smile on the face.