Review⎪LUSTRATION: connecting mainstream audiences to immersive stories
Lustration VR is a 4-episode virtual reality series made using Quill and available on Oculus TV that will blow your mind with its intricate plot and fantasy/noir content. A production in which the viewer can switch camera POVs and explore different perspectives... and possibly different worlds.
“Are you ready for the fight of your death?”, a mysterious character says to Malcolm as they are sitting at their table in a 1950s American-looking bar, smoking a cigarette. We are at episode 3 of multi-strand animated series Lustration VR and this line immediately gives two indications: there is drama in the air that will soon become worse, and we may be talking about a life-and-death situation, but this time we are doing it from the side of death. Because our characters are both already dead and we find ourselves in this sort of purgatory-reality called The Between. A place where one can get "purified" (the lustration of the title) before moving on to the next world... but also a reality where the strings are pulled by an unknown entity that may not have everyone's best interests in mind.
Directed by Ryan Griffen and produced by New Canvas, Lustration VR was presented at SXSW last March, and its first season is currently available on Oculus TV. A VR piece inspired by the graphic novel of the same name written by Ryan Griffen himself for Gestalt Comics (art by James Brouwer), it is one of the most interesting examples of a VR work that develops an articulate story and, in this, tries to speak to a more mainstream audience than VR usually targets.
We have seen other interesting works that have been able to create an active (fan) community around them, such as The Metamovie Presents: Alien Rescue. Lustration VR, while completely different, follows a similar direction and shows a clear understanding of what is needed to bridge the gap between an audience that is less familiar with VR but has strong ties to other media (such as film and TV) and immersive productions. All while creating a work that belongs in VR and makes good use of the tools this medium offers.
An excellent starting point is the setting itself, which enriches a classic noir/fantasy narrative with little-known elements of the Aboriginal culture from which the director himself comes. Curious note in this regard is the respectful warning at the beginning of each chapter, informing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that they may hear voices of deceased people during the episode. I was not aware of this cultural protocol, but I went to read up on it and from there I began a small but interesting journey through some of the traditions shared by those communities... And you know, when a work (VR or not) inspires this kind of research, it means that there’s something good about it.
Lustration VR has on its side another great advantage: not only does it find its inspiration in a medium we are more or less familiar with, that of graphic novels, whose style it traces in both characters and settings. It also presents a story that we are curious to follow and discover simply because it is a good one, with a mysterious plot slowly unfolding before us. Something still sorely lacking in immersive productions.
Using some typical narrative escamotages - episodes that end in a climax, gray characters with a hidden past that we are not sure which side they are on, clues that might be relevant but we do not yet know for what - it makes you want to go on with the episodes to better understand the connection between the living and the dead characters, and find out more about the conspiracy and the people (...?) that are endangering the afterlife.
Characters are another key element that has the power to attract or alienate potential users/fans in most works. I, for one, am someone who might even gloss over a not-so-great story if the characters are interesting to follow, but I hate with all my heart a story with poorly written ones. Lustration VR, for obvious reasons of length, cannot give us a complete perspective on who its characters are, so it needs to convey their personalities and characteristics in more immediate ways, using classic tropes to define them: Gallus mentioning his passion for Led Zeppelin; Bardolph dressed as a noir detective, hat included, with the kind of slow walk one expects from people somewhat defeated by life; Pine, a female detective prone to swear words, who makes jokes about religion and everything you can't touch, with empty take-out food containers scattered around a house where she lives alone. Or even the Cherubs, with their white hair, impassive demeanor and emotionless voices-someone give me more scenes with cherubs, please.
It is not yet clear to me what dynamics are at play among these characters, and I admit that a first viewing was not enough to actually understand everything that was going on (which I fear was somewhat influenced by my not being a native speaker), but the point, I think, is this: this story and the characters are interesting enough that you go back to the episodes and watch them again to try to piece together the clues you may have missed.
This brings me to what is the main element around which Lustration VR is developed: the change of perspective, which is left to the user's choice. Using a simple panel, you can press a button and look at the scene from a different position-or even look at different scenes (which generally take place at the same time and are strongly related to the main one).
It is true that not all perspectives add elements to what you are looking at. Some are even a bit confusing, because they put you too far away from the people and the main dialogue: you can't hear what is being said and you keep expecting something else to happen where you have positioned yourself - which is not always the case. But other shifts in perspective are absolutely fantastic, from a narrative point of view, to connect the two dimensions of life and death. They unsettle you, they fascinate you, they are intriguing, and, more important, they are crucial to the plot and necessary to understand the story. So not just a tool for entertainment, but something closely tied to the storytelling.
A plus associated with these changes in perspective is also to give the user a role in what is happening. Mind you, in Lustration VR you do not interact with the characters, nor do you influence the story. But there is another thing that those who have always been fans of TV shows and movies want to do when they watch them: collect the clues and solve the mystery before the mystery solves itself.
Take LOST. If you were there when it came out, and you are a bit obsessed with these things like me, you probably spent hours rewatching scenes and putting together notes on what you knew, because you had to figure it out before everyone else did. Lustration VR allows you to do that as well, and it does it in a very physical way. You can rewind scenes. You can choose which one to follow. Sometimes you can even get close to the characters and try to see what they are seeing. And, being in VR, you do all this from within the scene itself, as if you were an invisible but active investigator in this world that you are watching move before your eyes (this led me to walk up to Bardolph as he was listening through the closed door and to lean against the door as well to hear what was being said on the other side. And actually this was a bit ridiculous on my part, since I had already witnessed the scene from the other side of the door. But, you know, when you play detective, you play detective, no compromises).
So, my advice in relation to Lustration VR is definitely to take your time to enjoy the episodes and also to study them a little bit and go back to the things you have already seen if you notice that there is something you missed.
It's another way to make the story your own, and one that fans love to explore. Add to that the content and tropes, the settings and familiar graphic-novel style, the potential for character development, and the performance offered by the actors and actresses who voice them-many of whom are quite familiar to fan culture (we mention Kevin Conroy, but feel free to fangirl over the full credits) - and you get a production that can make a difference: not only it speaks to a broader public, but it can draw the attention of fan communities (the best audience you can have, their devotion-if respected-knows no bounds!), offering them a way to experience VR that is super accessible, free, and easy to understand. It may only be a first step-and hopefully many more will follow-but I think it's still a very good one.
Find out more about Lustration VR in our interview with director Ryan Griffen, producer Nathan Anderson and lead artist Zoe Roellin (available at this link).