The road through adolescence has long been a bumpy one, and in today’s hyper-media-saturated environment, it’s arguably never been harder to be a teenager. In the immortal words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, parents just don’t understand. But thanks to the immersive nature of VR, now they can take a look at the world from a teen’s perspective—and hopefully gain a little understanding in the process. Not only that, but teens will ideally realize they’re not alone, recognize the problems faced by their friends and peers, and overcome the stigmas often associated with teen issues.
With a highly stylized animated aesthetic, Weird Times: Adventures in Teenagehood delivers an irreverent and honest look at the everyday issues faced by today’s teens. The episodic series of short VR films covers a wide range of thematic ground, from depression and ADHD to body image, coming out, and cultural identity. It was named one of the 10 coolest VR/AR experiences from SXSW 2022 by VRScout, and now the first three episodes are available on Oculus TV for the Meta Quest Platform.
We sat down with Weird Times Co-Director, Gen Z expert, and consultant Chloe Combi to learn more.
What was the inspiration behind Weird Times?
Chloe Combi: Weird Times came about, essentially, as a response to the teen mental health crisis and the fact that so many of the issues facing young people are not being addressed or discussed well. We’re living in a time where young people are facing some of the biggest social, economic, cultural, political, and geographic struggles in recorded history. And despite the fact that there’s greater awareness of these issues than ever before, we’re coming up short on how to tackle them. Added to that, many, many young people have little or no access to real support, and we’re seeing an exponential rise in loneliness and alienation in young people, which was exacerbated by the pandemic and lockdown. Unsurprisingly, lots of young people seek out solace, support, and being “seen” in their entertainment and media—often with mixed results. We wanted to create a series using the power of VR to explore the challenges facing young people in a way that was responsible, empathic, but also entertaining and highly experiential.
How did you settle on the art style for Weird Times?
CC: The art is very episode-led, and I think audiences will be surprised at how beautiful and immersive it is. For example, the #straightFAIL episode is very, very eerie—think dark Disney—whereas the art is kind of claustrophobic and dyspeptic for #happyFAIL and hyper-color and unnerving for #sexyFAIL. I’m in awe of what the art team have pulled off, but it’s safe to say, if you’ve experienced any of the emotions or stories we’ve featured in Weird Times, I think you’ll feel the experience. At SXSW, we had audience tears, laughter, jumps, gasping, and lots and lots of talking—it’s a series that makes people really want to talk about themselves, which is a huge thrill.
What was your process like for selecting each episode’s theme?
CC: That was hard because in a world where young people are going through so much, how do you choose and prioritize which stories to pick? For me, the themes had to feel very universal. As people we have a very real need to be seen and reflected in the art and entertainment we watch, and I want the audience—young and older—to take ownership and see and feel themselves. We want to start a campaign attached to the series called #whatsyourFAIL?, as every episode refers (ironically) to a “fail” as mental health and personal differences are so often quantified in terms of failure – so we have #sexyFAIL, straightFAIL, #brainFAIL, cultureFAIL and #happyFAIL—and we expect people to kind of own or really see themselves in one or more of the episodes, which has totally happened, but also to consider what their “fail” is, in an attempt to own and destigmatize it. We got people to wear their #FAIL on stickers at SXSW (mine was #skinnyFAIL as I had anorexia as a teenager). They were a huge hit, and we’d like to do this across social media, as we want people to discuss their mental health, and I think Weird Times will encourage this.
Why was virtual reality the right medium to tell these stories?
CC: Because you feel and experience emotions, life, and mental health—they aren’t something you get to spectate! As an expert in the field of teenagers, two of the biggest sentiments I hear are “I wish I could get in the head of my teen” from parents and teachers and so forth, and “I wish people knew or could see what I’m going through” from teens. Weird Times is the closest thing you’ll get to actually being able to do that, and that’s powerful and huge for creating empathy and alleviating this fairly global sense of aloneness.
Which is your favorite episode and why?
CC: Oooh—tricky! I love them all, which I realize is a bit of a cop-out, but they’re all so different, it’s hard. #brainFAIL nearly broke me—it’s so moving as you go through Luke’s journey. #sexyFAIL is very funny and something every person in the world will relate to—especially a world that’s gotten addicted to filters. #happyFAIL is quite brutal, but a brilliant and truthful depiction of depression. #cultureFAIL really made me think, because I work with loads of young people from across cultures and countries. As a white woman, I’ve never experienced the pull of two different cultures that often manifests in wanting to fit in and be faithful to your traditions. But #straightFAIL is something else. The art, music, tones, and performances have created something magical and very eerie. It manages to say something about gender, sexuality, and identity in a way absolutely no one else has yet done. But they are all so good. I can’t wait for people to find their favorite and own it, along with #whatsyourFAIL?
Who did you work with on the soundtrack and sound design? What was that experience like?
CC: We spent some time up front in the editorial process placing the appropriate temp scratch as far as the musical tone intended for each episode before taking it to the sound design team. We wanted the style and genre of music to fit each episode’s unique topic and personality going from modern hip-hop to ragtime jazz. Once the direction was figured out, we then had several spotting sessions with the incredibly talented audio team at Meta who took the level of immersion and quality of the episodes way past anything we originally imagined. It’s been an extremely collaborative process working with the Meta audio team who’s brought so much passion, originality, and heart to the project, making it something truly special to all of us.
What advice would you give to a developer looking to start building for VR?
CC: Anyone considering developing content in VR should first consider why VR? The concept should make sense for the medium. VR is more theatre in the round than it is cinema. When concepting a VR piece, ideation should be an inside-out approach considering oneself in place of the camera versus a traditional film, which is outside-looking in perspective of being behind the camera. Creating cinematic VR can be achieved with foreshortening and sleight of hand techniques done in blocking. Motivating the audience to instinctively look where you want them to is the art of the craft.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
CC: As it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, I think it’s important to say three things. One: Enjoy the series and let yourself feel however you are going to. Two: You are absolutely not alone and you are loved by someone. People are funny creatures and have a way of waiting for each other to come to each other—we can create a weird anti-feedback loop. Whatever you’re going through, tell someone. You’ll be surprised by how many people are prepared to listen and help, and if you feel isolated in your family, hometown, or school, reach out to an online community. For the most part, you’ll find people just like you who will fill that void you might feel. And three: A dictum I’ve always found useful is “This too shall pass.” If you feel lonely, unpopular, sad, unattractive, unloved, or maybe worse, these things aren’t fixed, and this is not your forever or your future. Almost every extraordinary person I’ve met or know struggled with something and went on to do great things, because these are the things and the stories that make us great. And if you really are not doing OK and not coping, we’ve added a whole bunch of useful resources to the episodes and social media. Please reach out.