What if you could interact with past versions of yourself? Or manipulate time with the spin of a clock’s hands? Or catch an otherworldly performance on a postmodern Vaudeville stage? Now you can do all that and more in The Under Presents, the newest VR game from critically acclaimed indie developer Tender Claws—now available on Oculus Quest!
Since its debut at Sundance, the VR community has waited patiently for this impressive follow up to hit title Virtual Virtual Reality. And now, the wait is over. We sat down with the team at Tender Claws for a behind-the-scenes look at this playful masterpiece.
What was the inspiration behind The Under Presents?
Tender Claws: Our experience creating story-driven VR has led us to believe that designing narrative for immersive media often needs to account for dimension and space in a unique way: closer to staging live theater than film, for example. There’s an amount of control you give up to the player in terms of blocking and where they’re focusing. With the recent rise of immersive theater, many have pointed out the similarities. We wanted to create something that really explored that overlap in a way that had been talked about, but not yet really seen. We’ve long been fans of Piehole’s work in various types of experimental theater and saw this as a perfect opportunity to collaborate on a genre-bending experience.
How has the game changed over time?
TC: One of the biggest changes was the project’s relation to the idea of “time.” This idea of time relates to the notion of designing for space (two of the main themes of the project). However, how we thought about time in our design of the game changed. In our earliest design, the story of the ship stuck in time (The Aikman) was told on a fixed loop, repeating every hour on the hour in real time. Players that arrived to the experience late would have to wait in a waiting room for the next seating. While we liked this conceptually, it was a little too punishing and demanding on players’ schedules.
The idea of the waiting room merged with the idea of an alternate dimension of the ship: an Under the ship. This is different than how the Under functions now and its relation to the core game loop.
The original ship itself was also inspired by the idea of the weird characters, acts, and drama that might unfold on a cruise ship. The potential of this setting was interesting to both us and Piehole. At the very, very beginning, the stage was also partly part of the cruise ship, with the Under (the main stage) functioning as almost a bizarre mirror stage to events on the ship. However, some interesting design constraints arose from combining a multiplayer space with a space where any player could also control time. The Under began to take on a life of its own, and the ship found a home inside of it.
How does The Under Presents straddle the legacy of Vaudeville with today’s immersive theater?
TC: Into the 20th century, Vaudeville was also marketed as “variety,” a series of eclectic acts that were on the same bill. The Under, presents a mix of acts ranging from tap dancing fish to crooning ballards. Vaudeville also had associations with being a little rowdy or comedic or weird. Later, as cinema came into the picture, the line between live and filmed performances began to blur—this is a technique we’re using on The Under Stage. In addition to the recorded shows, we’ve collaborated with real-life New York artists: players may be lucky and catch a live show as well. Vaudeville was sometimes performed in clubs for small or intimate audiences and could be responsive. There are a few great VR experiences that can create large-scale concerts. However, this game was deliberately designed for intimate experiences and smaller audiences.
This idea of intimacy and smaller audiences is often seen in immersive theater. We’re borrowing structures and vocabulary from contemporary immersive theater. The Aickman features multiple characters and multiple threads happening “around” the player simultaneously. The barrier of the stage is removed, and the audience is placed within the narrative. In the Under itself, players may encounter live actors and occasionally be pulled aside for a “one-on-one” experience. The idea of intimacy, feeling chosen and being “seen,” is important. Immersive theater can have a wide range of definitions and degrees of interaction. Different forms can be seen in this project.
The full game deals with theater in ways that go beyond having live actors. We consider having live actors for a limited time to be a type of theater run.
What’s your favorite part of the experience?
TC: Due to expectations we established early on, there are a few moments where you first see other players and there’s an uncertainty if it’s pre-recorded, another player, or a past recording of your own actions. Part of our artistic choice is to also constrain the player (as a time ghost) to non-verbal communication through gesture and other abilities. We’ve found that this opens up opportunities for emergent play between players—but also with yourself. Without giving too much away, we’ve had a few people assume they were engaging with another and then realize the other person was something entirely different. This moment of confusion and clarity can be exciting.
We are also happy in particular with the third act of “Time Boat.” This is what the director of the experience, The MC, calls the game within the game. In the third act, time’s passed, the ship’s run out of power and supplies, and the environment feels haunted in an evocative way.
What do you think fans of Virtual Virtual Reality will enjoy most about The Under Presents?
TC: There is a similar type of game loop and idea of a hub, though for different reasons. Both projects take a similar approach to exploratory narrative and creating compelling spaces/moments that all weave together to create a bigger narrative, while giving the player a good amount of freedom to control the pacing and direction of their journey. Also, there’s definitely a similar undercurrent of dark humor in both projects.
We think this project may also have a “slow burn” absurdity that kind of creeps up on you. It presents itself maybe a little more normal than it is, and the next thing you know you’re watching a commercial for a telepathic dolphin as you and three other time ghosts send vibrations down your elastic stretchy arms to fight over a giant golden egg.
What kind of response have you seen since debuting the experience at Sundance?
TC: Sundance was such a sliver of a bigger project. I think the biggest thing we’ve heard is an excitement to return to the space and dig in. There’s a lot to discover and the game encourages and rewards players to explore both the environments and the story.
What’s next for you? Any exciting updates in the works?
TC: We really do see this as a hybrid game and live theatrical experience. That means that we’ve built a lot of tools and abilities for our actors but are super excited to work with them over the next few months on refining and iterating on the types of performances and special moments they’re able to create in the experience. We’re already working on a stage and actor content update for the holidays! Beyond that ... you’ll be hearing more from us.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
TC: Beware of poisoned onions.
Thanks to Tender Claws for the inside scoop—and for the cryptic parting words. Experience the absurdity for yourself in The Under Presents on Quest today.