The Under Presents may be a strange name for a theatrical piece. There again, it could easily be regarded as a strange name for a video game. It is certainly odd for something that blends the two in a completely novel way. However, when you throw virtual reality (VR) technology into the mix, then it is hard to think of any precedents. So, in a way, the Under Presents isn’t a peculiar name at all because it represents all three of these things – simultaneously a game, an immersive live-action theatrical experience and a VR encounter. So, what is the Under Presents and what does it tell us about the future of theatre, gaming and VR technology?
To begin with, the Under Presents was the brainchild of Tender Claws, an independent game studio of just 15 employees that is based in Los Angeles. In 2019, they launched a new game title on the Oculus VR gaming platform to much acclaim. When the game went live, Oculus listed as something that offered the chance for adventure and exploration. In fairness, nearly all modern first-person games provide this. However, Oculus also tagged the game as one that provided a narrative experience, too. In this regard, the Under Present went further than any other game, whether it was a VR experience or not, had hitherto achieved.
How? Well, the Under Presents did not simply have a plot line that gamers would unlock sections of as they made their way through levels or achieved certain goals as most games operate. Instead, the VR platform that the game used allowed actors to take part in the action alongside players. By portraying the characters that players met on their various story arcs, so these actors were able to offer a unique gaming experience every time the Under Presents was played.
Although there were basic scripts to follow, the actors were able to improvise and react simultaneously with players, just as tends to happen in immersive theatrical performances where actors and audience members interact with one another. The big difference with the Under Presents, however, was that all these interactions took place in a virtual way. Players and actors were not physically present with one another. Indeed, they could be in different continents, let alone cities. No other title had gone quite this far in blending video games and theatre to offer something genuinely new.
Tender Claws has already been dreaming up novel ways of using VR gaming technology before the launch of the Under Presents. Back in 2017, it had offered up a VR title called Virtual Virtual Reality which it made available through Google’s Daydream service. It used the same writing and art direction styles that would later be seen in the Under Presents as well as some cleverly automated interaction design. However, it did not have the live-action supported by actors that would mark out the Under Presents as something genuinely groundbreaking.
Two years later, Tender Claws presented the Under Presents in a preview format at the Sundance Film Festival which perhaps belied its more theatrical nature. By donning a VR headset, players were soon able to realise that the in-game features were more immersive than anything that had gone before. Although actors do not support the action throughout the game, they certainly play their part in key aspects of it.
Although there are diverting elements in the Under Presents whereby players can interact with themselves or alternative versions of themselves, much of the longer story arc behind the game takes place in a virtually generated research ship, known as the Aickman. This ship has wound up in a mysterious disaster that players essentially need to figure out the cause of. Because the game is played in a virtual arena, they can interact with the ship in a diorama format or wander through it in a true-to-life scale. If that is not enough, players can also uncover the secrets that lay behind the disaster by hopping backwards and forwards in time. Essentially, the narrative plays out over three acts which can be altered by players as they interact with the ship and its crew.
Some of the characters in the Under Presents are automated but the greater level of sophistication comes from the fact that actors play parts interactively. Tender Claws decided to team up with a New York theatrical company named Piehole to provide the acting expertise needed to pull off such a novel concept. Piehole, which describes itself as an experimental theatre collective was successfully able to meet the technological challenge of portraying characters in real-time both to single players and others who chose to explore the Aickman in multiplayer mode.
Piehole curated much of the action that takes place in the game. It was charged with commissioning and co-developing a number of VR performers. According to the collective, it was able to deliver these VR acting scenes to players because of the “brilliant artists” it could draw upon from the performance communities it is at the heart of within New York City. “As well as writing and performing some of our own [VR sequences]… Piehole was responsible for the casting, motion capture and voice acting for the game’s non-player characters,” the company said in a statement. To underline the theatrical nature of the game, Piehole also said it has contributed to the writing of the game. “We used both the traditional ‘writers room’ format as well as generative improvisational practices,” Piehole said.
Samantha Gorman, one of Tender Claws’ founders, said that VR theatrical experiences offered many opportunities given that there is a lot of uncertainty for actors at the moment with so many theatres closed. “With everyone stuck at home,” she said, “the Under Presents inadvertently became a lifeline for forging meaningful human connections.” Tender Claws reckons that it has learned a great deal from the development of the Under Presents and how to incorporate theatrical performances into a freewheeling VR game. The developer is now working on a game called Tempest which, like the Under Presents, will have a limited run with live actors but can still be played without them.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. He writes extensively for Culture Geek and MuseumNext. Manuel has a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.