In the recently released Viveport Infinity title Afterlife, viewers will embark on the emotional odyssey of a family stricken by grief at the loss of their young son. Merging VR filmic techniques and branching interactive narrative design, Afterlife crafts a multilayered story that reveals its many complex facets based on viewer decisions. We spoke to the creators of this powerful emotional experience to find out how they brought this immersive experience to life.
Interview by Nathan Allen Ortega, Viveport Staff
For those unfamiliar, tell us a bit about yourself and the team at Signal Space Lab
Jose Aguirre, Studio Director: We started (2015) as an audio service provider for major video game studios in North America and then evolved into XR (Mid 2016). We used our experience with so many games from so many great developers and merged it with a relatively new platform (VR) on an even newer type of content (Interactive Filmmaking).
We are a team driven by curiosity, we challenge ourselves with every single project because we enjoy creating our own rules. I guess that’s what you get when you work on someone else’s project long enough, once you get the chance to work on your own vision, you want to make it unique and take the risk of exploring a new approach to interactive narratives.
Our team is based in Montreal, Canada, and we are currently sixteen team members.
What were your main sources of inspiration when creating Afterlife?
Jose: On the technical side, we wanted to offer a new way of creating story based content in live-action. Some studios are working on very interesting and cutting edge projects, a lot of them rooted in tech. We are taking a step back, still staying in 3dof but pushing on the narrative angle and proposing a new way of user interaction; one where the user interacts -with very little interruptions or visual clues other than the story itself. I wouldn’t say our tech is super complex, but the process of merging video game, interactive and film elements into one product is what makes this project very challenging and this was very seductive to us on the technical side.
Luisa Valencia, VR Director: During research, while reading a bunch of stories about families that were experiencing loss, I found this heartbreaking story about a family of five. The father was traveling and the mother had swimming class with their middle child (3 year old) while the other two kids (6 and 1) were with their nanny. When she came back from swimming lessons, she found her other two kids stabbed in their bathtub, killed by their nanny.
A few years later, the mother that had experienced this terrible tragedy did an interview remembering one time she was with her only surviving child, and observing how her child was coping with the death of her siblings. She then realized how different the two of them were dealing with the tragedy; recognizing the ability of kids to be able to live in the present moment, living and seeing life as it is, she then realized: “We all should be able to do that.”
During this time, I was also dealing with the deterioration of my father’s health, which eventually led to his passing. When I read the mother’s reflection about her daughter, I realized that that’s what I needed to hear during my own process of grief – that I needed to live and see the world as that child does.
That story inspired what was to become Afterlife. It made me want to use the amazing tools of this technology to share and convey this message to others.
Signal Space Lab’s previous works include other interactive cinematic narratives, along with family friendly AR experiences and VR experiences based on traditional game franchises. Can you speak a bit about your studio’s philosophy on storytelling and what inspires you to utilize new technology to craft engaging stories?
Luisa: We are inspired by the possibility of transmitting powerful emotions to people.
Jose: In order to do so, you need to have a team that is willing to try new things both on the technical and the narrative side. We spent a lot of time figuring out what could be the perfect marriage of technical innovation and compelling story, once we are all happy with that, we get to work.
Were the main themes/beats of the story something that was clear pretty early on in development or did they evolve over the course of production?
Luisa: The beats and the branching structure were planned before production. At the very beginning of development, it was clear for us the scale we wanted to go for, and based on this, the stories feeding each branch were evolving as the production progressed.
The performances in Afterlife are pretty intense. Did directing actors in an immersive VR narrative with lots of story permutations prove difficult in comparison to more traditional 2D linear filmmaking? What was the secret to getting such stellar performances out of the cast?
Luisa: Yes definitely, directing a 360-3D film proved way more challenging than directing in a 2D traditional format. However, for this project, I had the fortune of working alongside Alison Darcy, a fantastic theater director. We definitely complemented each other strengths on Afterlife‘s set. Thanks to her work and the dynamic she had with an incredible cast; we got wonderful performances.
The story/experience of Afterlife has a lot of branching paths, with audiences getting new bits of info as they explore the different facets to the story until a more complete picture forms. Tell us a bit about the design process that goes into crafting a satisfying and unique narrative that adapts organically to the audience’s behavior?
Luisa: For the design process, I took the traditional three act narrative structure of storytelling. I wrote the first pass of beats of the story, knowing that I wanted to tell the story from three character’s point of view towards a shared experience or tragic event. I started to write the backbone of the story inspired by the mom, and then I started branching from there. I went back to the beginning of the structure and wrote the second main ramifications, making sure that I was respecting the timings of the backbone. Finally, I repeated the process for the third time and added the visible interactive elements. We took meticulous care about continuity considering Afterlife‘s unprecedented scale.
While working on the structure of the narrative, the development and technical teams were working on researching and developing both the navigation and the decision making process to accomplish user’s interactivity as organic as possible.
Were there any development challenges that you ran into that you didn’t expect?
Jose: When you do something new, you always encounter the reality of learning from your own mistakes, this wasn’t an exception. From writing the outline of this complex narrative, to porting it for the different VR platforms, each step of the way we ran into roadblocks that we needed to overcome. But this is precisely why we love doing what we do.
As an immersive storyteller, what do you want to see change/improve in the world of VR in order to further empower you in crafting more engaging interactive narratives?
Luisa: As creators, we want to see more investors paying attention and allocating funds to explore the vast potential of interactive live-action narratives as a tool to create and as a tool to tell stories.
How long did Afterlife take to develop and how many people had their hand in things throughout?
Jose: It took almost 18 months to make, with a team of 15 people working on the project (30 including cast and crew).
What feeling/emotion do you feel encapsulates Afterlife the most?
Luisa: When Afterlife was being conceived I wanted to explore different feelings through each character but love was always present throughout the story. The feelings that came along with loss, like: guilt, remorse, and pain, were encapsulated in the story in order to provoke change in each character, and hopefully, to provoke change in the user that experiences the piece.
Any thoughts on a potential Afterlife 2? (Af2life?)
Luisa: We are definitely focused on creating new and better seamless interactive branching narratives. Afterlife 2, for the moment is not in our plans. This is a new medium, and I would rather have a chance to create happier stories. As a studio, we want to keep exploring and challenging concepts.
What’s next for Signal Space Lab?
Luisa: We want to position ourselves as a creative powerhouse, so we are always looking to try new and exciting projects. We are currently in pre-production for two new projects (own IPs), and are looking for interesting partnerships to keep pushing the boundaries of what we can do with interactive storytelling, and obviously keep growing as a studio.
Sounds like exciting things are on the way! Thanks so much for your time.
Afterlife is out now on Viveport and is available as part of your Viveport Infinity membership. Not a member? Start your free trial today and experience this and hundreds more immersive VR titles all for one monthly fee.