People are fascinated by true-crime stories because they seem so far removed from their everyday lives. Head over to a streaming service like Netflix and you’ll find loads of documentaries in this genre, from the very dark Evil Genius to Long Shot which highlights a miscarriage of justice. This type of content really hasn’t been seen before in virtual reality (VR) due to the complexities of making it successfully work yet that hasn’t stopped the creators of Once Upon a Time in Peekskill, a rather unique piece of immersive storytelling.
Created by film-maker Ramon Hamilton, Once Upon a Time in Peekskill is a live-action theatrical production based on the story of 16-year-old, Jeffrey Deskovic, who was wrongfully convicted in the early 90s for the rape and murder of his classmate, Angela Correa. Sentenced to life in prison Deskovic served 16 years before he was exonerated and released in 2006.
Like many of the true-crime series mentioned, Once Upon a Time in Peekskill is going to be a multipart production with this initial release dealing with the early stage of the investigation, introducing Deskovic, the police handling the case and others.
But Once Upon a Time in Peekskill is no 360-degree film you watch and then be done with it. Firstly it’s entirely shot in 180-degrees, so while you do have a small degree of visual freedom to look around – and you’re encouraged to at certain points – look behind you and you’re presented with a black wall. This obviously does have its pros and cons. From a technical standpoint 180° filmmaking is far easier to shoot and edit, there’s no need to worry about stitching multiple images plus you can stand behind the camera rather than hiding out the shot somewhere.
On the flip side, 180° always feels rather constrained within a VR headset. If you’re well-acquainted with the technology then you’re used to the encompassing visual freedom it provides, turning your head away from a 180° scene does break that immersive quality. However, it does then force the viewer to watch the scene rather than becoming sidetracked elsewhere, and in the interview sequences especially you do get a sense of being a silent third officer.
What Once Upon a Time in Peekskill accomplishes, in particular, is getting you involved in the whole process, rather than purely being a lay TV viewer being fed information. While you already know the outcome the VR experience gives you time to digest and control what’s going on at will. Hamilton has created a two-step process for this, where you first view the scene before going back to interact with it directly.
Just like you can do with any digital TV or film content if you wish there’s the option to fast forward or rewind using Oculus Touch’s triggers. As each scene isn’t massively long there was generally little need to use the feature but it’s handy just in case. Once the scene is over you’re given the option to progress and keep watching or go back and examine the location, this time without the actors.
This is Once Upon a Time in Peekskill’s party trick. Now you can pick up and look at the particular objects in the scene, the detective’s notes or a tablet with the crime scene photos on. It’s elements like the tablet which solidify the experience as something more than just a mere TV show. Here you can spend as little or as long as you like flicking through the images or reading the officers impressions of Jeff. It is worth pointing out that you don’t have any direct interaction with the content – no ghostly hands or anything – as you’ll get an audio cue to activate said item.
The interactive functionality is basic in comparison to a lot of VR content but this is supposed to be a film after all. As for other elements like the acting, VRFocus isn’t exactly a film critic site. It was decent enough although the good cop/bad cop dynamic may need a little work.
For its initial outing Once Upon a Time in Peekskill did an admirable job of tackling such an emotional and difficult story whilst pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved when fusing VR and film. Offering around 30 minutes of content – depending on how long you examine items – the duration is similar to a TV episode, so hopefully, they’ll be released in regular intervals to retain interest. You’ll probably come away with a desire to binge-watch something in the meantime.