Venice VR Expanded 2020 had a superb selection of immersive content from 360-degree films to interactive experiences. There were several standout titles which touched on multiple topics and crossed over genres. If you didn’t manage to get a chance to see any or all of them then one of VRFocus’ favourites is now available to rewatch as many times as you like, a short interactive piece called Agence.
Created by Transitional Forms and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), Agence is described as a ‘dynamic film’, one where there are endless possibilities all depending on whether the viewer decides to take part. That description is entirely apt as Agence is both film and videogame, yet at the same time neither of those two. For a piece of content that’s only around five minutes in length you’ll find yourself inside this simulation for far longer just to see what happens.
You are a visitor in this digital realm, peering down on a world inhabited by five Agents who happily run around none the wiser. But your presence changes things – and can continually change them – as you can alter not only their environment but also their minds. That’s because Transitional Forms gives you the option to swap the Agents AI. The standard ‘Gameplay AI’ will see them interact in certain patterns with their various states indicated via facial features or symbols such as question marks above their heads. Where Agence gets interesting is with the Reinforcement Learning AI.
The development team has trained the five brains with positive and negative rewards millions of times, adding layers to slowly make them smarter. These brains can then be individually switched on or off, so you can simply have just one on or all of them if you so wish. This in turn affects how the film will play out and what the outcome will be. Because there is an outcome, both good and bad.
Much like the training of those AI brains, Agence is about repetition, making slight alterations to see what will or won’t happen. To begin with, it’s just fascinating to watch these three-legged creatures wander around and see how they interact, before doing anything yourself. Delving in each time always offered something new, sometimes they’d seemingly dance around each other; another would see the environment turn hostile, with one getting angry and head butting or kicking any other Agent which came too close.
Of course with a god-like overview of this simulation the option is there to be either benevolent or malevolent. You can pick the little creatures up and throw them into the gaping void below. Should they fall off you can save their life or watch them disappear into the abyss. Agence challenges each viewer to see how they would respond to this type of control, although after a few runs through it wasn’t too long before kindness was thrown out the window – all in the name of learning you understand.
If you manage to hold off killing them all then there’s always the option to ‘interfere’ (as Transitional Forms calls it) and place a flower on the planet. This really starts to spice up the experience, the Agents will either investigate further or hesitantly stay away. Multiples can be introduced but it’s with this introduction that Agence can pivot between endings, if the Agents nurture the plant then it’ll thrive whilst a lack of interest will see the planet wither. You can only watch and see what your previous decisions will produce.
Virtual beings have appeared in VR before but Agence is the first to offer an infinite array of reactions to your involvement which will only keep changing. The Agent brains are constantly in training so future updates to the film will see these behaviours change. Agence is a peek at what the future of interactive filmmaking could be, where an adventure into the unknown is truly into the digital void.