It’s highly likely that the last piece of virtual reality (VR) content you dived into was a videogame, whether that’s thrashing around in some rhythm-action title or fighting through hordes of enemies saving the day. Look a little deeper and there’s plenty of alternative content to enjoy, and VRFocus recommends exploring some of the excellent animated titles that are available.
Animated VR not to miss
When it comes to animation in VR most will fall into one of two categories; short films or interactive pieces. Narrative is art the heart of either of these two but the former takes a more traditional viewing approach, wrapping you in a virtual world where the story plays out. The latter, on the other hand, actively encourages your involvement.
This interactivity can range massively from simple elements to move the story like turning a page to fully-blown control where decisions will offer alternative endings. These tend to blur the lines between what’s considered a animation and an actual videogame.
So what should you be spending your hard-earned money and valuable time on? Well, VRFocus has a few suggestions…
Released only a few short days ago for Oculus Quest and Rift – a Steam version is coming – Battlescar is a 30-minute film based in New York City’s emerging punk subculture during the late 1970’s.
A glorious mix of visuals and audio, the VR short is split across three chapters following Lupe, a young Puerto Rican American teenager who leaves home and meets Debbie in a juvenile detention centre. Together they decide to form their own punk band whilst trying to navigate and survive the mean city streets.
Narrated by actress Rosario Dawson in English and rock singer/actress Jehnny Beth in French, it doesn’t pull any punches, switching between first and third-person viewpoints whilst throwing in tunes from the era by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Death and Lydia Lunch. Exploring a range of topics such as identity and mental health, Battlescar is pure punk animation, short, sharp and in your face.
From prolific animation house Baobab Studios, Baba Yaga is an interactive experience exclusive to Oculus Quest, inspired by the Eastern European legend.
Another 30-min experience, rather than simply viewing Baba Yaga you’re cast as Sacha, who alongside her younger sister Magda are the daughters of the village chief. When your mother becomes gravely ill you and your sister enter Baba Yaga’s enchanted forest to seek the cure.
Voiced by an all-star cast including Kate Winslet, Daisy Ridley, Glenn Close and Jennifer Hudson, Baba Yaga provides plenty of interactive elements along the way. Thus encouraging you back to take another peek at this wonderfully engaging experience.
Another from Baobab Studios in collaboration with 3DAR and Oculus, part one of Paper Birds arrived late 2020 for Oculus Quest.
A beautiful synergy of music and visual design, Paper Birds tells the story of young musician Toto (played by Jojo Rabbit star Archie Yates) as he searches for his lost sister.
As an Oculus Quest title Paper Birds is one of a select few on the platform which utilises the headset’s hand tracking functionality, so you don’t need the controllers to interact with this magical world. Paper Birds might only have very light interactivity in comparison to others on this list yet it still provides an enchanting experience. Plus, the second (concluding) part will arrive later in 2021.
There’s a reason ARVORE’s The Line has won numerous awards and that’s thanks to its heartwarming narrative, visual layout and interactive elements; almost like you’re playing with a train set.
Compatible with multiple headsets including Oculus Quest, Rift and HTC Vive, The Line is a love story of two miniature dolls, Pedro and Rosa, set within a scale model of 1940s São Paulo. The characters follow tracks which wind through the environment and at certain points you have to push a button or spin a lever to help the tale proceed. If you’re using an Oculus Quest you can swap to hand tracking.
Clocking in at under 20 minutes The Line is a very sweet VR title that pulls on the heart strings. It showcases how these two mediums can work so perfectly together, great for introducing newcomers to the technology.
Now back to some pure animation with Gloomy Eyes, written and directed by Fernando Maldonado and Jorge Tereso and co-written by Santiago Amigorena, published by ARTE.
Inspired by Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gloomy Eyes is a three-part poetic love story between a zombie boy and a human girl in a town devoid of sunlight. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of prime voice actors willing to work on VR projects, with Gloomy Eyes’ English version narrated by Hollywood actor Colin Farrell.
The entire short just looks stunning, being a joy to watch from start to finish. Much like The Line, thanks to the miniature worlds and characters it’s all too easy to get drawn in, peering deep into this imaginative fantasy world.
Spice and Wolf VR (1 & 2)
Time for two titles from further afield, Japanese creator Spicy Tails’ Spice and Wolf VR series. Based-on Isuna Hasekura’s original novel and brought to life thanks to crowd-funding campaigns, both of these provide a nice intro into VR anime.
Spice and Wolf VR is the story of travelling merchant Kraft Lawrence who meets a 600-year old wolf-deity named Holo on his travels. The sequel then sees them both settling down, welcoming their daughter Myuri into the world.
The main draw here is the finely detailed animation which looks stunning in VR, just be aware that it is all in Japanese with English subtitles and they’re quite expensive in comparison to other on this list. If you do love Japanese anime they’re well worth a look, plus they both have light interactive elements which add further depth.
ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos
The one title on the list which really skirts the line between animation and videogame, ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos is Japanese anime with a massive amount of replayability.
ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos is by far the grandest title on this list, a visual novel with hours and hours of content depending on how far you wish to delve. It’s kind of like watching a comic book rather than a film, so all the characters jump between frames and you can set the dialogue to autoplay or select through when you choose to. You also have the choice of English voice over if subtitles aren’t your thing.
Set 200 years from now, the Earth has been decimated by giant alien beings called Meteora with mankind now living underground. You’re part of an elite squad who pilot giant mechs called Makhia to defend what’s left of mankind. These encounters are where most of the interactivity takes place, where you can activate shields and fire railguns. These sequences tend to be where the storyline splits, revealing more of the narrative should you return. ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos is big, bold, and the most definitive VR visual novel from Japan yet.
Described by creators Transitional Forms and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) as a ‘dynamic film’, Agence is possibly the most unusual of all these here as it marries a basic story with AI to provide a piece of content with endless possibilities.
Each time you step into Agence it’ll be different, viewing a digital realm where five ‘Agents’ run around a small world. But Agence employs two thought processes for the Agents which can be switched on and off. A gameplay AI which follows certain patterns or Reinforcement Learning AI which Transitional Forms has built over years, where the Agents will interact in unknown ways.
You can also affect the world by picking the Agents up or planting a flower for them to investigate. Each run-through will only last about 5 minutes but captivating enough to keep returning and experimenting with their existence.
There are plenty of other excellent VR animated titles out there, all of which VRFocus encourages you to see.