“The Invisible Hours” signals its theatrical roots at the start by asking players to pull a mechanical lever on a machine that dispenses tickets and then inserting one into a slot. Doing so grants access to a red-carpeted space which leads to box seats above a stage. Players move from place to place using a teleport method. With my Oculus Touch controller this necessitated me aiming at the spot where I wished to move to and then nudging the thumbstick to adjust the direction that I wished to face. This form of movement, which is used in a number of VR games, usually feels clunky to me. But because players assume the role of a spectral presence in this work, as opposed to an embodied character, I didn’t mind the artificiality of the transport system as much.
After the curtain on the stage rises, a sign comes into view. “Welcome” it says. “This is not a game. This is not a movie. This is a piece of immersive theatre with many tangled threads…. Remember: ‘Truth is a matter of perspective.’” What follows is a manor house whodunit in which a farfetched setup initially put me in mind of fan fiction but whose execution I found surprisingly engaging. (Watching, for example, two characters bond over their spontaneous reenactment of a scene from “Romeo and Juliet” was, for me, pure catnip.)
On a rain-swept evening, a boat drops a bearded man off on a pier. If you decide to tag along with him, instead of charting your own course through the surrounding area, you’ll watch as he makes his way up a staircase alongside a cliff. At the end of the stairs, he passes through a small archway that’s crowned with the initials “N.T.” Along his immediate path stands a gazebo and behind that a mansion. The man halts when he comes across a woman crying beneath the gazebo. Assuming that she must be acquainted with the owner of the estate, he bids her to withdraw from the foul weather into the comfort of Nikola Tesla’s home. As they continue chatting, they introduce themselves to each other as Flora White and Gustav.
When Flora asks Gustav if he knows Tesla, he denies it. This leads her to despair that he won’t be able to exercise any influence over the great scientist. She admits that she has been barred from the house but refuses to go into detail after Gustav asks why. With a gallant air, Gustav speculates that there must be some misunderstanding. Soon, the two make their way to the mansion where they find the door ajar and Tesla on the floor in a pool of his own blood.
As Gustav kneels beside the body, a man enters the foyer where he welcomes “Detective Gustav.” Gesturing to the dead body on the floor Gustav asks the man what happened. After he fails to indicate that he understands what’s going on, Gustav asks, “Are you blind?” The man affirms, “since birth.” He then introduces himself as Oliver Swan, Tesla’s man servant. Gustav asks Swan to summon the other inhabitants of the house which he does with the strike of a gong. Soon there appears Thomas Edison, Sarah Bernhardt, and a young man who introduces himself as Augustus Vanderberg. Gustav recognizes that he is the son of a famous businessman.
Spectators are free to follow Gustav’s investigation or any of the other characters’ routines in and around the house. Though invisible, I came to feel the layout of the space in an acute way because I knew I was probably missing something going on elsewhere in the house. Yes, friends, FOMO has been pressed into the service of game design.
Conveniently, time can be paused, rewound and fast forwarded. Because events happen simultaneously, and certain events trigger the end of an act, and the beginning of another, judicial use of the time mechanic is encouraged. What gives “The Invisible Hours” its charm is how well it lures players into following a character thread which is cast in another light when one shadows other characters. (“Tacoma,” the domesticated space adventure, likewise unfolded around simultaneous events. Comparatively speaking, however, I found the narrative strands that make up “The Invisible Hours” more fun to follow because it contained more ah-ha! moments.)
If you’re not put off by the whimsicality of its setup or its passive voyeurism, you may find that “The Invisible Hours” makes a good case for why interactive, narrative-driven experiences can thrive in a VR environment. There is something elementally delightful about roaming around an all-encompassing box of stories.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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