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The Abbot's Book wants to be the gothic Myst of virtual reality — can it pull it off?

The Abbot's Book wants to be the gothic Myst of virtual reality — can it pull it off?

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A VFX supervisor's 25-year-old labor of love puts environment and exploration first

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Every once in a while, you get a work of art whose backstory and future potential nearly eclipse the actual experience. Take, for example, The Abbot's Book, one of the first pieces of VR I saw at Sundance Film Festival. The Abbot's Book is a Gothic horror experience played on the HTC Vive, a brief journey through a network of sinister catacombs in the company of a taciturn monk. Did I mention it comes with an actual book?

According to creator Michael Conelly, The Abbot's Book began as a piece of fiction he wrote in 1989 — a novella about a family seduced by ancient evil. Set in 17th-century Italy, it explores the perennially potent theme of intergenerational ruin, centered on a book that tempts its readers with a horrifying kind of eternal life. In the 1990s, he began turning the story into a game, inspired by the release of Myst. ("That went well for a very short time," he says.) After the game failed to get released, Conelly went into visual effects work, but continued to pursue turning his story first into a feature film, then — in 2013 — a TV series. "Months after that, I got into the first Oculus headset, and things started to come into focus."

"I got into the first Oculus headset, and things started to come into focus."

Conelly comes out of the film world, but The Abbot's Book works best when you think of it in the tradition of exploration horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The Vive's motion tracking makes exploration feel more intimate than usual: one of the controllers appears as a torch in your hand, and you're able to do things like use it to examine the base of a moldering statue or thrust it over a precipice to see a few inches farther down. (You cannot, fortunately, drop it.) It takes some cues from established VR best practices, like letting users "walk" by pointing a controller forward and teleporting.

Even though Conelly counts interaction-light Telltale games like The Walking Dead as inspirations, he wants The Abbot's Book to rely on its compelling environment to convey the narrative. He compares being in its space, ideally, to wandering an old church — he'd like to "make a place that's beautiful enough to hold your attention, and then let the story exist on that foundation." When I asked how much of the whole project I'd seen during my five- or ten-minute demo, I heard something like "one percent;" the experience will appear in eight serialized episodes coming every six months, starting in late 2016.

Pure environmental wandering isn't an unusual idea, but it tends to be seen in experiences that are a few hours long at most, like seminal "walking game" Dear Esther. Even the non-traditional Telltale games are almost nonstop cinematic events and conversations, and Amnesia developer Frictional relies on puzzles, jump scares, and fragments of books and diaries to draw players through its worlds. Has anyone done something this big that's purely explorational? "I don't think anyone is telling a narrative" in that way, he says, so The Abbot's Tale will be the first.

The Abbot's Book

I'm not sure yet whether this confidence is warranted. The Abbot's Tale demo is a fairly simple rough cut that's treading thematically and visually familiar ground, and it seems reluctant to jump headlong into making either a responsive, interactive world or a visually extraordinary one. The strongest moment comes at the very end, at the precipice of a decaying underground civilization — but we're not taken far enough to explore it.

VR designers seem scared of getting too close to the 'game' label

Narrative-based VR designers seem scared of getting too close to the "game" label; like many people in the field, Conelly draws a reflexive distinction between video games and "story" experiences. As a result, it feels like there's a widespread tendency to underestimate and underappreciate how narratively and aesthetically ambitious flatscreen video game worlds already are. In turn, there's a lost opportunity to acknowledge and build on the best parts of them rather than insisting that interactive VR works along some parallel but unrelated track.

There's probably no finer recent work of digital Gothic art, for example, than the city of Yharnam from Bloodborne — a detailed and mazelike realm of nightmare cliffs, cursed churches, and burning cities. Last year, writer Tauriq Moosa criticized the game for letting players interact with Yharnam only by killing, instead of looking for deeper forms of engagement. "VR Bloodborne without fighting" (or even "VR Amnesia with less hiding") is a hugely compelling pitch, but it requires deconstructing the design choices that make their virtual worlds beautiful and compelling — something I don't necessarily see happening yet.

The greatest strength of The Abbot's Book is the book itself, which was published several years ago, and is an enjoyable and evocative piece of horror in its own right. It has the feel of some old role-playing game manual, combining a novella with hand-drawn illustrations from various artists, character profiles, and alternate story ideas that seem to be making their way into the VR experience. So while I'm unsure on the future of The Abbot's Book, Conelly has at the very least made a compelling case for its place in interactive horror.