The tiny girl in the cloud city is shivering. Her patched dress and leggings are stiff in the snow-flecked wind that's blowing over her temporary shelter, located at the base of a floating stone bridge. Moving with the slight staccato of a stop-motion clay figurine, she looks real enough to touch, strangely convincing for a cartoon character who only exists inside a virtual reality headset. This is Allumette, the orphan girl that VR film studio Penrose hopes will win audiences' hearts at this week's Tribeca Film Festival.
Allumette, which premieres today in full, was first previewed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Even half-finished, it was one of the most artistically complex works we saw at the show, a miniature animated film that could be walked through like a diorama. Now, it's a roughly 20-minute experience loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl. As Allumette — whose name translates to "match" in French — tries to keep warm on a winter night, the story flashes back through vignettes from her life, leading to a somber conclusion that anyone who read the source material will probably foresee. Using an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headset, participants can also move around several feet of real-world space, looking inside buildings and seeing what other people in the city are doing.
Spoilers for Allumette ahead.
While virtual reality has become increasingly popular in the last few years, many of the experiences made for it have been simple and short, designed for cheap headsets that don't track body motion and use the limited processing power of mobile phones. For Penrose founder Eugene Chung, these small experiments are comparable to The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station — a minute-long, non-narrative film that engrossed audiences in 1896. Allumette, he hopes, is moving us closer to VR's version of The Great Train Robbery, a later breakthrough in narrative cinema.
"We learned a lot by having the full structured story, where you have a true beginning, middle, and end; where there's a story arc and the character goes through a certain set of experiences," says Chung. "I guess we're always wondering — does that work in VR?" Released last year, Penrose's first feature was a short VR experience called The Rose and I, inspired by The Little Prince. The Rose and I has a story of sorts, but Allumette has a much more formal three-act narrative that expands Andersen's original tale. "[The Little Match Girl] doesn't have choices being made by people. It's just the little match girl getting frozen to death, right?" says Chung. Allumette's story begins with the titular character arriving with her mother on a floating ship, but when the ship catches fire, her mother sacrifices herself to save Allumette and many of the townspeople from harm. Finally, Allumette makes her own sacrifice, giving up her last match to help an old man.
"The ideas that are in there were from some deeply personal experiences."
"The ideas that are in there were from some deeply personal experiences," says Chung. Since Sundance, he's been gratified by the response to Penrose's latest work. "One of the times we screened it recently, I remember taking the headset off and the person was in tears," he says. "You can get people to laugh in VR; you can get people to become afraid in VR. I would say fear is kind of the easiest emotion to evoke. But can you evoke an emotional response? Can you really connect to these creatures that are this big?" he asks, using two fingers to indicate Allumette's small form. "I think we get impressed by people's honest reactions, and their emotional response to it."
One of the other big changes since Sundance, though, is that high-end VR is no longer found only in trade shows, art galleries, and limited public tours. Since the Rift and Vive both launched in the last few weeks, developers have started releasing complex and substantive virtual reality games and experiences, with more on the way. Few of these can match the meticulous beauty of Allumette — its designers boast that each fluffy cloud was individually created using a VR-based art tool. But the games have proven that people can spend hours at a time in headsets, suggesting that we may already be ready for longer and more involved experiences. A gritty VR sci-fi game might not have the light artistry of an animated short from Penrose or the similarly focused Oculus Story Studio, but it can be narratively complex in its own way.
Still, there are clear moments of epiphany watching Allumette. Among other things, it features the most effective example I've seen of someone using VR's interactive elements — here, the ability to peer inside objects to see hidden details — for dramatic tension. When Allumette's ship catches fire, it's possible to see the danger long before she does by sticking your face inside the hull, undercutting an apparently innocent scene. And however it uses VR, Allumette is also a widely appealing piece of fiction, told without text or dialogue. "Our belief is that augmented and virtual reality will eventually be the next major computing platform, and right now the most obvious first step is toward the gaming demographic," says Chung. But he hopes Allumette is something "you want to show everybody, whether it's your grandmother, your child, or anyone around the world."
While Allumette's own story appears over by the end of her short, Penrose doesn't think it's done with the floating city, and Chung won't call even the version of Allumette I see finished. "We've always thought of ourselves as creating worlds, not just the stories and characters within them," he later elaborates. "The story's sort of the beginning, sort of that first step into it." At the very end of the short, participants are given their own "matchstick" in the form of a motion controller, allowing them to run their hands over the city's contours and feel vibrations in response. It's an interesting move past the visual, and a hint at how VR could change in the future — a future that nobody, at Penrose or anywhere else, can begin to predict.