When I saw the entry for Hue on Sundance’s virtual reality programming sheet, my first thought was “An interactive story about making human connections with a fictional character sounds cool and sophisticated.” My second thought was “This guy in the concept art looks really emo.”
Turns out I was sort of right on the first count, and spot-on-correct on the second.
Lightly interactive motion-controlled virtual reality narrative.
What’s it about?
“Hue” is a young writer whose loss of interest in life manifests as a literal lack of color in the world. By nudging and directing him with an Oculus Touch controller, a participant can help him move through a series of vignettes that help him rediscover joy.
Okay, what’s it REALLY about?
A romantic, aestheticized version of anhedonia, which is cured by remembering moments of past happiness with the loving support of those around you, including a giant floating hand that keeps poking you for no reason.
But is it good?
Hue has its art style figured out in a way that many VR experiences don’t. I couldn’t stop leaning in to catch tiny details in its dreamy dollhouse-like sets, and Hue himself is cartoonish enough to skirt the uncanny valley but human enough that you can take him seriously in a semi-realistic narrative.
The New Frontier description, which suggests that you can either be kind or cruel to Hue, and then watch him react, isn’t quite accurate. Instead, there are specific ways to help him, like grabbing his arm and tugging him over to a window. At one point you have to push him gently, but co-creator Nicole McDonald likens it to giving someone a nudge out of a bad emotional situation. She says she tried to minimize the negative ways you could interact with Hue — like, say, constantly prodding him to get a rise out of him. “You wouldn’t do that with a person, right?” she says.
I think that’s the right call here, because interactive characters almost never feel truly alive right now, nor should they always need to. In narrative-heavy interactive works, the ability to be a jerk often feels like a pro forma concession to user agency that just short-circuits the experience.
Figuring out exactly what Hue’s creators want you to do, though, is mostly trial and error. The experimentation makes situations that are supposed to be serious feel weirdly comical — at one point I knew I was supposed to cheer Hue up but wasn’t sure how, so I just kept swiping my hand through various parts of his body, hoping for any kind of reaction. I don’t agree with people who say video games can’t do pathos, but I’m pretty sure this is exactly what they’re talking about.
My bigger issue is that Hue seems like it’s simply skating over the surface of something deep and dangerous. Depression is an overwhelming experience that doesn’t usually feel clean and delicate and beautiful, at least not for anyone I’ve ever known. It might appear as blunt apathy or violent self-hatred or soul-scouring despair, but none of that comes through in a character drifting around an airy and immaculate apartment reading inspirational letters from an old professor.
I don’t mean to be glib here — people with giant apartments and caring mentors can feel as awful as anyone else, and not every piece of art needs to be rendered in gritty realism. And the fact that I feel moved enough to criticize this piece shows how far virtual reality art has come in the past few years. Hue’s character just comes too close to a treacly, unintentional parody of modern-day Byrons who pour out their angst on typewriters in coffee shops.
What emotions are involved here?
Friendly sympathy, plus that guilty feeling you get when you’re seriously engaging with a story but also worried you might start laughing a little.
How can I actually see it?
This is actually just the first chapter of Hue, which is eventually supposed to be an hour long. It could show up at some more film festivals if development continues, in which case I could also see it coming to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive within a year.