When Netflix debuted Black Mirror: Bandersnatch late last year, it put a spotlight on interactive storytelling outside the traditional gaming industry. Bandersnatch’s “choose your own adventure” format is one method of telling these interactive stories. For another flavor, you could try Syfy’s Eleven Eleven: a virtual and augmented reality project that premiered at SXSW this week and will get a release in May.
Eleven Eleven is a series of six interlocking stories set during the last 11 minutes and 11 seconds of life on a planet called Kairos Linea, which is about to be bombed into oblivion while its corporate overlords escape to a space station. Each story follows a different resident of a small spaceport: there’s the cyborg bartender Xi, the shape-shifting robot Viola, and the cold-blooded corporate leader Ava, among others. And as the viewer, you can move like a ghost through the entire city — exploring the 3D environment, following individual characters, and rewinding or fast-forwarding the action to figure out how they all connect.
This isn’t a new idea — it’s essentially the central mechanic of Tacoma, the 2017 exploration game from Gone Home studio Fullbright. Tacoma was more traditionally game-like than Eleven Eleven: instead of simply being an invisible observer, you’re an investigator piecing together a disaster on a space station. And its narrative was more complex, reeling off scenes from an extended timeline as players move through the station. But both offer the delightful experience of piecing together stories by putting yourself in the right place at the right time.
I didn’t get to play all of Eleven Eleven, which supposedly takes around 90 minutes to fully explore. I watched the final fates of a few characters, including Xi and Ava, and patched together pieces of other stories — mostly by starting one timeline, watching until my chosen character met somebody else, and then rewinding to see what that character had done before the meeting.
The experience would probably work fine on a flat screen, not just a headset. But Eleven Eleven draws some interesting ideas specifically from VR cinema like Arden’s Wake. In addition to walking or teleporting around the city like a video game level, players can zoom out to see a wider section of the environment or scale the whole stage to the size of a large diorama.
This is a helpful way to catch where one character connects to another, or to follow somebody when they beam themselves to a different location, which happens with some frequency. Exploring the city is supposed to turn up some Easter eggs outside the main storylines, although I didn’t find any. But the ability isn’t just a useful mechanic — it lets you visualize the six stories as a clockwork gestalt, tying them to physical space in a way that feels different from just watching a film with several subplots.
Unfortunately, Eleven Eleven’s generic visual style isn’t nearly as compelling as its premise or mechanics. It’s just realistic enough to seem uncanny and cheap, which makes the whole experience easy to dismiss as a throwaway gimmick. The look doesn’t match characters’ over-the-top fashions and melodramatic voice acting, either — when your story includes a femme fatale android in a skimpy wraparound leotard, you’d better lean into the stylized weirdness.
Eleven Eleven is being released in slightly different versions for tethered VR, mobile VR, and mobile AR. It will launch on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR with all the features described above. A version with around 70 minutes of content, and without the ability to explore the world independently, will launch on Oculus Go and Samsung Gear VR. A 70-minute version will also launch for iPhones and the iPad Pro. In some European markets, SyFy will release it in partnership with TV network Sky.
I’m not sure how well the whole experience will translate to augmented reality. Part of Eleven Eleven’s fun on tethered VR is its sense of full-body immersion and its seamlessness. Dedicated VR controllers make rewinding and fast-forwarding precise and convenient, and the headset gives you some freedom to walk around a scene without hitting buttons. (A gaming controller or mouse and keyboard might also do the job pretty well, since they worked just fine for Tacoma.) Phone and tablet-based AR, meanwhile, still requires a lot of finicky tapping.
Still, it’s great to see this model of interactive fiction, inspired partly by popular immersive theater projects like Sleep No More, move toward becoming its own genre. Eleven Eleven has some major flaws, primarily with its art design. But based on my experience, it’s a genuinely fun adventure story that places its characters on different sides of an epic conflict. Like Tacoma, Eleven Eleven requires people to actively seek out and interact with linear narratives, but it doesn’t rely on making players feel like they control the story itself. Of course, I’ve only seen it about three times — so I can’t make a final judgment.
Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that Eleven Eleven was distributed only through Sky’s VR app.