Awake Episode One is a 20-minute, 9-chapter, episodic VR film by Start VR. It was published in December 2018 on Viveport and Steam for HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets. To watch and review, I used my Oculus Rift and stood to watch and interact with it.
Awake or a Waking Nightmare?
VR has been described as an empathy provoking machine. As a psychological drama and thriller, Awake Episode One tugged at my sympathy for the main character Harry and his partner Rose. They seemed to have a pretty good life with a nice home and adored each other.
The volumetric capture of their real performances made all the difference in crafting an uncanny world that they lived in. Yet, on high quality settings I did notice some wavy surfaces and grainy textures on objects and characters. Especially the skin and clothing. Furthermore, if you get closer to certain blurred objects like the storm in a tea cup and any writing the clarity improves.
Jake McDorman did an amazing job playing Harry. His interactions with Analeigh Tipton’s character Rose raised the emotional stakes. As Harry starts to draw glyphs and symbols and his attention goes towards obsession and delusion, that’s when things get interesting. It’s a dark contrast to the hope we got a glimpse of at the beginning.
Throughout, Rose is trying so hard to understand him and to go along with his obsession with the glyphs and symbols. You can’t help but feel sympathetic to her good intentions as hope transforms into helplessness. The jumps from reality to memory to dream state set up an environment that also coaxed out some fear in me. This is why I label it as part psychological thriller.
Who to Trust?
The flashback (or dream meets hallucination) that takes us into the room with the bird and the phone rings alsogave me the chills. Nicholas Hope was the mysterious voice on the other end of the call talking about perspective. It also sounded like he played the shadow man, making it even more creepy and ominous. From Harry and the viewer’s perspective, can he be trusted? Or is Harry’s mind untrustworthy?
There was another character dressed in a full body containment suit that would go to Harry at the peak of his distress and shoot him with some drug. Eerie like something out of a horror film madhouse. This makes me question whether Harry is actually a patient in a mental ward with the way the shadow man appears to take away Rose.
The episode takes place in a third and first person perspective. This is something only VR can play around with as a psychological device. When not standing in as Harry or standing next to him, the viewer appears as a light source.
Taking on different forms allowed me to interact with the glyphs. This allowed for scene changes but also the phone and suitcase as a catalyst to events. I liked that this experience allowed for that kind of participation. Way more interesting to be a part of the film than staring at a 2D box.
This isn’t just a watch and get taken on a mental rollercoaster. In small doses, your hand is controlling Harry’s fate, which seems to be fixed and destructive and at other times lost in what was and what could be. Poor Rose. Did she die? I guess we’ll know when another episode releases. It is Awake Episode One, afterall.
Life’s Ups and Downs
Switching up the POV is something this VR film did well but also hiccupped with. The ups and the downs of the couple’s relationship and his mental illness straining the relationship were clear. Harry could lose his mind at any moment and she could leave his memory and Harry’s reality in the time it takes to think another thought.
Perspective is powerful in VR and in Awake. I didn’t want to be standing so closely to Harry and Rose in the climactic scene. When Harry flickers in and out of the scene and the elusive shadow man popped out of the closet with a shadow gun, that jarred me. If I wasn’t a horror fan I wouldn’t like this at all. Which makes me think, poor Harry.
VR is a new world of possibility for film, so I understand why Awake Episode One is episodic. I do desire further character development and reliable interactions with other characters to explain why he is the way he is and a solid ending.
I’d also like to confirm where Rose went and if she actually died or was killed off by Harry’s mind. All in all, I want to have some sort of steady ground and reliable moments of clarity for Harry, though that may never be the case.