Elijah Wood Explains His Move Into VR with Psychological Thriller 'Transference'
by, Patrick Shanley - The Hollywood Reporter
The star's production company, SpectreVision, has teamed up with Ubisoft to produce a game that's left players "unsettled, uncomfortable and walking away from it still thinking about what they experienced."
Teaming up with French video game studio Ubisoft, Wood's production company SpectreVision (which he co-founded in 2010 as The Woodshed before rebranding to its current title in 2013) has finished its first foray into VR gaming with Transference, a psychological thriller that puts players into the uploaded memory data of a traumatized mental patient. The game is due to be released in spring of 2018 on PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, as well as on the Xbox One family of devices, including and Windows PC.
While a number of other Hollywood stars have ventured into the realm of gaming, Wood is unique in that he is producing Transference, not providing his services as a voice actor (though he has done so in the past in games such as Tim Schafer's Broken Age in 2014).
SpectreVision has exclusively produced horror and genre films since its inception, and while Transference's creepy atmosphere matches the company's pedigree, it is a entirely different experience crafting a VR game than producing a narrative film.
Heat Vision caught up with Wood to discuss his new collaborative project, his thoughts on VR and the possibility of producing more games in the future.
First off, the trailer and demo for this game are creepy as hell.
The demo is very much a teaser. It's really a prelude. You are experiencing the uploaded memory data of a traumatized individual used for research purposes. That's really all the information you're given. You're not pointed in any specific direction; you really enter into this without any information beyond that, and it kind of unfolds as you explore the environment of the game.
That seems to up the creepiness factor of the game.
There's obviously a certain degree of mystery around it and certainly mystery as to what the full game will be, but I think what's inherent in that is trying to preserve one's experience of discovery. A great deal of what the actual full game will be is going to rely on the player's sense of discovery without being given too much information as to what they're going to experience. A lot of the narrative elements will be discovered rather than you being pointed in a specific direction, and I think that's why it's not easy for us to speak to the full game, primarily to preserve that sense of being thrust into that experience and not knowing what is really going on.
SpectreVision is known for producing films. What inspired the move into gaming?
We'd been curious about VR for a bit. Certainly over the last number of years VR has grown relatively quickly and the technology has gotten so much better and myself and Kyle McCulough (vp of digital, social and gaming for SpectreVision), he and I grew up with games, so any new addition to that realm, we are immediately curious and fascinated. Coming from a company that primarily focuses on genre and horror, VR really lends itself to that medium, to that idea of thrusting people into a space and eliciting emotional responses. We met the team at Fun House (Ubisoft's VR division) at E3 a couple years ago, and we got to talking about what we were interested in in regards to the medium of VR. They invited us out to Montreal to meet everyone on their team and just get a tour of Ubisoft, and out of that came an idea for a collaboration. It was really organic. Then we went back on another trip loaded with ideas, both fragments of ideas and more fully formed ideas, and we sort of did a two-day brainstorming session. Out of that came what effectively is the bones of what Transference has become, and we committed to working together. The idea of our experience making narrative features and their experience in the video game world and trying to marry those two things.
Courtesy of Ubisoft
The trailer boasts that the game lets you "feel like you're in a movie." How was the process of making this game different or similar to that of producing a narrative film?
Specifically in VR it's different. There are plenty of games over the last 10 years that tell great narrative stories within the context of video games. [In] video games, by and large, you are on a track to a certain degree. If it's not an open-world where you have a million decisions at your disposal, there is a story, and games have become more cinematic and have leaned on the idea of cinema more and more. The trouble with VR is that narratively you can't point people in certain directions as much because it's experiential in nature. When you put a headset on you are effectively in that world and you have free will to walk around the space of that world. The challenge there, narratively, is you can't choose the shots. There's no editing in VR, so it brings up really interesting narrative challenges and that's largely been very exciting for us because the conventional choices you'd make about a narrative, you kind of can't employ a lot of the same structure. The structure has to be relatively open, so there has to be a sense of discovery. It's through that discovery that a narrative is found and discovered throughout the process. We (SpectreVision) approach it with our experience and understanding of narrative and [Ubisoft] approach it from their understanding of games. The amount of challenge that we have sort of posed on each other has been really incredible to where they will give us ideas that we sort of push back against. It's really two different worlds coming together with different headspaces and challenging each other's conventions.
There have been a number of Hollywood stars who have started doing work in video games, but most are voicing characters in big AAA franchises. Your voice credits are for much smaller, indie games (Broken Age) and now you're on the development side of making games. What got you interested in being on the more technical side of development?
I don't think I've ever thought or had aspirations to make a video game. (Laughs.) I was quite happy being a player and being a great fan of people's work. The way in for us was really VR as a storytelling medium. From our perspective, it wasn't even really so much the gaming side but rather various VR experiences that we have had that were filmed and in the horror space. We were intrigued by VR because of how experiential it is and how that lends itself to horror and genre, naturally. It was kind of through that and ultimately this collaboration with Ubisoft that initially started as us thinking that we would craft a number of stand-alone experiences that then we discovered that there was actually a much broader, full game that we could craft together. It was never my aspiration, but it's such a dream come true for us. We've been gamers all our lives, so to actually work with Ubisoft, a company that we've loved and we've played many of their games, to be collaborating with them is a dream come true.
How far can you push the boundaries of horror in VR games? Is that something you take into consideration?
I think Transference is not specifically a horror game. I think it's a psychological thriller, if I were to clarify it very specifically. What we were very heartened by were the reactions out of people at E3 who played the demo were exactly the reactions we wanted to elicit. They described feeling unsettled, uncomfortable, walking away from it and still thinking about what they experienced. That it had an emotional resonance and a psychological resonance over time. We were f'ing thrilled that that came through because that's ultimately what I think we want to craft within the context of the whole game. That it not so much terrified people or horrified people, but that it leaves them with a sense of discomfort and being slightly unsettled, but also on an emotional level. At the heart of the story, I can't describe because we're ultimately leaving that for the release of the game, but our challenge is to include and infuse as much emotion as possible, and can that be achieved within the context of a narrative that is open for a sense of discovery. Can there be an emotional resonance and can there be a connection to the characters that you ultimately encounter within the context of the game and the story that you discover? Those are things that we are most excited about.
Is this something you'd want to do again? Should we be on the look out for more games from you and SpectreVision in the future?
Yeah, I think so. I think it's opened our brains to game development. We've been challenged a great deal by the team [at Fun House], and I believe they've been challenged by us in the best way. Out of that has sprung new ideas, so I feel like there's room for the potentiality of exploring this further. I think any time you delve into a world that's not your own, you learn it and you grow within the context of that world. It naturally springs forth new ideas, and with that better understanding, ways to apply some old ideas to that medium. I think it's definitely something that intrigues us now, and I think it might be something that we explore further if there are ideas that we feel are worth exploring.