Long Distance Caller is a collaborative virtual reality (VR) project between artist Olivié Keck and videogame designer Evan Greenwood (founder and director of Free Lives; the team behind last year’s hit Broforce).Using HTC Vive technology, the work immerses viewers in the luscious world of Keck’s drawings, allowing them to navigate and interact with their surroundings. The experience is a soft, poetic and occasionally meditative one, pulling the viewer between introspective wistfulness and light-hearted playfulness.
Long Distance Caller will receive its first public test in Johannesburg this week as part of the A MAZE. Games and Playful Media Festival. To find out more, ArtThrob sat down with Keck and Greenwood to chat about the work.
ArtThrob: How did this collaboration come about? What was it that drew you to the idea of working on a VR artwork?
Evan Greenwood: Olivié had a drawing called The Forest of Many Mothers which is an especially lush forest scene and I was curious about whether it could look good in a videogame and how to go about it. It isn’t a stylistic choice which many – if any – game designers have explored. So it was very exciting from that perspective. The VR was a push from Olivié’s side.
Olivié Keck: I definitely wanted to explore the VR thing. I had tried some in San Francisco during my recent residency there and found it be a really interesting platform. That was when I started thinking that it would be great if I could do this with my drawings. But I didn’t really know how I would do that from a technical perspective as I don’t have a background in coding or anything like that. When I saw Evan fiddling around with VR I immediately said “Whoa, what if we could do this!” The rest slowly evolved from there. For me what was exciting was the idea of being able to immerse yourself in something.
AT: Could you talk a bit about the title, Long Distance Caller? What is the significance of the public telephone (one of the objects which the immersed viewers can interact with)?
OK: Part of the mechanics of the game was to get people to move around and so we were thinking of ways to do that and to create a sense of distance and presence at the same time. A phone is an ideal object to embody that. The idea that you have an interaction with the person on the other end of the line is a simultaneous presence and absence. There’s an ambiguity and perhaps a bit of an ominous sense about it. It’s also just a nice title.
EG: One of the emotions which we wanted to convey was a sense of longing and the idea of a ‘long distance caller’ works well in that context of being far away from somewhere intimate and perhaps feeling vulnerable or lonely.
AT: What would you like people to take away from their experience of the work?
EG: VR is generally somewhere between art and videogame. We want to develop this digital world based on Olivié’s drawings in which there is a sense of trying to take one deeper and deeper into it. We’re trying to create a reactive environment that people really lose themselves in. Purely from an interactive perspective, how you interact with the world should be playful.
OK: I think there’s also an idea of ‘all is not what it seems’ in terms of where we’re trying to go with this. There is this very sort of lush, alluring environment with some tension between what you’re experiencing and what is unfolding around you. My inclination is always towards building up the narrative side but it’s not going to be a purely game-driven experience either.
EG: It’s not about high scores. It’s about exploration and space. We want to immerse people but also remind them of the world’s virtuality.AT: Olivié’s drawing style is obviously very distinctive and recognisable and the work does a great job of capturing its whimsy but also the playfulness which you mentioned. Do the visuals easily lend themselves to becoming immersive 3D environments?
EG: I was pretty certain that the visual style would translate into something interesting but I had no idea if it would work in VR because it’s a very obviously flat style. There’s not necessarily a clear sense of what is foreground and background; everything is relatively prominent. I thought that might be a problem in VR in that there were thick lines and not a lot of textures to relate the three dimensionality of it. But when you see it, you can tell that things are three dimensional and it’s quite a surreal experience.
OK: You’re using colour to give a sense of depth rather than tone and shading. We didn’t know if it would work, but it’s certainly got a very defined look about it which is not disorientating.
AT: Has working on this shifted the way you approach your drawings Olivié? Do you think of your images in spatial terms now?
OK: I started off approaching the drawings as windows into something and I wasn’t necessarily too concerned with what was happening behind each bush. Now having to think about these drawings as places which ‘exist’, I do have to think about that. Which is really exciting, I enjoy the challenge of having to think beyond what I can see from one single viewpoint.
AT: I suppose to some degree it’s a similar approach as one would have to a sculpture or installation.
OK: It definitely feels like creating this weird sculptural thing with all of these different parts to it. It’s nice to be collaborating with everyone because it’s the first time that I’ve done that. There’s been so much great input from everyone who’s been involved.
AT: How many people are collaborating on the project?
EG: Besides Olivié and myself, there’s Filip Orekhov and then Jason Sutherland (Drift Prism) doing sound. Filip is helping with some of the finer, more technical modelling. His extra art muscle has added far more detail to the work and provided a greater variety of objects; taking the world closer to the strong feeling of abundance in Olivié’s drawings. Jason Sutherland’s music compliments the visuals excellently and brings in a lot of that sense of melancholy.
OK: He’s really on the nose in terms of creating the sense of atmosphere that we wanted; it’s very textured and there’s melody but it’s also longing and tugging at your heartstrings. It’s a great hook.
AT: That’s for sure. Having previously experienced the work, when I see video footage of it now and hear even a snippet of the soundtrack, it’s enough of a sensory trigger to instantly make me nostalgic and long to return to the virtual world.
OK: That’s really great, especially that you’d want to go back! We hope that people would want to return and explore.
EG: It really does create this false sense of nostalgia. Like you’re there and you’re feeling nostalgic, but it’s the first time you’ve been there. A lot of VR underutilises the medium’s potential for immersive exploration and to present things which obviously aren’t real but which feel very real. That’s an opportunity for all kinds of games which aren’t about high scores and killing orcs. We’re trying to create ‘real’ places.
OK: And give people a real sense of memory about them. As things progress, hopefully there’s going to be more and more of a sensation of having an actual landscape to explore. If we can make it more of an individual experience so that everyone experiences it differently; that would be great.AT: So this week you’ll be exhibiting Long Distance Caller in Johannesburg as part of the official selection at A Maze. How are you feeling about bringing it out into the world for a bit?
OK: A MAZE. is a great testing ground for people’s responses but also just for us to gauge how people respond to the world. What we’ll be showing is like a short demo experience which doesn’t give too much away; it’s a bit like a trailer.
EG: It’s barely even been play tested at this point, so we’ll find out a lot about how this actually works as an experience involving real people. At the moment we’re exploring the ultimate direction that the narrative content goes, it’s still up in the air. Some of that will be decided based on what we observe this week.
AT: A MAZE. seems the ideal vehicle to test the waters; it’s quite a playful and experimental intersection of game designers and digital artists.
EG: To some extent VR itself is just exciting right now; you can be the first to do a lot of things. There’s a lot of interesting interaction and so much which hasn’t been explored conceptually yet.
OK: One thing which is very exciting about this idea which isn’t necessarily about the experience is the collaborative aspect. If we can try and get artists to engage more with game developers that would be great because I think that’s something which isn’t really happening here yet.
EG: Long Distance Caller has this great visual approach because it wasn’t developed as a videogame aesthetic, it’s something which we wouldn’t have arrived at otherwise. There’s a freshness in that space where videogame designers get to work with people that are far more visually/conceptually avant-garde.
OK: There’s a lot of cross-pollination which can be really exciting, it expands both party’s frame of reference.
A MAZE. / Johannesburg runs from –
For information about Long Distance Caller at A MAZE. please click here.