Penrose Studios set a new standard for VR storytelling last year with Arden's Wake, a stunning short that introduced us to Meena, a young girl living in a post-apocalyptic, waterlogged world. But that was just the prologue. At the Tribeca Film Festival, the studio is back with the next chapter, Tide's Fall. And it's bringing some serious star power: Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider) has taken on the voice of Meena, and she's also serving as an executive producer. Just like in Ex Machina, Vikander instantly makes the character someone you can't help but connect with.
The 30-minute film starts deep in the ocean, so far down you can't even see the surface. The only source of light is a lamp that slowly drifts towards you, illuminating two figures. One is a woman, the other a child, both are falling lifelessly towards the bottom. If I were watching on a TV, it would be a sad, but beautiful scene. In VR though, I felt compelled to reach out and save them. Instead, help comes in the form of a man. He's a burly fellow and a powerful swimmer -- so it's all the more heartbreaking when he struggles to save them both. In the end, he has to leave the woman behind, and we're left watching her sink out of sight. Welcome to Arden's Wake.
As the studio's film Allumette proved, Penrose isn't afraid to pull heartstrings. But what really sells its stories are a combination of fluid character animation, VR innovation and strong voice acting. We've seen VR experiences with notable actors attached, like Dear Angelica, which featured Geena Davis and Mae Whitman. But Arden's Wake is notable for having an immensely talented Oscar winner behind its lead character. Vikander plays Meena as an innocent and lonely young woman, one who was raised in a tiny building floating atop an endless ocean. She's still dealing with the loss of her mother, and her father is her only companion.
"This project is unlike anything I've ever done before, and I think virtual and augmented reality are going to be big in Hollywood, as well as entertainment more broadly," Vikander said in a statement. "Meena's character has a special spark, and I was immediately drawn to her when I experienced her in VR. The movie daringly brings up difficult situations while also allowing viewers to get quite close to the characters in such an immersive and emotional experience."
In Tide's Fall, Meena is forced to grow up and confront profound issues with her family. We learn about the events that led to the dramatic opening sequence, and why her father -- up until that point a gruff-yet-caring figure -- might hold some responsibility. By the end of the episode, Meena is more adventurer than cloistered child, something you can tell from Vikander's performance alone. It's clear that Penrose has also matured as a storytelling team; there's even more detail around models and their facial expressions, which makes them seem more like Pixar characters.
You experience Arden's Wake as a passive observer. There's no controller interaction at all. Still, the film takes advantage of VR by letting you walk around and observe the action from any angle. When Meena and her father are in their adorable island home, you can peer inside and check out their furniture and family photos. When one of them goes outside, you could either take a step back to view the whole scene, or glimpse through a window while staying in the house. And if you don't feel like walking around, the film will also automatically adjust for a seated experience.
According to Eugene Chung, CEO and founder of Penrose (and also the writer and director of Tide's Fall), the studio has been steadily refining Arden's Wake since its debut last year. It's also more reliant on Maestro, Penrose's custom VR collaboration tool, for all of its projects. Fable Studio, another VR outfit filled with members of Oculus's Story Studio, has also committed to making its films in virtual reality. That's a trend we'll likely see from others working in this new medium. After all, it's hard to see and feel the impact of VR character and environmental changes if you're just staring at a flat 2D monitor.
While Penrose planned to make Arden's Wake available on all VR platforms last year, it ended up holding off its release. Chung says it'll take a while to prepare the experience for consumers, but he might have more news later this year. I hope so, because Arden's Wake deserves a wider audience than the film festival crowd.