Midway through Delusion Lies Within, the virtual reality adaptation of Delusion: Interactive Theatre's 2014 immersive play of the same title, there is a remarkable scene in which the camera tracks relentlessly over a dinner table, placing the viewer - that is, you - in the middle of the assembled "guests." These are life-sized wooden marionettes except for one unfortunate victim, wrists encircled by tendrils of ectoplasm to create a human marionette. Try as you might to avert your eyes, there is no escape from the horror you see in every direction - it is surrounding you on all sides, and there is no way out.
What's great about the scene is that it fully exploits the 360-degree possibilities of virtual reality, immersing viewers in a world that seems to exist all around them. Technically, most if not all VR does this, but too often, items of visual interest are positioned within a range of 180 degrees; looking behind reveals nothing significant and may in fact result in your missing something you should have been watching. In effect, despite the purported freedom to look left, right, center, and back, there is a de facto foward view that dominates. To some extent, this is necessary - part of the craftsmanship involved in VR attractions lies in subtly directing viewer attention in the right direction. However, it is nice to see a major set piece designed to make you feel - however uncomfortably - as if you are in the center of the surrounding action.
As for the rest of Delusion Lies Within, well...
Frankly, we found ourselves thinking frequently of "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone," one of Sherlock Holmes' lesser tales, which Arthur Conan Doyle adapted from his one-act play of the same title. The story's key moment occurs when a pair of crooks do something incriminating, and the famous detective nabs them by unexpectedly appearing in place of a statue in his likeness that has been sitting silently to the side of the scene. On stage, the switch from statue to actor must have been an amazing "how did they do that right under my nose?" moment; on paper, it has no impact at all.
The VR version of Delusion Lies Within suffers from a similar problem. Scenes that thrilled in a live setting fall flat in the virtual world because, no matter how impressive the visuals, the amazing impact of seeing a figurative rabbit pulled out of a hat right before your eyes is missing. To cite one example (spoiler if you have yet to see the show), a particularly memorable highlight of the live play took place in a room with a fireplace: after a few moments of plot action, just when it seemed like time for the scene to end, a monster abruptly emerged from the fireplace, like a piece of living ash embedded with glowing embers. Not only was this a brilliant piece of costuming; it was a major shock because, for the preceding moments, everyone in the room had been completely unaware of the creature's presence, even while walking past the fireplace or leaning against the mantle.
The resulting shock was incredible - a knockout punch that fails to land in the virtual world, because we are not in the room with the creature, walking within inches of its reach while remaining oblivious to its presence. To make matters worse, when the monster emerges, it's a computer-generated effect - not exactly terrible but no match for the live actor in costume.
This scene stands as an apt synecdoche for the virtual version of Delusion Lies Within. Although the VR experience mimics the immersive aspect of the play, the interactive sensory experience is missing. Instead of being a character in the story, the viewer remains a viewer - passively watching a pair of characters who take the role the audience played in the theatrical version. Acting as audience surrogates, these characters have little to recommend them, and the actors can do little to enliven roles that consist of getting into predicaments that were exciting when they were happening to you the viewer, not to someone you are watching.
Additionally, for all the 360-degree virtual experience, Delusion Lies Within feels oddly stage-bound - rather like a throwback to early cinema, which mimicked the stage by filming scenes as if through a proscenium arch. An early dialogue scene (the main characters encounter a threatening woman after breaking into a mysterious in search of a reclusive fantasy author) runs in a long static take like a filmed stage play instead of using any of the available cinematic tools. The scene worked when you were trapped in the room with the volatile character; lacking the live immediacy, the filmed version needs some new ingredient in order to work in the VR medium.
Running only thirty-six minutes, Delusion Lies Within stops midway through the play's story line. It is billed as season one of a "cinematic VR series." Hopefully, future installments will exploit the VR medium as well as the dinner table scene here.
Delusion Lies Within (VR Version) Rating
Despite some impressive visuals, the VR version of Delusion Lies Within fully exploits the virtual reality medium only in one one jaw-dropping highlight. The rest feels too much like the VR version of a filmed stage play: the headset goggles and earphones immerse viewers in the story’s creepy world, but the interactive element of Delusion: Interactive Theatre is sorely missing.
Delusion Lies Within concludes its run at Dragon and the Meeple on Sunday, November 3. The Virtual Reality show starts at half-hour intervals from 7:30pm to 10pm. The address is 3742 S. Flower Street in Los Angeles. Get tix here.