Contrapasso is a journey into the psyche of a person who is trying to get over the hold mass
media, personified in the story as an omnipotent father-figure, has on us on an individual and
a societal level. The VR eperience explores issues of self image and deification of media artefacts and how our experiences are contextualized through them.
What is the story?
The story is about overcoming an all-consuming father figure, with a slight bit of help from
a nurturing mother-figure guide. This template is seen in every mythology. You have
the story of Zeus being protected from Chronos by his mother, Rhea or grand-
mother Gaia depending on the source. In Hindu mythology, you have a similar story about
Krishna. However, overcoming the father - by essentially recreating Death-of-God - is a
traumatic experience. Hence, the story is not just about overcoming media, but also the grief
associated with it. The journey itself is structured according to the stages of grief and in
this, we have taken inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. The repeated punishment that the user keeps finding themselves in, is the opposite of what the user is continuously feeding
themselves over the media.
We have to put together a story that is not only coherent and tight but also conveys the philosophical point of my thesis. The attempt would be a fine balancing act.
While we are working on this experience, Siyuan and I faced a lot of issues with 3D models. Neither of us can model and we don't have any money to pay a modeller or pay for a great variety of models. While there are a lot of models available online, when it comes to creating a cohesive style, it's a tall order. This problem is compounded when we have to create or download a character model. We can use motion capture for animation, however uncanny valley in appearance and imperfect motion is a massive problem. This is even truer because we were hoping to have dialogues.
We came up with a solution to deal with this in three ways.
First was to play with light. We plan to use shadows and dark spaces to our advantage.
Second, in case we were using second-rate free 3D models, we would play up the fakeness to emphasize the artificial and plastic nature of the world. This, of course, means the story has to accommodate for this.
Third and the biggest problem was character models. There simply weren't any good character models or animation that we could access. Our solution was to dispense with 3D character models altogether. Instead, we would shoot everything as a video. How does this work in a 3D VR experience? This is how:
We put everything on a TV. Or a great many tellies. Now we have to adjust the story to account for this.
Since we are using a lot of harsh lighting and darkness to emphasize and de-emphasize visuals, the story is not going to be a happy one.
If we are going to draw attention to the fakeness of the models, the story has to be about the artificiality of the world.
Now, because our characters are real people speaking through a TV, everything falls into place. The story puts mass media in the role of the father-figure and villain.
Given the importance of choice as a means of expressing the subject position of the Other, I have come up with a flow chart for the story.
This flow is the result of a lot of trial and errors on paper and is still subject to change from when we test the game on users. This draft flow incorporates elements of choice that are essential for forcing a confrontation with the Real. So I have for the moment introduced a bunch of false choices, each of which dangles a carrot but only ends up punishing the user in-game.
Bargaining is the centrepiece of the story with all the other stages built around it. The entire experience is a long process of negotiation with the father figure, who keeps presenting the user with false choices. As the story progresses and the user is pushing back against the father figure, you can see the figure presenting a less and less filtered version of the power dynamics between the user and itself.
The room has an aesthetic theme based on the 50s - 60s, with floral wallpaper etc. It was meant to evoke nostalgia. However, the focus through lighting was purely on the TV. The rest of the room was primarily hidden or only partially visible in the dark.
This is meant to be a grim view, where all the books in the room are kept in the dark and the only light is shining on the TV.
The father figure speaks through TV and would be a mixture of Max Headroom and Shaun of the Dead.
This bit is something that we have already tested to an extent in a group of people. It has three levels which the user is brought to depending on the choices that they have made. However, given the story that is developing we will probably make a few changes, such as adding a mirror for each of the level.
As you can see, the quality of the level goes down as you go up. The idea is that the veil is kind of dropping from in front of your eyes.
This is the point where we are kind of embracing the plastic look of the free 3D models available online. The models in the first level look squeaky clean - as they are lacking texture - and give off a strong sense of artificiality. This is well, since we want to show that though everything looks nice and clean, it's all fake.
To make a level that is poetically associated with the idea of depression, I have to look for a philosophical explanation for it. According to Lacan, it's an unconscious identification with the objet a, which forms our object of desire. It is a loss of objet a that forms the Unconscious part of depression. According to Lacan, the Unconscious is left out of Behavioural therapy which essentially dooms this attempt at helping the patient.
What Lacan is saying is that a person in depression loses their ability to desire, because they have lost the unconscious drive for it. I don't know how much of this is true, since this leaves out very factual hormonal reasons for depression but it gives me something to work with.
Depression that I have visualised is a swamp filled with lost objects - things that I no longer can form a desire for. And the user is like the knight from the poem, La Belle Dame San Merci, a wan figure looking for something without know what that something is.
For navigation, Siyuan suggested we make the user row a boat. This fits in neatly in the arc of the story since this is the penultimate level. It reminds me of the crossing of River Styx, except you don't have the boatman Charon, instead, you have to row for yourself. In a way, you have to row to save yourself.
The last level is coming to terms with the death of the father figure. We are putting the user in the desert with the statue of the father figure, broken and wasted. This is inspired by the poem Ozymandias by Shelley. Also, the death of the father figure is not an absolute liberation. The aftermath is a hot desert with a void that may be filled with something else - something not necessarily less oppressive than the one that passed. But there is also hope and an opportunity to build something new.
Role: Writer, Game Designer, Producer, Environment, Video post production
Siyuan Qiu: Unity developer, Sound design
Subigya Basnet: Live Action Director
Ben Puvalowsky, Shreiya Chowdhury: Actors