So, I’m a little late to the party on this one with critical darling Virtual Virtual Reality developer, Tender Claws, having released their follow-up project The Under Presents a little over a month ago but I have a good reason—I have been spending an excessive amount of time in figuring out how I feel about what they’ve created. To put it simply, The Under Presents is a social VR sandbox with a single-player narrative component featuring occasional performances from live actors. In practice, it’s somewhere between immersive theatre on a massive scale and a live-action roleplaying adventure. At this point, I’ve spent north of 50 hours in The Under and my thoughts throughout that time could not have evolved more dramatically. Honestly, I hated my first 10 hours. Over the next 20 or so I gradually started to appreciate its moments of brilliance through the frustration but only recently have I truly developed an appreciation for what Tender Claws has accomplished in finally bringing the unbridled possibility of virtual reality together with the vitality and reactivity of immersive theatre. The element of live performance is what drew me to The Under Presents and is what elevates it from being a fun if ultimately forgettable indie puzzle game to something potentially revolutionary so feel free to skip ahead a bit if that’s what you want to know about but for the sake of completeness I’ll touch upon its other major components.
The first is the single-player experience known as The Timeboat. I still haven’t completed this fully and while I have started to appreciate the complexity and creativity on display here, I feel the experience is hamstrung by questionable choices in its structure. Foremost among these is that it’s a completely unguided narrative. You’re placed on a research vessel known as The Aickman as a completely passive entity whose existence isn’t acknowledged by anyone as its crew finds themselves stranded in ice and begins to notice disturbances in the fabric of spacetime. It’s a promising premise but aside from the occasional major scene which draws the crew together, you’re given free rein to follow a single character for the entirety of its 4 acts or to bounce around from character to character and this is where the problem lies.
Neither of these approaches ended up feeling very satisfying with jumping from character to character leaving you with fragments of storylines that are never sufficiently developed to piece them together into a cohesive narrative. Following a single character, on the other hand, leads to long periods of inactivity and a limited perspective that develops that particular character further while denying you as much insight into the larger narrative.
These issues are compounded by the handful of puzzle sequences scattered throughout the story required to save the crew from an early demise. These feature some varied and surreal locales but lacking in any sort of logical challenge they’re instead tied to overly restrictive timers which punish you for appreciating their world-building by forcing you to complete them as fast as possible or start the entire act over from the beginning. There is potential here and relaxing the timers on the puzzle sequences would fix some of what holds The Timeboat back from being as enjoyable as it could be but I’m not sure how you tell a compelling story without the ability to focus the camera. Still, it does have its fans so it’s worth exploring, I just wouldn’t recommend it during primetime hours when you could instead be interacting with actors.
More successful is the social nexus of The Under which is both where the actors perform and where you’ll likely spend the bulk of your time while waiting for actors to show up. There’s more to it than just chatting with other people, though. In fact, you can’t speak at all, only the actors are able to use their mics for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has ever played a game with public voice chat. Communication is still very much possible, however, as you can gesture using the motion controls and you have a magical mask capable of conjuring up any number of props and magical enchantments provided you know the correct recipe. That’s the big draw of this portion of The Under Presents, the ability to learn how to create new things and solve the world’s various puzzles, then passing down that knowledge to others as best you can without being able to speak. There aren’t concrete goals and gameplay is rather simplistic with nothing really doing anything—the swords don’t cut, the guitars don’t play, the beer doesn’t get you drunk—but the community is rather friendly and willing to roleplay which creates some great moments between players without requiring things like levels, health, or any real gamification. The experience was somewhat more underwhelming closer to launch with several puzzles that were unable to be completed but this has been greatly improved following the recent King Crob update.
While your experience in The Under largely depends upon your interactions with other players, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the slew of pre-recorded acts that perform on a loop in the club at The Under’s center. There are about a dozen acts that span a wide variety of genres from pop to ragtime and there’s even a puppet show with many of the performers being actual NYC-based musical artists. Most of these acts are enjoyable enough the first 5 times you see them though they’ve lost most of their novelty at this point with the exception of Erin Markey’s anthemic ballad of feline preference, “Wet Food”, which never fails to get me to stop and sway along with my giant can of cat food conjured from my magical giant cat food making mask.
That brings us to what makes The Under Presents what it is and why it’s such a big deal for lovers of immersive theater everywhere, the live performances. Tender Claws has brought together some of the best immersive theatre actors in LA with credits from Delusion, Safehouse ‘77, and The Hollywood Fringe Festival, put them all under one roof and given us all the keys to the theater for the unreasonably low price of $20. The best comparison I can think of is MoviePass, that service that charged you $10 a month to watch as many movies in the theater as you wanted before it shut down because everyone realized that is not a sustainable business model. This is MoviePass for immersive theater fans, except the content is being sent directly to your house with performances occurring from roughly 8 AM-10 PM PST every day until March 29th (yes, that includes Christmas and New Year’s Eve). It sounds like the most hyperbolic shill of a promotion ever but hopefully my criticisms of The Under Presents flaws prove my sincerity when I say that I feel a tinge of guilt over how much value I have gotten out of such a modest investment. I have enjoyed tens of hours of the same level of vigor and ingenuity I might expect at an actual immersive theatre performance for a price that wouldn’t get you in the door at any major production, performances I can mold and influence not with words with props and how I choose to wield them.
But there’s more to it than that and immersive theatre in VR is more than the sum of its parts. The freedom of VR allows for a sprawling set dotted with locales the actors can recontextualize and can flesh out by adding to The Under’s already extensive lore. The ability to teleport around the world and conjure props from thin air makes for an endless variety of potential performances and Tender Claws’ willingness to let their actors experiment has led to the rapid iteration of new concepts and an ever-expanding roster of colorful characters that makes your hundredth visit to The Under as exciting as your first as you get acquainted with newcomers and become more acquainted with familiar faces. The only thing keeping my addiction to The Under Presents from becoming even more crippling is that there can be considerable downtime between performances which can vary widely from day to day. This is why I had such a poor first impression, my first encounter with an actor didn’t occur until I had spent over 10 hours in The Under. Since then I’ve started focusing on playing during more active periods and hopping around between the various server instances if I don’t see an actor around and this has lead to the lulls between performances getting down to about an hour on average, with the occasional streak of good luck seeing one performance directly following another and some dry spells of up to 2 ½ hours. The Under Presents is a wonderful way to spend an evening but if you’re only able to get on for 20 minutes on a regular basis you may find that things don’t line up and you end up waiting for something that never materializes.
It’s difficult to predict the will of the masses. Virtual reality and immersive theatre are both niche media and it may be some years before experiences like The Under Presents get the sort of attention they truly deserve but for immersive theatre fans looking for a reason to take the plunge, this is as good as any. The virtual world allows for live performers to wield incredible creative flexibility and to extend the reach of immersive theatre beyond major cities to a global audience. Likewise, the element of live performance brings those worlds to life and makes every moment truly unique and special. This feels like a major step in molding virtual reality to be what we’ve all dreamt of and whether it ends up catching on immediately or takes a few years to find its audience, history will look back at The Under Presents as a watershed moment in bringing truly reactive and intelligent storytelling to virtual reality.