An interview with Ioulia Isserlis and Max Sacker of AnotherWorld VR
Yes, I’m caught up in prep-stress. The Venice International Film Festival is about to commence and with it, its brilliant branch Venice VR. But before things would kick off, I desperately wanted to talk to the creative folks behind Pagan Peak VR, the only German entry to the Venetian VR competition. May and Ioulia might also be stressed – wonder why – yet they took some time out to sit down and chat with me. So, without further ado: let’s explore the secrets of horror in virtual reality.
From Kobold to Pagan Peak VR – There is always more creepy
Observant readers of this blog will already know: I’m a real scaredy-cat! I’m just not made for horror. Not in books, nor films, and most definitely not in virtual reality. Nonetheless, I bit the bullet at last year’s Venice VR to experience Kobold (Eng. Goblin), AnotherWorld VR’s first VR horror game (which I’ve already reported on here – German only).
Since then, meetings between the two CEOs of AnotherWorld VR, Max and Ioulia, and I tend to be slightly embarrassing for me. Not only did I barely last five minutes through Kobold… Nope, I burst out of the house, threw the key to the door into a nearby pond (was there a pond?) and hid myself in a bush. Mind, I did all that without taking off the VR goggles! It seems like even the bystanders’ loud laughter would not get me to snap out of the illusion. A running gag that’s retold frequently and with pleasure.
As with last year, Max and Ioulia will pull all the stops to teach us the meaning of fear. In mid-August, I visited them in their office in Berlin, where they were in the process of testing Pagan Peak VR, their newest creation. They will be the only German entry under the 26 nominees for Venice VR’s competition and will be celebrating their Pagan Peak VR’s world-premiere on a cozy, little island near the Lido. I’ve got a strong feeling Kobold was just the scary start…
Horror in VR: An Interview with Ioulia Isserlis and Max Sacker
VR Geschichten: How about you tell us something about yourselves and what you’re doing with AnotherWorld VR for a start.
Max: We’re the two founders of AnotherWorld VR and have been working on the company since three-and-a-half years now. We both started in film, but eventually developed passion for immersive storytelling and interactive stories. In doing so, we’re never far from the cinema – at the precipice between cinema, storytelling and interactive entertainment.
Ioulia: The main reason for starting with VR was actually a desire: we wanted to step into a film or series and actively take part in its plot. We already realized that with Kobold, a traditional film with an open-ended story, which the viewer can then bring to a close by playing as the protagonist in VR. This year, it’s Pagan Peak VR’s turn. Pagan Peak is a series by Sky, Wiedemann & Berg and epo-film, in German, it’s called “Der Pass”.
VR Geschichten: To which extent does the VR game differ from the series?
Ioulia: With Pagan Peak VR, we’ve developed a completely new sub-story. While it takes place in the same film universe, it is otherwise entirely independent from the series. However, those familiar with the series will be happy to run into a couple “Easter eggs” scattered throughout.
VR Geschichten: Are you going to reveal what the VR game will be about?
Ioulia: You are going to be captured by the Krampus Killer and will have to escape his hut in which he’ll then be holding you captive. Over time you’ll find out more about why you’re being held in this hut and what’s happened to his previous victims. Pagan Peak VR combines elements from thrillers, escape rooms, horror and mystery. You’re not just the player who must free themselves, but also a detective seeking to find out more about the Krampus Killer.
VR Geschichten: For all those from outside of Germany or even just outside of South Germany: what’s a Krampus?
Max: The Krampus stems from ancient customs in the mountainous regions between Tirol, Austria and Bavaria. He carries a switch…
Ioulia: …and accompanies St. Nicholas during the night from the 5th to the 6th of December. St. Nicholas rewards the good children, while the Krampus (Ioulia fakes a deeply Bavarian dialect, with a long, rolling “R”) brings his switch and punishes the bad ones. In our VR experience, the Krampus Killer punishes grown-ups, who, as he sees it, were bad. A Krampus figure looks quite like the devil with its horns. In Bavaria and Austria, we also have a long-standing tradition called the Krampus run (Ger. “Krampuslauf”), in which men dress up as the Krampus, run around town and scare people.
VR Geschichten: That sounds terrifying. What do you like so much about the horror genre?
Max: It’s a genre that tends to be overlooked and is often considered as below other genres. However, in recent years, quite a few productions – films and series alike – turned their attention towards this genre. There’s a term called “elevated horror”: that, then, is not just a show full of gore and splatter, but introduces storytelling and even cultural values. We’re very interested in cultural assets from Europe, that is: legends, myths and intriguing characters. And of course, horror just works very well in VR.
VR Geschichten: And why is that?
Max: It’s a personal experience. Unlike how it works in film, we don’t just sit and watch actors play scared on-screen. In VR, the experience is very private, we are there ourselves. All of those basic instincts we feel when we walk through a forest at night, for example, return to us. Then, even the quietest creak of a wooden step or a branch scratching against a window will suffice to rouse those feelings.
Ioulia: If anything, the range of emotions Pagan Peak VR evokes is very wide. There’s the element of horror, of course, meaning fear – but then there’s also the joy that comes up when you solve a puzzle, for instance. There’s pity, empathy… We don’t want to focus solely on fear. Above all, it’s the contrasts we’re interested in. Should someone feel fear in one moment and then relief in the next, that would be perfect.
VR Geschichten: You often state that VR horror is more than just jump scares for you. How exactly do you achieve that? How do you truly make us feel scared?
Max: Atmospheric level design and sound play a crucial role. We’re detail-oriented and the atmosphere of our games is often lauded. We want to create absolute realism, not just visually by digitalizing real locations, but also with our sound design. As such, we want to create a kind of choreography that is constantly unsettling, but also capable of directing the player – a dramaturgy to lead and mislead. A jump scare at the right moment is one of many tools at a VR creator’s disposition. However, I think there shouldn’t be too many in succession, as players also want to arrive in a world and explore it – and not be surprised by a scary face every couple of seconds.
Ioulia: A lot of it boils down to building tension. This we also produce via natural elements. A little spoiler: upon starting the game, you’ll be placed among a picturesque, alpine landscape while the sun’s going down. Sometimes, I find myself wishing to take a sip from a warm cup of tea and just staring out of my virtual window. But then, the snowstorm is already brewing…
VR Geschichten: In my opinion, this photorealism really lets your productions stand out. (The two of them have to smile at this comment – I’m sure they’re thinking of my bush escapade). How do you build this set that becomes a virtual setting later?
Ioulia: For Pagan Peak VR, we looked for subjects or locations that we scanned. Therefore, we take a lot of photos of that location and stitch those together to build a 3D model. Naturally, we heavily edit these composites to create our own universe. Some things, however, cannot be scanned, and are thus designed entirely by us. In contrast to Kobold, Pagan Peak VR lets players interact with every last object – they get to open every cupboard, pick up any item, open any drawer. This means interactivity has taken a enormous leap.
VR Geschichten: Are there different storylines in Pagan Peak VR?
Ioulia: There’s only one story; one large storyline. But there are four different endings.
VR Geschichten: Something I thought was very accomplished in Kobold, was that you gave the player a role at the start. I knew exactly who’s body I was in. How did you manage this in Pagan Peak VR?
Ioulia: This time, we define your role only vaguely. I wanted to keep things as neutral as possible. This is also an experiment for me. I think the immersion becomes more convincing the less we know about our character. I might clash with my character’s viewpoints, for instance. That’s why the character is neutral now. We don’t know whether we’re a woman or a man, which skin tone we have, etc. You simply get to see gloved hands and that’s it. Only one piece of information concerning the player’s identity is divulged, and that one is also kept very general. Obviously, I won’t tell you what that piece of information is!
VR Geschichten: One last question: what do you tell people like me – scaredy-cats – who find themselves standing in front of Pagan Peak VR or Kobold?
Ioulia: You can always just take the goggles off (she glances at me). We are responsible producers; our horror is very cinematic and atmospheric. We don’t show blood or weapons, nor any excessive violence. It’s a rather artistic form of horror. In any case, we don’t resent anyone who rips off the goggles, thinking “Nope, that’s too spooky for me.”
Pagan Peak VR: Release and Multiplayer Mode
The first season of Pagan Peak (or Der Pass in German) can be viewed on Sky since January 2019. A second season has already been commissioned. The accompanying VR experience by AnotherWorld VR will be released as a single player experience on October 24th 2019.
Ioulia and Max revealed that a multiplayer version will be made available at a later date. This version will however not be distributed via common online platforms, but solely as location-based entertainment in gaming arcades. You can find news and updates on the project’s site.
Translated by Jan Mc Greal