Virtual reality has been used as a plot device in science fiction for decades, with the 1951 short story “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury being considered one of the earliest examples. What was real blurred with the virtual to devastating effect in this sci-fi morality play warning of the dangers of technology allowed to run unchecked. As we enter an age in which we are finally able to build many of the technological wonders Bradbury and other mid-century authors conceived, we find technology playing a part not only in the stories themselves, but also in how those stories are told. (One hopes the result is not nearly as fatal as in “The Veldt.”) Right now, virtual reality is moving from a plot point to a storytelling experience and delivery mechanism.
On Sept. 22, Syfy is launching Halcyon. A “hybrid” VR scripted series created and produced by Toronto-based Secret Location, it will debut across multiple platforms, including Syfy’s channels, companion web sites outside the United States, and in virtual reality formats on the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR.
One of the show’s plot points involves the potential dangers of VR: addiction to the virtual plane and complete detachment from reality.
Set in the year 2040, when virtual reality is as ubiquitous as smartphones today, this series tells the story of Halcyon, a company whose technology has changed the way the world works. Halcyon innovations enable the use of VR without a headset. Users instead access the virtual space using neurological implants that manipulate the senses to create a simulated world lacking only the sense of touch.
When the series begins, Halcyon CEO Blake Creighton (Michael Therriault) is found dead, seemingly murdered. Upon investigation, with no evidence to explain how it could have happened in the physical world, police detective Jules Dover (Lisa Marcos) must consider the possibility that his death could be the world’s first “virtual crime.” Dover works the case with Asha (Harveen Sandhu), a virtual intelligence and her partner in the Virtual Reality Crimes Unit, and uncovers evidence of a conspiracy at the heart of Halcyon.
What sets this 15-episode police procedural apart from other sci-fi tales of crime and punishment is the way it is being distributed. While 10 episodes will be available on Syfy’s television and web channels, five additional VR-only episodes will be available exclusively on VR platforms. Short recaps of the VR episodes will be available online for viewers without a Rift or Gear VR device.
The show’s creators carefully employed the new medium to enhance the storytelling and draw viewers in. “We’re always thinking about story first in any project. Story is really the line that divides ‘gimmick’ from ‘awesome new approach,’” says Benjamin Arfmann, the series’ director. “In this case, the idea of a hybrid VR/TV series fits really well with the material. We knew we wanted to tell a science fiction story that wrestled with a lot of the ethical questions that new technologies are posing, and it felt natural to integrate those technologies into the telling of the story itself.”
Arfmann says that the show is groundbreaking in how it has integrated VR with the traditional linear broadcast, and it has done so in a way that won’t leave viewers without VR headsets behind.
“Our VR episodes aren’t separate from the heart of the story, functioning as backstory or lore—they are essential parts of the story itself,” Arfmann adds. “By alternating between linear and VR episodes, our hope is that audiences—and other creators—start to envision new ways for stories to intersect with their own lives.”
The creators are aware that viewers—not to mention networks and content providers—may be skeptical of the new technology. “Halcyon can be seen as a proof of concept in that it is trying to define what kind of narrative is native to VR,” explains Stefan Grambart, creative director of content studio Secret Location. “We’re seeing a lot of games, 360° documentaries and one-off horror experiences in VR—in fact, we’ve made a few ourselves. But we’re still exploring the wider possibilities of virtual reality storytelling. We think Halcyon’s hybrid approach will prove enticing enough for our audience to climb aboard.”
Halcyon director Benjamin Arfmann
With one-third of the episodes produced specifically for what can only be described as an emerging market of very early adopters, there is some risk that the larger audience could be left out. However, the creative team strived to ensure that the experience will still be enjoyable to the mass audience watching in the linear format.
Arfman adds, “We were really focused on this throughout prep and post: How do you make something this new as inviting as possible to everyone, not just the early adopters? The linear episodes will be broadcast as well as available online. These episodes don’t represent the full Halcyon experience, but they’re constructed in a way that allows for audiences to follow plot and story, even if they don’t have VR headsets.”
The bigger hope, says Arfmann, is that the audiences who view the linear episodes will be intrigued enough to chase down the full VR narrative. In this way, he says, it is “kind of like a carnival barker outside the tent. The linear episodes will get your attention and draw you inside to where the real fun is happening.”
Murder suspect Miranda Reyes (Claire Rankin) and Alan (Cody Ray Thompson), former Halcyon CEO Blake Creighton’s virtual assistant.
“When comparing VR to a traditional screen experience, it’s easy to see why filmmakers feel challenged,” says Grambart. “In Halcyon, we employed voiceover dialogue and subtle animation cues to gently guide the audience’s attention, and we also let them explore the narrative at their own pace.
“Moving forward, we want to redefine the author-audience relationship,” Grambart concludes. “If I’m watching TV and I get up to make a sandwich, I’m going to miss some of the story. But what if that story followed me into the kitchen? What if making the sandwich was part of the story? VR narratives have the ability to bend to the audience’s actions—we just need to rethink how we tell those stories.”