There seems to be a French way to do everything: make toast, kiss, breed bulldogs — even create a virtual reality experience. At least according to les gars at Red Corner, the French production company behind a forthcoming VR game based on comics artist Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s S.E.N.S., a popular graphic novel set in a shape-shifting, monochrome landscape where the only rule is to follow the arrows.
Touted as the first project ever to adapt a comic book to virtual reality, S.E.N.S. puts you on the trail and, alternately, in the brogues of an anonymous gumshoe who roams a minimalist Alphaville of changing scale and proportion in search of something that, presumably, differs from player to player. Why? Because the experience is a meditation on existential disorientation in a meaningless world, perhaps? If that isn’t French enough, there’s a kind of poetry to the quest that's reminiscent of The Little Prince.
“In France (there is an) appeal (in) VR content,” says producer Marie Blondiaux, who provided demos of the experience at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “You have the WOW projects and you have the narrative school. We know how to do (narrative) because we work in the interactive field.”
Blondiaux says that, along with its bold graphic style and pretzel logic, there’s a strong narrative element to Mathieu’s book that made it ideally suited for translation to VR with a French accent.
“The graphic novel is really immersive and when you have the book in your hands, you know that you’re in a special universe with special logic and special mechanisms,” says Blondiaux. “You know that you have to do something with (it to create) a VR experience.”
One of the challenges of transforming that universe to a virtual reality experience was translating the linear experience of the book to a game that doesn't end like a book.
“To keep the ambiguity of the game, we had work on (the) first-person view and third-person view,” explains Blondiaux. “In fact, we decided not to choose and made switches (between the two) to have exactly the same ambiguity that you have in the graphic novel.”
Interactive designer Charles Ayars, a comics fan and part of the team that worked on the project over the course of a year at a cost of 250,000 euros (U.S. $281,625), said that translating Mathieu’s linear landscape to an immersive VR experiece required him to "adapt the line to have a special effect, a special art component and … graphic patterns to add a (sense of endurance).”
Movement through the game's three-dimensional landscape is determined by the direction in which you look. As a result, very little movement is required. Red Corner has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund development of S.E.N.S. for HTC Vive, which will facilitate more physical engagement by the viewer, including activities such as digging and climbing.
France has a thriving comic book culture and the idea of bringing a graphic novel to VR was compelling enough to hook in ARTE, a Franco-German TV network akin to PBS in the U.S., as the first distributor of the game. Because ARTE is a public channel, the resulting content will be distributed using a freemium model.
When S.E.N.S. launches in September, it will be available for free download on the App Store and Google Play for the cardboard version, and also at Samsung Gear and Oculus retail outlets, as well as the Steam entertainment platform.
“We use technology to explore the creative universe and not the contrary. We don't use the creative universe to feed the VR experience, ” says Blondiaux, by way of explaining that not every graphic novel is a suitable source for a virtual reality experience. “We don’t know what’s going to happen (to virtual reality in France in the future), but we know that we do it a different way.”