Audiences and Actors in “The Under Presents”
Dusk falls over the desert. Music filters from the beached hull of a research vessel. Within the overturned ship, masked spirits flit through a lavish theater, while a line of fish sashay and tap-dance onstage.
If this scene seems strange, uh, yeah. It is.
Welcome to The Under.
The Under Presents is described by its creator Tender Claws as “immersive theater meets VR.” The game, available on the Oculus Quest virtual reality headset, consists of two major elements. First, players can explore the story of a doomed scientific expedition in Timeboat, a singleplayer mode that, while engaging, is not truly revolutionary. However, the real magic of The Under Presents surfaces in its multiplayer mode, a separate experience where players interact with hired actors and each other in a theatrical venue contained entirely within virtual reality.
That’s right: this multiplayer theater, called The Under, is primarily a performance space. The game developers at Tender Claws have allied themselves with Piehole, a collective of actors who contribute performances to The Under by “puppeting” virtual avatars. Some of these performances consist of prerecorded acts that play in loops on The Under’s stage like some sort of surreal Vaudeville. Others involve live performers moving through the theater and interacting with players. Often, the line between live and prerecorded performances becomes difficult to determine.
This exploration of live theater in a virtual, fantastical setting proves extraordinarily compelling. In a recent article, Forbes called the game “one of the most ambitious VR experiences ever made.” Tender Claws has not rested on these laurels; it recently announced the opening of Tempest, a 45-minute paid multiplayer experience crewed entirely by live actors. The Under has thus become not only a medium for random interactive performances, but a venue for paid and scheduled ones, as well. Tender Claws has not built a game so much as they have built a marvelous, unreal theater.
This theater allows for storytelling impossible in traditional venues. Within the world of Tempest, actors shift between bodies and avatars like costumes. At one point, an actor looms high above the audience as a vengeful, three-story-tall spirit. At others, a cast member materializes props and costumes out of thin air, so that audience members can play roles in the unfolding tale. The setting changes effortlessly from a cozy campfire to a storm-swept sea. As a whole, the experience is simultaneously awe-inspiring and full of potential; it leaves its audience what more could be possible in this incredible new world of performance.
I would be amiss to discuss The Under Presents and Tempest, though, without touching on their multiplayer mechanics. In addition to providing a revolutionary space for performers, Tender Claws has innovated fantastically on VR multiplayer mechanics in a way that allows players to work together as an audience.
Within the world of The Under, players can interact with each other in simple, meaningful ways. They can manipulate items in their surroundings. They can cast spells that consist of simple hand motions. They can complete small, multi-person tasks in the vast desert surrounding the theater.
All of these abilities promote interaction and teamwork by their very nature, especially since The Under teaches very little to its players outright. Instead, it relies on veteran guests to teach spells, quests, and such to newer players. This reliance on a communal knowledge base promotes interactivity between visitors to this strange otherworld.
Notably, though, this interaction occurs entirely without spoken words. Players in The Under cannot speak to each other, so interaction and instruction consist of gestures, shrugs, nods, and waves. This silence allows players to better enjoy performances, and the prohibition on speaking helps The Under Presents avoid much of the toxicity present in multiplayer VR communities. The game proves a far more calming and positive experience than, say, the blasted social wasteland of VRChat.
The silence of The Under promotes other sorts of communication, in a way that feels natural and intimate. Players demonstrate to each other the hand gestures necessary to summon certain objects or cast certain spells. They guide each other through tasks that require more than one person to complete. During my time in the Under, I earned a mask shaped like a star after another player led me to a sunken observatory where we completed a strange astronomical ritual. The process of unravelling these secrets in silence and finding other means of communication builds unique bonds between the faceless, voiceless inhabitants of The Under.
These multiplayer mechanics also function fantastically within performances like Tempest. The show encourages its audience members, with their simple abilities of movement, object manipulation, and pantomime, to play active roles in the unfolding story. Players cower in terror before vengeful gods and work magic spells to replant a garden. The whole experience feels deeply communal, even without a single word spoken.
Overall, The Under Presents is not only revolutionary because of the unique virtual venue it provides for live performance, but also for the multiplayer mechanics it establishes to allow for appropriate interaction within such a space. I look forward immensely to seeing the future of performance within VR worlds. Will we see more surreal shows like Tempest in The Under, building on Tender Claws’ success? Will we see venues for more traditional performances, such that an audience can experience live theater or concerts from the safety and comfort of home? I truly believe that The Under Presents has opened the door to a new type of performance and a new type of audience, but I certainly cannot say what comes next.
Of course, certain obstacles lie in the way of such innovation. VR has yet to become a household experience in the way that gaming consoles, personal computers and smartphones have. In addition, The Under Presents and Tempest have thrived in the disconnected world of COVID-19, and it remains to be seen whether virtual performance spaces will remain attractive when in-person experiences become feasible again. However, despite these concerns, I cannot help but agree with Yelena Rachitsky, executive producer of experiences at Oculus (as quoted in the New York Times) when she contends that “the most exciting stuff is yet to come.”