This review was originally created in December 2018 for HTC, targeted to their original Vive/Vive Pro (VIVEPORT). It is reproduced here without alteration.
One of the challenges with interactive virtual reality stories is that, well, they’re usually not that interactive. Either you have limited freedom of movement or limited actions you can undertake, if not have to suffer through both. While such experiences can still be satisfying if the story is strong enough, it would be nice if these experiences were a bit more ambitious. For its part, Awake: Episode One attempts to push past some of its predecessor’s limitations with an interesting technological solution and refreshingly professional casting.
In this first in a planned eight-part series, you witness the story of Harry, a man tormented by strange, lucid dreams. As the story unravels over its nine short chapters, you discover the mysterious forces at play with love interest Rose and a dark presence referred to as The Shadow.
While the story is intriguing and extremely powerful, it’s the audio-visuals that really help to make the overall experience. Using volumetric video, which is really just a fancy term for capturing real-life three-dimensional locations and performances, the game achieves a unique look.
Of course, even the best 3D scanning technology still doesn’t quite seamlessly capture reality, for instance, facial textures tend not to map to heads quite right and fingers are something of a webbed disaster, but the unusual look of this game is still masterfully crafted and works well in context. In fact, even with this technique, there’s no “uncanny valley” effect, where computer-generated models unnervingly appear almost, but not quite, like real human beings. Fortunately, this is a convincing and self-consistent world, even if the characters and the objects they’re touching don’t always quite line up.
Another way that this game proves so immersive is in its use of professional actors. While other games of this type – even the good ones – have relied on fully computer-generated models and voice-over work that sounds suspiciously like one of the developers making a heroic attempt at voice acting, Awake: Episode One proves the value in using professionals. They not only act and move in a convincing manner but also provide the necessary gravitas to the voice work. You’ll find no issues with the audio or visuals in this game.
Awake: Episode One is designed as a standing, room-scale experience for Vive or Vive Pro owners. Either Vive controller, which is represented by points of light in-game, can be used to tap on certain hotspots to trigger the next event. Since your only form of locomotion is walking around your own play space, you’ll need a larger room to experience all of the details this game offers. Of course, smaller play spaces will still work, you’ll just have fewer angles to work with and sometimes be blocked from seeing certain things up close.
While this game beautifully solves the problem of limited immersion, at least if you have a larger room space, it doesn’t solve the problem of limited things to do. You really are nothing more than a witness to a story rather than a participant, kind of like being dropped into the middle of a short-form TV drama as an invisible extra. That’s not a bad thing, of course, but it would have been nice to have more effect on such a fantastically crafted world. Perhaps in future episodes.
Despite providing a breezy 20 minutes of content, Awake: Episode One still offers a compelling value for those looking for an interesting dramatic experience. Even without much to actively do, it still manages to advance the art of virtual reality storytelling. While there have been quality experiences before, what’s here proves that there was considerable room for improvement. Hopefully, more episodes come out as planned and the developers continue to push the envelope. There’s definitely more story here to tell.
Score: 5 out of 5 stars.