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Arts and Entertainment

A New Virtual Reality Mystery Series Turns You Into A Voyeur

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GONE is a new, immersive virtual reality experience that stands to change the way we consume stories, placing us as a voyeur in a gripping mystery surrounding a missing girl.

It's not quite a game and it's not quite a TV show—it's a little of both, and something entirely different. LAist was invited to get a sneak peek of GONE's first episode this week at Samsung L.A. I placed on a VR headset and headphones, and became a quiet, invisible voyeur, dropped into a playground where two mothers chat while they watch their children play. One of the mothers, Meredith Clover, seems troubled by her 9-year-old daughter Emilia's introverted nature. You may look around the park as the women talk—it's a full 360 degree experience, so you can gaze at the sky, the ground and spin around. Hotspots—visual cues that you can explore—will emerge. Tap your headset to zoom into them, and you drift away from the mothers and into the lives of the children. Two boys talk, while Emilia quietly amuses herself, hidden within the play structure.

But GONE isn't just a tale about a day at a bucolic park. It's a mystery that hints at the supernatural. When Emilia disappears, it seems impossible, like she must have just vanished into thin air. One moment she's at the park, and the next she isn't. Meredith has no idea how this has happened, and neither do you, even though you were sort of there. As the police come and the sun sets, you can hear the devastated cries of a mother who only a bit ago was calmly drinking an iced tea and fussing about her daughter not playing much with other children.

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What's interesting about this method of storytelling is that the story progresses in real time no matter what you're doing. If you choose not to explore any hot spots, you get one version of the story. If you explore one hotspot over another, you get a piece of that story, but you miss the rest. Revisiting the chapters several times will reveal more and more, bit by bit. It is only through finding and exploring every hotspot, as well as observing the chapters straight through at least once, that you will fully unfold the mystery.

You must also act quickly with some of the hotspots, as they appear and disappear at certain times. Some of the clues may seem meaningless, but could perhaps take on a bigger part later. For instance, I discovered a notebook in the grass shortly after Emilia disappeared. Did she leave it behind intentionally or drop it here? Is it a red herring? Will I see it again? And because GONE is readily presented as a story about a missing child, you're well aware that Emilia is going to disappear, regardless of what you do. As such, it makes every person in the park exceedingly suspicious—but are they truly an imminent threat, or just a bystander strolling through a park on a pleasant day? There is a sense of helplessness in your voyeurism. Though you have the agency to view the story the way you see fit, you can't stop anything from happening.

In many ways, this feels similar to a lot of the immersive theatre work that's been happening in the last few years. For instance, visitors to New York's Sleep No More may have an entirely different experience during this fresh take on Shakespeare's MacBeth based on which room they enter and at what time. At various mazes during this past Halloween season, guests in some could split off in different directions, revealing new monsters or pieces of the narrative. During haunt newcomer Creep LA's horror experience, I ended up talking to a little girl who revealed some dark secrets about what happened to her best friend. However, others in my group met a man with a story all his own. Only by talking to others who had gone through the maze, or by repeating the maze and choosing different paths, could I get the whole story. With GONE, you don't have to buy a second ticket or wait in line again. You simply replay the chapter and make alternative choices.

GONE was filmed using GoPro rigs, and there were challenges during filming that typically would not present themselves in an ordinary production. Executive Producer David Alpert, who also serves as exec producer on The Walking Dead, and Samsung Vice President of Strategy and Creative Content Matt Apfel explained that crew members were forced to hide during filming, lest they risk being seen at certain angles in the 360-degree experience. While filming scenes in the Sequoia National Park, for instance, each crew members had their "hidey holes." They would duck behind a tree or other shield, and everyone would have to peer around and see if they could spot anyone. If so, that crew member would have to find a new "hidey hole." Writer/director JT Petty's (Splinter Cell, Outlast) hiding spot was a hole dug beneath the camera track.As technology develops and as content creators learn how to work in VR, it'll be interesting to see how the medium expands. Horror has already embraced virtual reality, and Enigma Room—a live escape the room game on the Sunset Strip—already incorporates VR into one of their games. Additionally, virtual reality is becoming more and more accessible to the average consumer, via devices like Samsung's $99 headset and the even cheaper Google cardboard—an actual piece of cardboard that folds around your smartphone.

GONE comes by way of Samsung, Skybound Entertainment (The Walking Dead franchise), and virtuality reality production company WEVR. The first episode will be released via Samsung Milk VR, a virtual reality content service, on December 8, with future episodes coming out thereafter.

Related: The Future Is Here: We Went To A Virtual Reality Film Festival