In AFTERLIFE, I wanted to search for and expose the essence of a feeling or phenomenon that has emerged out of personal interaction with immersive technology. This is a recollection of how I arrived at the emotional core of what I wanted to describe in the piece - and why I think it matters.
In the video above, electronic music composer and producer James Ferraro discusses his motives for making Far Side Virtual, one of the defining albums of the Vaporwave-genre in 2011. My motives for writing AFTERLIFE came out of a similar urge, to try and describe an experience rooted in contemporaneity, that still seems somewhat undescribed or undefined in culture and mainstream media.
Like most of my peers, I grew up playing a lot of computer games, and my most defining gaming experience was when I got my hands on the original Half-Life game from 1998. Half-Life is, due to its successful merging of action, puzzles and immersive storytelling, generally considered the main defining game for the narrative-driven immersive simulation game genre. Half-Life was the first major 3D FPS to tell a 20-hour story in a narrative-driven action game without the use of cut-scenes. All of the storytelling happens in-game, and throughout the entire game you never leave he perspective of your in-game avatar. The immersive quality of the game and its intriguing storyline makes it an extremely captivating experience - provoking authentic and heartfelt emotional responses in most players.
I have probably spent somewhere close to 100 hours inside the Alien-infested corridors of Half-Life. Looking back - for me and probably a lot of people of my generation and younger, spending a vast majority of our free time inside 3d-immersive environments, has without a doubt constituted highly formative experiences.
As most gamers will tell you, returning to your 'real life' after spending hours inside a computer game can be quite a strange experience. Suddenly, the real world can appear surprisingly dream-like, improbable, maybe even unreal or like a fabricated realm. And the real world - with its ambiguous monotony and earthly chores - can seem incredibly boring after spending a long time inside an action-packed immersive adventure.
While spending many hours inside Half-Life and various other great immersive sims during my teens, it wasn't until recently that I became aware that the experience of 'returning to reality' after you've been roaming around in an artificial immersive space, constituted a generation-defining experience, just like using LSD and other psychedelics were a defining ingredient of the Zeitgeist of the 60's [as is present in for instance the writing of Aldous Huxley and the music of Jimi Hendrix].
Most of my peers have spent a fair amount of their teens inside games like The Sims or Runescape. Games, game characters and comparisons between our respective game avatars were a major conversation topic in recess breaks, and visiting each other to play multiplayer games, or just hanging out and watching someone play a single-player game after school, made up a substantial part of our free-time.
In 2021, working on the VR design for Alexander Schubert's 'Asterism', I had an eye-opening experience. I was severely sleep-deprived and delirious from months of travelling and non-stop work on various projects, and had just worked for 6-8 hours inside Unreal Engine, tweaking a scene where the POV player perspective is slowly drifting through a magical forest environment, that changes according to rhythmic and textural changes of the soundtrack.
At the time, I was simultaneously working at Rogaland Theatre as a composer and sound designer, and was staying at Lervig Brygge outside Stavanger, Norway, in an IKEA-catalogue-styled apartment. It was late evening, I was exhausted and needed some fresh air. I went outside and took a walk along the bay. The cool, autumn coastline weather filled the air with thick fog, and the monotonous splashing sounds of the waves against blocks of concrete. There was not another soul in sight. And then I noticed I started feeling a bit weird. Actually, after looking out into the foggy night for a long moment, I started feeling really weird.
It struck me: I felt completely like I was inside a computer game.
The LED-powered street lights filled the nighttime air with blobs of artificial bloom. The fog in the bay lay in a thick layer, as if Unreal Engine's fog parameter had just slightly been turned up since last night. The monotonous waves crashing against concrete sounded completely like a generic atmosphere sample pack, looped with slight variations in time and pitch. The artificially constructed park and playground situated between the brutalist aluminium-covered apartment blocks were as if cut out directly from a 1999 futurist computer game or landscape-architect generic 3d model for modern, efficient city planning.
I had been sent to a remote location with a concrete objective, I had several deadlines coming up, there was tension and risk in whether I would make it and deliver in time or not. My energy was depleted, and I was looking for a way to recover quickly. Around me there was not a soul in sight, the landscape lay deserted and empty, as if not-yet-populated with NPC's. A street light was flickering as if the light source was modulated by a game engine-random modulator and the wind blew in variable gusts ranging between parameter values 0.1-0.3. I found myself unable to distinguish between the 'realness' of the real world as I had always known it, and the 'realness' of the 3d game environment I had just spent the last several hours in.
I realized that I was probably slightly mentally unwell due to lack of sleep and spending too much time in front of my screen, simultaneously I felt ecstatic and liberated by the embodied, real-life hallucination of actually being inside a game. All the things I could do now, that no one would ever find out or care about! I was in a space free from judgement, free from consequence, free from outside observers - an artificial environment where I was fully embodying a solipsistic point of view - fully embodied main character syndrome.
As I walked around the building blocks, passing crows stuck in loops of picking at worms and spiders spinning geometrically perfect webs around the dim light of the blooming street lights, I realized I was experiencing exactly what The Wachowskis had postulated in their modern, Baudrillard-inspired cult classic 'The Matrix': That if I had been living in a game or a simulated world until now, I had not been able to spot the fact that it was fake, and THIS was maybe the defining moment where I realized that I was stuck inside a simulation - where the artificiality of the real world was suddenly made tangible to me. I was experiencing what Nick Bostrom had argued for in his thesis: 'Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?, the lived possibility of being inside a 'posthuman' ancestor-simulation.
Going back and analyzing that moment, I have found that there are a few key elements that were part of triggering my IRL-game world experience:
-I was alone, no one was there to socially correct or influence my experience.
-It was nighttime, I was exhausted and my sensory perception of the world was probably more unfiltered and raw than usual.
-I was situated in a space which had probably originally been designed inside a 3d-engine - thus enhancing its artificial feel.
-But most importantly, I had spent a considerably long part of my day doing micro-detailed work inside an immersive, artificial 3d-environment. My attention had been focused on tiny nuances and parameters that were simulating natural phenomena, derived from real life and nature, in very high detail - thus focussing my perception of my surroundings in on those micro-details. This hyperfocus would make it harder for me to distinguish between natural, real-life phenomena, such as moisture in the atmosphere, natural light dispersion and ambient wind sounds, and their simulated counterpart. I was unable to see the big picture, and was overwhelmed by the details and fragmentation of my overall sensory input. I was caught in an experience where it became impossible for me to judge whether I was situated inside an environment modeling or referring to an original archetype or whether I was inside the original itself. In short - I was having a textbook hyperreal experience.
Just like Neo sees the Matrix everywhere once it has been revealed to him, I could not 'unfeel' or 'unthink' the experience I had that night. I continued developing content in VR for Alexander Schubert's 'Sleep Laboratory' (2022) and played through the mesmerizing VR-successor to Half-Life I, 'Half-Life Alyx' . Both those experiences kept adding to the feeling that my brain, and probably many brains, are surprisingly susceptible to adapt their inner modelling of reality and the self, to both simulated and real 3d-environments. I started speculating, that if I had been born inside Virtual Reality, nothing would stop me from accepting my VR experience as an unquestionable and absolute truth. As I spent more time with VR technology, I noticed how the bluntness, slowness and boredom of everyday life became more and more apparent every time I took off a VR headset. I realized that the heavily stylized experiences I was having in VR were often far more captivating and emotion-inducing that many real-life situations I was having during a day. In short - Virtual Reality started feeling more real, more captivating, more immersive and more fun than my real life.
'The Rubber Hand Illusion', an embodiment test demonstrating the brain's innate tendency to synthesize coherence between visual and haptic sensory input, even when it is consciously obvious that the two sensory experiences are not related.
Alexander Schubert's 'Sleep Laboratory' (2022). The participants are controlling a virtual body inside a Virtual Reality environment. The combination of an immersive, VR visual experience and synchronized haptic input creates an overpowering, coherent sensation of inhabiting a new body in a new world. Working on this piece provoked me to further question the validity and building blocks of my own empirical IRL ego-meets-body-meets-world-experience - and to discover the innate potential of immersive technology as a storytelling tool for thematizing human self-perception.
"ExistenZ' (2000) by David Cronenberg. Similarily to The Matrix, ExistenZ explores the validity of the subjective perception of reality and moral dilemmas in travel between perceivably coherent game worlds. A Futuristic Game Medium is used as a Virtual Reality Simulation device to jump into game-designed situations.
And so I came to two realizations:
1. Even though ancient and modern philosophical branches have discussed and attempted to create models of the world and the ego since cave-paintings, religious scriptures, and allegorical stories in antique philosophy, as in for instance in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, modern immersive technology has the potential to elaborate on and make these ideas tangible and experienceable to a wide, mainstream audience with contemporary relevance. The possibility to induce an awareness, a greater perspective on the relationship between the ego, the body and the world has the potential to create a stronger sense of empathy and awareness, which could be key ingredients in creating a less judgemental, more open-minded, less polarized and more tolerant present-day society. By experiencing virtual universes through different avatars - we can develop our own ego-plasticity, strengthen our ability to empathize with others and their worldview - and see reality 'beyond ourselves', i.e. understand to a greater extent that our subjective experience is a heavily filtered one, for the most part very limited and based on our brain's continuous evaluations of ongoing predictions and assumptions - thus opening up to a worldview which is multifaceted and based around a communal exchange and weighting of each others' subjective experiences, rather than interpreting the subjective worldview as the absolute truth, to be defended against conflicting worldviews at all times.
As has classic storytelling, art and theatre in the course of the history of humanity, in simulating scenarios that we as a community emphatically respond to and are able to have as common reference points, a culture, a common language of experienceable scenarios so to speak, so can immersive technology be used as a storytelling medium to create narratives that speak truer and more sophisticatedly about scenarios and experiences we have in modern society today - and further investigate our relationships with each other and technology. The hyperreal aspects of our Zeitgeist can be made tangible and discoverable in a clear and unobstructed way. As James Lovelock speculates in 'Novacene' (2019), our relationship with potentially supreme forms of (artificial) intelligence that we may have to face in the future, will require a worldview based on greater understanding of the cosmos as a whole, hyperobjects, technology and ourselves.
2. The game engine in itself is an extremely potent medium, that in conjunction with for instance virtual reality, theatre or artificial intelligence can make many latent subject matters of modern society experienceable and directly referenceable. The creation and definition of signs, and a common language of key elements in virtual phenomena, is a necessary process in describing the kind of experiences we as humans, engaging with increasingly autonomous forms of technology, will face in the future. These experiences are also potentially able to expose and describe parts of our human experience that are still undefined or unexplored.
There is no way I could have described the experience I had at Lervik Brygge that night, without referring to VR or the computer game medium. Having spent hours in a 3d-immersive environment is probably what triggered the experience in the first place, and even though what I experienced occured in real life, the only reference points I have to convey the feeling I had, are based in virtual experiences. And so, reflecting back on that night, I can pinpoint exactly the moment I became convinced that I needed to learn how to work inside a game engine, and to tell captivating and contemporary stories within that format.
As game development and 3d-creation tools have become increasingly accessible over the last few years [Unreal Engine, Unity Engine, Godot Engine and Blender are all free to use] - a new wave of small-scale independent games have emerged. The range of increasingly conceptual, philosophical and artistic games has grown substantially, and so has the game industry's interest for these games.
Even though the examples above illustrate the unconventional and creative use of a game engine, these works still undoubtedly feel and behave like regular computer games. I think the potential of the game engine itself as an artistic tool still remains somewhat unexplored. There are a myriad of things possible in a game environment which are not just inherent to games, but could also be explored in hybrid art forms and contexts.
To explore this further, it would be important to appropriate the game engine from its origins as a pure entertainment medium, and reinstate it as an artistic tool to express ideas and experiences that go far beyond mere gaming action and entertainment. For this to happen, the game engine should be used for projects that explore the nature of the medium itself, and utilize its potential as an interactive toolbox capable of rendering interconnected and immersive audio, video, text, haptic feedback and simulated 3d-spaces to the fullest.
RE-ANIMATED by Jakob Kudsk Steensen is an artistic exploration and culmination of research done on the now extinct Kaua’i ʻōʻō bird, and allows its audience to engage in a personal and intimate encounter with an extinct animal in VR. It's a great example of an installation work making use of the game engine as a creative storytelling environment, combining poetic imagery and imagination with archive material.
Web browsing platforms for rendering these game engine projects online in a browser, or sharing platforms for projects falling outside the 'game' category should be developed so that the free circulation of original artistic ideas using game engines are afforded. Just as walkmans and headphones were popularized in the 80's, and have driven forward a listening culture which is more focused around the personal, intimate listening experience and the creation and sharing of electronic bedroom music [i.e. a 'power-to-the-people trend in the music industry], immersive media such as Virtual Reality headsets should be made even more accessible to the general public, to create an underground culture of creating and sharing ideas more straightforward, using the game engine as a framework. Thus, an underground, artistically motivated group of hobby and professional developers could drive the medium forward and push the limits of what is capable within its bounds, to create a richer culture and common language of technology-induced illuminating experiences today. Projects using game engines in unconventional or subvertive ways could bring new pieces into reality, that make use of the medium as a portal for contemporary storytelling and experiences within a wide variety of unconventional formats.
I wanted 'AFTERLIFE' to be part of this process. I wanted it to make use of the game engine as a storytelling medium in an untraditional context: A stage performance setting. And I wanted to explore the relationship between performers, stage, an audience and a game world, to see if the game engine could be used - and subverted, as an artistic tool for thematically exploring the cycle of lived experience and death, the idea of self and a world, rooted in the signs and cultural language of today - and see if the game engine could offer something new and exciting in the stage performance domain.