Update: The Under Presents has announced this week that The Tempest is returning for a limited run, from November 5-15, as part of the Raindance Film Festival. If the review below intrigues you, be sure to check it out for yourself!
Let’s be honest, this global pandemic thing is getting old. In fact, it’s been old for quite some time now. If you’re like me, you miss the normalcy of the olden days, and that includes things like traveling and live events. I can’t tell you how much my body longs to sit in a crowded theater again, taking in the sights and sounds of a concert or a musical. Fortunately, the world of virtual reality has made this quarantine life a bit more tolerable, thanks to some brilliant innovations that help replicate having a social life, from the comfort of your own home. From Facebook Venues to Bigscreen VR, these apps allow you to watch live events and films alongside friends and strangers. But if you’re in the mood for something a bit more… interactive, perhaps The Under Presents is more your speed.
Stumbling upon this app’s mysterious thumbnail among the Oculus Store, I couldn’t help but download The Under Presents: The Tempest on a whim. It’s free! Why not? Upon my initial inspection, I spawned in the middle of a muddy sea, surrounded by crabs. After using the controllers to conjure up hands and don two golden bracelets, I grabbed and pulled my way across the environment until I came across a grandiose theater in the middle of nowhere. The marquee read “The Tempest,” and I knew I had arrived. It was here that my journey began, as I interacted with the ticket seller and read the rules.
The Under Presents works as an actual stage show would. For a few weeks at a time, the game puts on multiple shows a day, with various showtimes available for purchase. I purchased a $15 ticket for the following weekend, and when that day came, I was able to enter the building a few minutes early and explore the world of The Under. I was placed in a lobby with four other players, who appeared as shadowy figures with varied masks. These masks were not only how our guide would tell us apart, but they could also be removed to see details of our show, as well as interact with our environment.
In The Under Presents, you are able to grab every object that isn’t nailed down, and subsequently throw it across the room. You can also snap your fingers, which acts as a form of communication. If you mix everything together – grab an object, hold it over your removed mask, and snap – you can light a fire that will change that object’s form, but this is primarily just for fun. Fooling around in the lobby is only a small fraction of The Under’s beauty. Solving the lobby’s puzzle and gaining access to the VIP lounge helps you grow your chemistry with the shadowy strangers, and hearing the intercom’s announcements about the upcoming performance makes it feel like you’re in a real theater. I was already lost in The Under Presents’ world before it even began.
Once your showtime finally arrives, you’ll be transported to a completely different world alongside your mysterious colleagues. The five of you – or maybe six, I can’t exactly recall – awake around a massive campfire, and in my show we were greeted by a bearded hippie dude in shorts and sandals. This was our guide, James, and he quickly became one of my favorite video game characters of all time. The beauty of The Under Presents is its focus on player interaction – albeit with minimal means of communication – to tell a story and make the viewer feel involved.
James broke the fourth wall right off the bat by bringing up the Coronavirus pandemic and how it has kept him out of work as of late. He’s typically a stage actor, so performance art being his forte, I knew we were in for a treat. As James informed us, he was broadcasting live from his LA apartment, so we shouldn’t be alarmed by any outside interference (such as a fire truck or dog barking). This instantly made the whole experience feel so surreal, being apart of a fully interactive stage play within a virtual world. However, The Under works so seamlessly that once the story began, I lost all sense of reality and hastily traded my 21st-century goggles in for Shakespearean garb.
So what was this story exactly? Well, with the help of our guide, James, my group and I were told the tale of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. While I’d read this book way back in high school, I certainly didn’t remember much. Thankfully, the classic play – though seemingly quite the undertaking (wink wink) – was told through such unique methods that I felt as though it was all new to me. The Under is a world unlike any other and trying to describe it with words alone simply cannot do it justice. After our introduction, we were assigned roles to portray as the stage was set. I was chosen as a stagehand, and while some of my cohorts stood atop a balcony and pretended to sail through a rough sea, I provided the lightning storm with the help of a virtual flashlight.
Soon after this delightful romp, however, things began to get a bit larger than life. James gathered us around the campfire and we were instantly transported underwater, where he took on the form of the spirit Ariel, and started reciting Shakespeare’s script with the delivery of a classically trained scholar. From here on out, The Under grabbed hold of each of my senses, taking me on a journey full of sword fighting, dancing, and enormous demons – all with the assistance of some virtual reality motion capture. At the end of our roughly 45-minute excursion, I was left craving more from this one-of-a-kind theatre-going experience. We thanked James the only way we could, by snapping like crazy, and we wound back up in the lobby to play around some more.
The Under Presents is more than a game, or a show, or an application. This deeply-thrilling adventure satisfied my yearning for live theater in a way I’ve yet to encounter since the pandemic struck. I’m thankful for not only the developers, Tender Claws, who brought this idea to life – as well as the hosts who brought it to life multiple times a day – but also the many faceless ghosts I met in The Under’s endgame multiplayer lobby, where we spent time fooling around with props and discovering hidden puzzles. There is just so much to do beneath The Under’s surface, and with more shows on the horizon it seems, I’m waiting with bated breath for the chance to dive back into this mysterious world. If you’ve been looking for something new that really flips the script of virtual reality in 2020, all you have to do is go Under.