Mr. Swan carefully replaces his broom next to the kitchen window and slowly edges back toward the table. He gingerly picks up the porcelain cat and works his fingers around it to make sure that it is the item he was searching for. Satisfied, he fumbles his way in to the dining room before positioning the cat on the polished oak table and making his way toward the hall. Little does he know that his day is about to take a downward turn.
I sat on the floor and watched Mr. Swan do this several times. The porcelain cat must be the key to it all otherwise why would he have been so careful to move it? The positioning was too precise yet random, the item too intriguing with the dragon motif on the base, and the eyes of the cat too searching, too intelligent, their glazed stare had witnessed too much. Of course ultimately it was just a porcelain cat, one detail in this play that had a surprisingly insignificant role in the a larger sequence of events where everything felt deliberate.
‘The Invisible Hours’ is a VR experience from Tequila Works (although it is now playable in non-VR) that truly deserves the ambiguous qualifier of being an ‘experience’. I’ve mentioned in the past that one of my worries for VR gaming is that it will become the home of ‘experiences’ rather than actual games however in this case the qualifier is justified as there is no traditional gameplay to speak of however please don’t let that put you off one of the more unique and satisfying VR titles that I’ve picked up so far in my Vive adventures.
The best description is that it gives itself as ‘a play in virtual reality’ and it comes with so much homage to Agatha Christie that it wouldn’t have surprised me to see a character called Bercule Poirot (Fun fact: “Bercule Poirot” is the name of my own Poirot based drinking game where you take a swig each time Hastings says “Good Lord”). The setup is classic Christie; seven characters on a secluded island in a large mansion, each a caricature in their own right. In the hallway a body, pool of blood, and heavy implement. It’s a ‘Whodoneit’ in four acts with the final bolt of inspired lightning being that the body is that of futurist, enigma, and master of electricity, Nicola Tesla, with Thomas Edison being amongst the lineup of suspects. Being a fan of Hercule Poirot and Nicola Tesla it seems as though ‘ The Invisible Hours’ was made specifically for me, especially with the added bonus that the whole thing takes place in a glorious VR rainstorm; I was only surprised that there wasn’t a lighthouse somewhere in the mix.
From the moment the player jams their VR thingamabob of choice against their face the game makes a point of presenting the imminent performance as a piece of theatre. A savegame can be loaded by selecting a ticket at the box office before the player moves through the lobby furnished with paintings of ingame locations and items that unlock as you encounter them in the story. Finally the player takes their place in a box overlooking a stage before being immersed in the setting fully once they start the game. This theatre location forms a game hub of sorts and the player can exit back here at any point.
Upon starting a new game the player is transported to a small wooden landing jetty on at the base of a cliff on the island, the rain beating down and lightning flickering sporadically from the clouds. A small boat chugs toward the landing carrying detective Gustaf Gustav (The detective so good they named him twice). Gustav hops ashore and the boat leaves as he wrestles with his unruly umbrella. He serves as a central character of sorts with his own troubled past that unfolds during the story however, as with all great mysteries, there is more than one story and events that Gustav himself is never even aware of. It is therefore impossible to fully understand what is happening without watching each act several times from several points of view. From the outset the player is free to control the flow of time by pausing the actors, fast forwarding, or rewinding. A handy clock is mounted on one of the virtual hand controls which serves as a useful tool for establishing a timeline of events. The player is also free to warp about the entire house and island at will or if you’re feeling lazy then just select a character to follow and you’ll be teleported between suitable vantage points to view their progress. It may sound confusing, but don’t panic, the game has you covered; the player can jump back out to the theatre at any point and view significant clues, documents, and photos that they may have found on their journey. More importantly however they are also presented with an interactive timeline of each act which shows which characters the player has observed at which times, a map showing where the characters were, and flags for significant events that appear once they have been seen.
In short ‘The Invisible Hours’ makes sure that the player is free to enjoy the unfolding drama without becoming lost in the premise.
This mode of presentation is unique as it allows the player to experience the events in any way they wish. I found myself completely exploring each act before moving on to the next; first following Gustav and then following each of the other characters in turn until I had a full view of events for each of the interwoven stories being told. I’ve since read an online opinion recommending that the player first follow Gustav through the entire play to gain an understanding of the overall story arc before following each of the characters individually and having experienced the entire thing I doubt there would be a ‘wrong’ way to approach the exploration of the plot. To top things off the whole package is wrapped together in a clever way that promotes intrigue. More than once I caught sight of a character furtively sneaking down a hallway or looking around a corner and would only discover later what they were up to. There are frequently scenes taking place within earshot of other scenes triggering the player to instantly question the nature of the argument taking place in the next room. It’s a credit to the developers that they managed to arrange events so that it all meshes so nicely, although there are odd moments where character loiter and idle a little longer than would be natural; essentially waiting for their cue.
Aside from the odd jarring moment when Thomas Edison walks right through you (not something I’ve experienced in real life), the immersive nature of VR is well suited to this style of presentation. It gives the player an unparalleled sense of being a phantom observer of these characters. I found myself almost sneaking around the scenes to watch the interplay of a dialogue, or to study the facial expressions of a character. I’d perch myself on the balcony overlooking the main hall to watch events play out below and found myself sitting on the floor (often to save my aching back) as a scene played out in the room around me. More then once I caught myself instinctively wanting to pull up one of the extra chairs at the dining table and take a seat next to Gustav as he quizzed one of the cast about their movements. For a game with minimal interaction it surprised me to find that it is one of the most captivating VR experiences I’ve had so far with the Vive.
‘The Invisible Hours’ isn’t a VR experience that everyone is going to enjoy. It will sparkle brightest to those that enjoy an interesting narrative and particularly if the player appreciates a game taking a unique stance in how that narrative is revealed. I’ve commented before how games are capable at delivering a story in a ways that books or movies are unable to due to their linearity and with the ability to manipulate time ‘The invisible Hours’ is a great example of this that I highly recommend. Most importantly however I’m pretty sure that the porcelain cat was responsible in some way… I just haven’t figured out how…