Dear Angelica

Creator: Oculus Story Studios (Directed by Saschka Unseld, Starring Geena Davis and Mae Whitman) January 2017

VR Technology: Oculus, Quill

Viewing System: Oculus

Dear Angelica is a beautifully crafted exploration of illustrative storytelling in a virtual environment. The plot revolves around Jessica, a girl reminiscing about her late mother through narration and dreamlike visuals. Designed in Quill, an illustration tool built for the Oculus, it utilizes dynamic brushstrokes which guide the user’s attention in a very organic way.

Dear Angelica as a narrative is self-standing, but what it hopes to accomplish (namely introducing quality content to virtual reality to attract customers to purchase Oculus’ products) is part of a larger initiative that ties it to other well-crafted projects. Its means of funding and distribution exclusively through Oculus products is very telling of the values and priorities at play through development. Consequently, the experience was clearly designed to be accessible, intuitive, demanding very little platform-specific training from the user. It trusts the user to do little besides turning their head, a motion that does not need to be taught.

At the start of the experience, the user is introduced to Jessica, a young woman addressing a message to “Angelica”. As the narrative progresses, Angelica’s character is established through her relationship with Jessica. Audio effects reminiscent of TV static and Angelica’s characteristic red hair is used to differentiate memories from Jessica’s reality.

Conveying this project through virtual reality was especially effective; the developers cleverly used the space surrounding the mostly-stationary user to curate a surreal sense of presence. The experience is chiefly free of interaction, as the user plays the role of a passive observer, happily whisked away in the thrill of the adventure and watching hopelessly during moments of lament. The developer’s use of scale, vibrant colour, animated audio, and aggressive brushstrokes juxtaposed with dragged-on moments of somber quietness was powerful in evoking polarizing emotions.

In scenes where Jessica mourns the loss of Angelica, the user is presented with a meager, distant drawing of Jessica surrounded by darkness. No matter how the user turns their head, there is nothing but Jessica’s solitude to fixate on, drawing parallels with Jessica’s sense of hopelessness and loneliness. Such an effect would be challenging to accomplish in other mediums, since it relies on monopolizing the user’s attention to gain full control of what the user is processing.

One affordance of storytelling through virtual reality that the experience did not exploit is the use of gaze. Through ray casting, the program can easily identify what the user’s gaze is fixated on, but the experience does not appear to take any of the user’s output into account. If a user is sitting on a chair that hinders their ability to turn their head, it can be confusing at times to establish where exactly the action is happening. The ability for the user to comfortably turn their head 360° is an assumption the directors should not make.

Overall, Dear Angelica is a gripping experience and an enchanting first experience for those new to virtual reality. It effectively captures the user and provides an experience that lives up to the commercialized promise and hype of this iteration of virtual reality.