Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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One series’ quest to define a language for cinematic virtual reality

One series’ quest to define a language for cinematic virtual reality

“The city is destroying itself.”

Kingdom City Drowning envisions a grimy, bleak future. The wealthy live high above in towering skyscrapers, but the poor live at the bottom, trapped in a pervasive smog as it kills the world around them and endangers their livelihood. “It’s about three close people who are bound by this love in this terrible environment,” co-creator W.K. Gerardi summarized. “The story is them trying to make their way upwards towards the top where the air is cleaner and life is better.”

Well, that knife looks bad.
Well, that knife looks like it hurts.

Kingdom City Drowning is an upcoming “cinematic” episodic series for virtual reality. Its first episode “The Champion” is due for release in early 2017. The project doesn’t limit itself as just another 360-degree webshow, despite being a passive experience like film. Its key difference is that it’s developed specifically for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, so on a technical level, it’s more advanced than a typical 360-degree video. The series is being developed primarily by Gerardi and co-creator Barrett Phillips (“We encompass all of the roles basically,” Phillips notes of their small team), with a score composed by Protector 101, a.k.a. Jake Freeman. 

Gerardi and Phillips are trying to craft the perfect cinematic atmosphere, something akin to the dark films and videogames they often have found themselves admiring over the years. “VR right now is sort of the wild west, and there’s no conventions that anyone needs to [adhere to], because there’s so many different directions that everybody has,” said Phillips. “And for us, being able to constantly create the language, at least our own language of VR cinema, is insanely creatively invigorating on a daily basis. It’s definitely what keeps me going more than anything else.”

“we’re creating our own language of VR cinema”

Kingdom City Drowning relishes in its bleak atmosphere. Dark, almost-tangible moods in fiction, in a more general sense, are a core common inspiration for the trio. “I’ve always liked doing darker stuff, so we had a list of films that we took a lot of inspirations from,” said Gerardi. “Really visceral films that are just wild shit, stylistically.”

He specifically referenced Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights as an example of this, as well as the work of directors Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) and Gaspard Noé (Enter the Void, Irréversible). For Phillips, the videogames he played growing up have had a similar impact on his work, such as the dreary environments present in Thief, System Shock, and Deus Ex. In Freeman’s music, the films Blade Runner and Hardware have cemented a place in his compositions. Together, the three knew they had a lot in common. Stylistically, at least.

“We’re definitely feeding off each other, we’re going back and forth, and I think that’s a real good thing,” said Freeman of the trio’s workflow. Phillips agrees, “Yeah definitely. Just listening to those tracks makes us turn around and work twice as hard.” Freeman has a history in composing ambient music in the past, so devising atmospheric score for the dystopian world in Kingdom City Drowning clicked naturally—despite being a first-time composer for VR. “You really have to push yourself because you’re in it, you’re in that world,” said Freeman.

Kingdom City Drowning relies on its dreary atmosphere above all else.
Kingdom City Drowning relies on its dreary atmosphere above all else.

Kingdom City Drowning‘s cast includes Kentucker Audley (The Sacrament), Amin Joseph (Dope), and Sofia Banzhaf (Bitten). For the future, Kingdom City Drowning will slowly roll out episodes as the development progresses in the creators’ spare time. “We’ve been too overambitious in so many ways,” said Phillips, though he remains optimistic. “But it’s a good platform to be overambitious in.”

Episode One, “The Champion,” will be released in Q1 2017. Episode Two, “Lovers in Hell City,” expects a release in Q3 2017. Episode 3, “The Drugs We Eat Won’t Save Us,” has yet to have an announced release date. Stay tuned to Kingdom City Drowning’s website for future updates.

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