Immersion And The Jack Ryan VR Experience

Last week I attended San Diego Comic-Con to be a mentor at the Game Creator Connection, an event in which game industry professionals give advice to other game developers and those wanting to break into the industry. Although I have been a life-long fan of fantasy and science fiction, it was my first time visiting Comic-Con since I was in my twenties, when it was a modest-sized comic book convention with several hundred attendees. I was almost overwhelmed by how large this convention, now celebrating a colorful swath of popular culture, had become, with attendance in excess of one hundred thousand fans.

All of these fans showed up for five days of immersion in their favorite fandoms – intellectual immersion by listening to panels of content creators, tactile immersion by the souvenirs and other themed merchandise offered on the dealer floor, and narrative immersion offered by those who cosplay as their favorite characters. Content producers know that Comic-con attendees are the best customers and greatest evangelists for their products, as well as the power of immersion to get people excited and engaged. So movie and television studios spent megabucks not just on advertising at Comic-Con, but fully immersive escape rooms, where participants entered and solved themed puzzles for finding the way to exit the room.

The most impressive of these immersive promotional experiences at Comic-Con was Jack-Ryan: The Experience, a 60,000 square foot outdoor facility to promote Amazon Prime Video’s new web television series based on techno-thriller author Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst turned operative, played alternately by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck in the movies, and now on television by John Krasinski (best known for playing Jim on The Office).

My immersion began in the line outside the facility, where I was handed a newspaper with the headline “San Diego Invaded!” along with a Jack Ryan branded water bottle and pretzels as I waited in a camouflage-covered line leading to a series of kiosks for entering my name and email address (along with a consent form to sign, indemnifying Amazon from any legal blame for injuries I might receive from my black ops training). The kiosk camera then took my picture, and after a few seconds, the personnel handed me my “Analyst” photo id on a Jack Ryan branded lanyard for admittance into the facility.

Once inside the facility, set in Yemen despite the San Diego “invasion”, I made my way to the Dark Ops Escape Room, where participants receive their first field assignment: uncovering an double-crossing extremist conspiracy and obtaining classified intelligence. Created by digital agency AKQA and London-based interactive production company Unit 9, this escape room features live actors, voice technology and immersive set pieces. Unfortunately, the line to get in was too long for my patience, and so I investigated the bazaar next door.

After scoping out these Middle Eastern shopping stalls for more refreshments such as fruit and ice cream as well as a bag of Jack Ryan swag, which you received by inserting your Analyst id into a kiosk and answering a marketing survey. However, I discovered that actor stationed in the stall had mini-quests for us neophyte CIA analyst to complete, such as memorizing intelligence information or doing photo surveillance of another actor in the clever disguise of wearing a hat topped with a pineapple.

Immersive play doesn’t necessarily involve fulfilling quests or solving puzzles; just being in a novel environment and sharing it with your friends can be fun who don’t’ have the energy for playing games. Many visitors enjoyed simply taking selfies inside the stalls, while one stall featured a booth in which I was photographed against a green screen and then emailed a photograph with a Jack Ryan themed background, which I was encouraged to share on Instagram with the hashtag #JackRyan. Well, I’m not so easily swayed into participating in propaganda campaigns – so I shared it with my Facebook friends instead.  Take that, terrorists!

After getting an ice cream from a Yemen shopkeeper who knew refreshment what visitors to a desert environment would most appreciate, I sat in a shaded pavilion and watched participants going through the most exciting part of the Jack Ryan Experience: 4D experience in which participants undertake a training mission inspired by the series pilot episode. While wearing virtual reality gear but using physical props and sets, they run up three flights of stairs to board a helicopter, which takes them to a Yemen high-rise rooftop. Once there, they repel into the building, fight off a group of terrorists, zip line down to the ground, and escape in a jeep to a safe house.  I was impressed with how elaborate this promotional activity was, and how the combination of the physical and virtual made it exceptionally immersive for players.

As I was watching this thrilling experience, I ran into former IGDA Director Kate Edwards, who had invited me to participate in the Game Creator Connection, and fellow mentor Vlad Micu. When I told them that I would love the take the “training exercise” myself, Vlad kindly introduced me to his friend Laurens de Gier, a Unity developer at MediaMonks, the Netherlands digital production company that had created this VR training mission. Lauren explained to me that they had only four months to create the training mission part of the Jack Ryan Experience, which included participants wearing a very light HP Omen X VR backpack connected to an Oculus headset, as well as hand and foot sensors for tracking their movements throughout the mission using an OptiTrack system.  Based on everything I had heard about the experience, MediaMonks did an exceptional job with the technology.

Laurens tried valiantly to get me VIP access to the training mission, but alas, the line was capped, as people had been waiting since 5:30 that morning to try it out. So, I maintained my low-key cover and continued to work the bazaar instead. Still, the role-playing and swag I received was fun and did the trick in turning me into a new recruit for the Central Intelligence Agency: on August 31, I’ll be continuing the immersion by watching the pilot episode of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime.


Is Video Game Development Art?

Last Friday my wife and I attended an art gallery reception hosted by the Santa Clarita Artist’s association, of which she is Vice President. During a conversation with another couple, my wife said that we were driving up to the San Francisco area later this week to participate at an outdoor art festival in Los Altos. The couple then asked if I were an artist like my wife, and I rather sheepishly explained that I was just her “roadie.”

When talking to painters and photographers, I never describe that the work I do in video games as art. I suppose that I feel self-conscious about making that claim, knowing that many people still think of video games as a wasteful pastime for children and juvenile adults. I remember reading the late film critic Roger Ebert’s answer when asked if video games were art:

“To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”

While Roger Ebert did admit that video game art can have artistic merit, he did not make such a concession to video game writing. Of course, now video game writers such as Amy Henning and Neil Druckmann are finally receiving critical recognition for their work from the Writers Guild of America and other writing peers who see that video games can tell meaningful stories about the human condition.

But what about the work as a whole? Is assembling different artistic components together into a video game make the collective work an artistic one. To answer that question, I look to another quote, one from the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, in which Aaron Sorkin wrote this exchange between the characters of Apple founds Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs:

Steve Wozniak: What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?
Steve Jobs: Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.

I suppose that what I do as a video game designer and producer is play the orchestra of programmers, artists, writers, and sound engineers. Yet still I call myself an artist, even in my best work. For me, art is not art when an artist thinks it’s art, but when the critical consensus says it’s art. And until the day when the Producers Guild of America or the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences starts bestowing video game production awards like the British Academy of Film and Television Arts does, I must be satisfied with considering myself to be a video game roadie.