Asteroids, the second animated project from virtual reality studio Baobab, has lofty ambitions for a 10-minute short. It’s supposed to draw elements from both traditional animation and video games, put them in VR, and end up with something unprecedented: a piece of storytelling that, as Asteroids director (and Madagascar co-director) Eric Darnell describes it, lets us connect to fictional characters the way we would real human beings.
It’s also supposed to be a funny cartoon about aliens in the style of classic Warner Bros.
WHAT’S THE GENRE?
Animated VR comedy with light interactive elements.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A menial robot participates in wacky and heartwarming hijinks aboard a spaceship alongside two bumbling extraterrestrials their pet alien dog.
OKAY, WHAT’S IT REALLY ABOUT?
The power of friendship, and the player’s attempt to build a relationship with their shipmates.
BUT IS IT GOOD?
I have a hard time objectively judging Asteroids, because I don’t think I have the relationship with fiction that Baobab describes — and that relationship is central to the studio’s work.
Darnell and his co-founder Maureen Fan, formerly VP of games at Zynga, have a favorite example of how they think VR differs from other media. It goes something like this: if you see a little girl crying on a park bench in a movie, you’ll feel sad, but you won’t be compelled to do anything. If you see her crying in a video game, you’ll help her out of a mercenary impulse — to get information or a reward, or finish a quest. But if you see her crying in virtual reality, you’ll actually want to help her — what Darnell refers to as “pure” motivation.
IF ONLY I COULD NOT TALK TO THE MONSTERS
In Asteroids, your robot protagonist begins the story despised by its alien owners. The creatures, who speak in a silly gibberish, began as semi-villainous invading monsters in Baobab’s first film. But here, the animators render them expressively and sympathetically. When one of them is angry, they lean right into your space with a look of pure fury; when they’re sad, they raise their chunky tentacle-arms and wail. And at key moments, you can do things that affect your relationship with them, like a simplified version of a Telltale game. (In a seemingly unintentional nod to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, one choice apparently gets your arm torn off, which sounds super dark for a mostly lighthearted cartoon.) By the end, as long as you pay attention to what’s going on, you can save the day and win their approval.
But even in virtual reality, I’m clearly aware that these are fictional characters, and that makes them fundamentally different from people. Humans are real entities with interiority and the capacity to feel pain or joy, whose lives you can measurably affect — and whose existence will still go on without you. Characters are creations that are safely removed from reality; if they weren’t, the work of George R.R. Martin (or almost any other author) would be indefensible. No matter how compelling I find an invented person, they exist only to make me feel things, and that means I can never achieve the kind of purity Darnell is seeking.
If anything, I tend to care about VR characters less than those in other media, because VR experiences are so short that I barely get any time with them. I’ll go to ridiculous lengths to make my companions happy in games like Fallout, because I like the feeling of simulated approval and want to spend more time with them. But that’s usually after I’ve spoken to them, learned something about their history and motivations, and often traveled with them for hours. I’m not sure you can circumvent character development simply by making an experience more visually intense.
I’d much rather enjoy Asteroids as a story than an empathy exercise. It has genuinely funny bits, like one of the aliens’ nearly pathological commitment to cleaning the spaceship windshield, and aesthetically impressive moments, like when we first see space outside the cramped confines of the ship. I just find myself wishing I could watch these characters interact, instead of awkwardly trying to get a reaction from them. To invert that famous quote from a 1994 Doom review, if only I could not talk — metaphorically speaking — to the monsters.
WHAT EMOTIONS ARE INVOLVED HERE?
I’m not even sure I have normal human emotions, now. Maybe I am a cold, unfeeling robot who should go hide in a cave.
HOW CAN I ACTUALLY WATCH IT?
Asteroids will be released later this year on tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.