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VR to Bring Depictions Of War, Worthy for Gaming?

From the early days of World War 1, as trench life started to settle in, British soldiers could kill a couple of minutes of their long stretches between battle by writing home to friends and loved ones. To take care of the overwhelming need, the UK's General Post Office established a first sorting office in London's Regent's Park at the end of 1914. It was a maze of piled sacks, piled on top of one another and extending out as far as the eye could see, like some empty administration room in Hogwarts.

The assembly room of 59 Productions resembles a miniature version of the scene when I walk in to see its most recent VR experience, Nothing to be Written. Sprawled across the table are some real letters from soldiers, some of which still bare the pencil markings from where places and other information was censored out over 100 years back. But there's another sort of message on the table, also. They seem like multi-choice postcards, with several printed statements such as"I'm quite well" and"I've received your parcel" listed. Soldiers only had to emphasize what applied to them, then send the card on its way. They were known as field postcards.

"At first these seem menacing," 59 Director Lysander Ashton explains as we sift through a pile of them. "But soldiers adored them. You could send letters, but they'd need to be censored. These would bypass the censor office and return home within two days, so it was a very immediate means of communicating."

It is these cards, and the notion of a story behind each electronic correspondence, which forms the base of Nothing to be Written, a companion piece of sorts to the next movement of a new choral score from composer Anna Meredith, created in cooperation with the BBC as part of this continuing Prom season. It is a VR war experience, unlike anything you have yet seen, trading bullets and bangs to get a more in-depth look at the actual lives in an unspeakable tragedy. Music by the piece flows throughout as you are taken on a seven-minute journey that bridges the gap between the frontlines along with a card's final destination through the letterbox of a loved one.

Tonally, the piece is among the most striking and overpowering explorations of war in VR I have yet seen. It frees you away in the stuffy confines of the sorting office over to trenches and hospital beds, interchanging the front doors of British houses as cards start to pile up and eventually bleeding these different settings into each other to supernatural influence. "One thing that is interesting in VR is that the concept of places being on top of one another," Ashton says. "Firstly you are in 1 location, you are at the trench at VR, but you are also here [in real life], as well as the fact that throughout the adventure you cut between different places, but you have not moved anywhere. That concept of a superposition of realities and the way you can break down the barrier between these realities is fascinating."

That foundation leads you on a more existential journey. There is no explicit visual depiction of the brutality of war revealed, but the sometimes-haunting character of Meredith's score means it's not far from thought. "There is a level of human connection, but also it's in the middle of a remarkably brutal and horrifying chapter of human history," Ashton says. "So you can not escape from it. I guess we wanted to find a way to maintain the war without shying away from the brutal realities of it without seeing those cliches."

To this effect, Soldiers appear distorted, almost like produced from the mist, to reflect the ambiguous, everyman character of the area cards. "We didn't need to tell one special story because we do not understand the story," Ashton notes. "Taking the idea from the postcard of numerous possibilities; how can that lend itself to the narrative?"

The solution can be found in the feeling of scale Nothing to be Written supplies in its brief running time. By the sheer number of field cards which flow around one to the eccentric pace where you stage between places, the enormity of the battle and the width of people it affected is brilliantly recorded. At one stage you hold a card up to your face just for it to morph into a type of dirty window to the reality of the front lines.

"When you received one of these, it would hook you up with people in the trenches, but you would not get an apparent image," Ashton says, holding up a card. That's why folks appear as"traces" throughout, and scene changes gradually fade into each other instead of clear cuts. There's a feeling of this dark, unknown reality underneath like you're attempting to make a partly-informed image of it all in your head that looks past the propaganda 100 years back.

Regardless of the scale, it is a surprisingly intimate and private piece, highlighted by Meredith's score which paints each scene with an unnerving sense of foreboding. I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach at the same stage as the ghostly figure of a soldier approached to hand me a card, like I was going to be given the information I had always feared even when I had no direct link to what was facing me. The human cost of conflict is hauled far superior to any VR shooter I have yet seen.

Nothing to be Written will be showcased in a BBC prom in London next week before doing a round of occasions and finally be ending up on Oculus Proceed and other headsets. To me, it is a piece that showcases why VR should start moving beyond its own gamified, hyper-violent depictions of war and start bringing us closer to what life was like during actual battles that shook the world. That is where this medium's real power lies.

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