Penrose Studios’ Allumette launches on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR today. This real-time animated VR tale is beautifully crafted and aims for your heart strings, but does it hit its mark?
Alumette tells the tale of an orphaned girl who lives in a fantastical floating village. The aesthetic straddles the line between claymation and cardboard handicraft and is expertly used to set a well composed stage consisting of a little village that’s set floating in fluffy clouds. A stage indeed; while a picturesque slice of the tiny village surrounds you, directly in front there is a large flat area that Allumette makes ample use of for character performance and key moments. The scene around you functions as your viewpoint for the majority of the experience, and it’s well composed such that there’s a pretty world in your periphery, but it doesn’t distract you from the main action.
The claymation-like animation approach might look great in a still, but I don’t think the choice of ‘low-framerate’ animation (where character animations are jumpy, characteristic of claymation) was a good fit for VR; we’re now so used to smooth 90 FPS motion in these modern VR headsets that seeing the characters animate at what looks like the equivalent of 10 or 15 FPS made me feel like my computer was stuttering or even that the characters were running in slow motion.
Animation aside, the characters themselves—a mother and her daughter are the main focus—are well designed, staying clearly on the cartoon side of the style spectrum. Unfortunately that style comes accompanied with mumbles as the only form of communication among characters in the world of Allumette. Instead of saying real words, characters make expressive mumbles, hums, and groans to one another, so you are left with only the tone of what’s being said while needing to infer the substance. This felt a little tired, and made it more difficult for me to connect with and care about the characters, relegating them solely in the realm of little critters (reinforced by their cartoonish designs) rather than complex entities with which I could readily connect my human thoughts and emotions.
Alumette spins up a quick connection between Mother and Daughter (I’m using those as proper nouns because names are never given) whose craft is creating glowing baton-like wands that are sold to the townspeople. Mother teaches Daughter how to sell the goods, and, in a single moment, apparently teaches Daughter the meaning of kindness by giving one of the wands to a blind man to use as a cane. It all happens fast. Too fast.
I have been searching for a VR experience with characters I can really connect to and care about. I had high hopes for Allumette in that regard, but I’m still left searching. That’s not a major knock against Allumette, it’s something the entire VR industry is still learning how to do effectively.
Character development is hard, but in many ways it seems that time spent observing the characters is a minimum requirement. With Allumette spanning only 20 minutes or so, it’s hard to develop the characters and still have any time left for conflict and action. But this is in opposition to the VR medium which so far has favored shorter ‘experiences’ than epic stories.
Still, you can’t expect to just shove the conflict in the viewer’s face after a few minutes of exposition; if the viewer doesn’t connect to the characters then the conflict hardly matters because there’s no reason to care about the outcome.
Allumette is at its best when the viewer realizes at the same time as Mother that she needs to make a tough choice because it’s the right thing to do. It makes effective use of the stage around the viewer to hint at what’s coming. This moment is not sophisticated though, and while I could feel a little tug on my heart strings from what I knew had to be done, it was only a general feeling of sympathy, not a specific connection to the situation of the characters (because I was not very attached to them or their world). The ending in particular felt oddly jarring, like the dénouement had been hacked off.
If it sounds like I’m being a little hard on Allumette, it’s because it’s really good, but I want it to be great. At the excellent price of free, it’s definitely worth a watch, but I don’t think it’ll have you coming back for a second viewing any time soon.
I want a story in VR that immerses me and makes me care about the characters and makes a world so enveloping that I don’t want to leave. We aren’t there yet, but Allumette undoubtedly points us in the right direction.