When Thomas Wolfe wrote “you can’t go home again,” he clearly hadn’t tried to do it in virtual reality—because right now, my body is sitting in an office in midtown Manhattan, but my brain is back in my childhood bedroom in Ohio. There’s a robot that responds to voice commands; a toy model of Castle Grayskull from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; Transformers strewn around, in ridiculous positions. If the couch wasn’t a slightly different kind of 1980s tacky from my own, I’d swear I had indeed proven Wolfe wrong.
This homecoming came courtesy of Miyubi, the latest VR experience from Felix & Paul Studios. It’s a live-action piece about a boy who gets a toy robot named Miyubi for his birthday in 1982—except you’re the robot. As the family’s new live-in droid, you become a confidant of the boy and his family: his stressed-out father, his soap-opera-watching mother, his John Bender-wannabe older brother, his My-Little-Pony-loving little sister, and his war veteran grandfather. References abound; Kiss music, the original Battlestar Galactica, Cold War-era anxieties about being spied on. Starting to sound familiar? And, if you were born before 1989, maybe a little too familiar? It’s supposed to. Miyubi‘s nearly 40-minute runtime is an eternity in VR, so Felix & Paul are in part banking on that sense of nostalgia and familiarity to keep you in the headset for the full duration.
“We really wanted to make every scene as rich as humanly possible. Being able to play with all these toys and these things that a lot of people would recall from their childhoods [did that],” says Paul Raphaël, the co-founder of Felix & Paul (which made Miyubi, out today for the Oculus Rift and Gear VR, in conjunction with Oculus and Funny or Die). “Everything was very intentional.”
Raphaël and his team, which is also responsible for multiple VR documentaries and companion pieces for movies like Wild, have been working on Miyubi for well over a year (and Raphaël and his co-founder Felix Lajeunesse had been kicking around the concept for much longer than that), but it couldn’t be coming at a more opportune time. Just last week, Stranger Things and Ready Player One released new ’80s-steeped trailers that invoked everything Akira to Ghostbusters, with RPO essentially being a movie about VR.
Just because the cultural touchpoints are similar, though, doesn’t mean everything else is—especially the demands of the format. People are accustomed to sitting through a two-hour movie or 42-minute television episode of television; doing that in a VR headset is another question. People already play VR games for hours on end, but passive watching is a different story, one that Felix & Paul are just now learning how to tell.
To do that, they are using a lot of nostalgia (look around at any moment and you’ll see VCRs, old-school toys, references to Rambo and hair metal) and a little bit of gameplay, sometimes both at once. If you find all three Easter eggs hidden in the VR experience—usually this involves looking at a secret object for a few seconds until it lights up—you unlock a special bonus reel featuring Jeff Goldblum.
“We were intrigued by the idea of Felix & Paul with Funny or Die and the comedic aspects and were really interested in that, but then what it turned into was this thing that is riddled with innovative aspects,” says Colum Slevin, head of experiences at Oculus. “Not only does it stand alone as a piece of entertainment but also it sort of sets the bar for people who are making live-action VR in a territory that was heretofore just for game developers. It’s a colossal experiment, but it’s one we’re really in love with.”
Does it work? Yes. Well, kinda. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Miyubi, but I’m also squarely in the target demo. (While talking to Raphaël, I joked that most of the props looked like they’d been salvaged from the basement of my parents’ old home. He responded by saying most had been salvaged from the collections of Felix & Paul employees.) Whether someone who didn’t grow up playing with Transformers would be similarly entertained, though, is an open question. That’s the weird thing with nostalgia: It’s different for everyone. There’s likely something every child of the ‘80s can attach to in Miyubi. Millennials? Tougher sell. That doesn’t mean someone who didn’t grow up as a first-generation He-Man fan won’t enjoy it—clearly people of nearly all age groups like Stranger Things even if they don’t know Stephen King from Stephen Curry—but will they stick with it if they’re not waiting for the next thing to tickle their Fond Memories rib? Impossible to say.
Raphaël wants to know, though; he’ll be following along after Miyubi’s launch to see how popular it is, and how many people finish the game to win the Gold(blum). “We’ve probably shown it 1-on-1 to close to 1,000 people now, including the festivals, so we’ve gotten some great feedback,” says Raphaël. “But it’s nothing like getting it out there and seeing how the world reacts.” Chances are, they’ll like it—and feel just a little sentimental when they do.