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‘CTRL’ Review: New VR Thriller Attempts To Combine Gaming With Theatrical Storytelling

The 20-minute immersive drama played at POP, TIFF's VR showcase in August.

“CTRL”

Breaking Fourth

From its inception in 2012, when Oculus Rift first launched its Kickstarter campaign, consumer VR has had gamers flocking to try the new technology, but cinephiles have been more skeptical. “CTRL,” an ambitious new drama from Breaking Fourth Productions, is attempting to bridge the gap. Set inside an animated game and billed as a “seated 360-degree viewing experience,” the opening of the 20-minute “CTRL” is reminiscent of the sweeping views from the window of the Hogwarts Express in a “Harry Potter” film.

Much like the openings of those films, this grand introduction to the world of “CTRL” percolates with possibility.

READ MORE: How (And Why) A TIFF Premiere Put A Character’s Life In the Audience’s Hands

Eventually landing in a squared off arena, the viewer sees a live-action Liam (Alfie Kingsnorth) up on three big screens looming over the field of play. The big screen cuts between Liam in his home and two energetic hosts (Oliver Mason and Sammy Moore), who explain that Liam is the underdog in a tournament that could potentially earn him some much-needed prize money. When they learn he has no sponsor and is playing on his mother’s old laptop, Liam becomes their “Cinderella Story.”

"CTRL"

“CTRL”

Breaking Fourth

As gameplay progresses, Liam’s avatar shoots lasers at chess pieces as he winds through sand mazes and stone castles. Eventually his mother (Helen Terry) appears behind his shoulder, asking what he wants for dinner. The game hosts tease him at first, but as the realities of Liam’s home life come into focus through snippets of offscreen dialogue, the story takes a more sinister turn.

READ MORE: Lucy Walker Embraces VR: Why The Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker is Focused on the Future of Cinema

The idea for “CTRL” came partially from a desire to draw in gamers, VR’s primary audience, to a narrative piece. “We also thought that being inside of a game is a unique way to explore a story,” said creator David Kaskel, founder and CEO of Breaking Fourth. Without giving too much away, “CTRL” warns viewers up top about violence and disturbing scenes. Kaskel and the creative team were interested in exploring real world implications of video game violence.

“I was specifically interested in the ways that violence in games and in real life are portrayed and talked about,” Kaskel told IndieWire by email. “From my perspective the (sometimes) emphasis on the former is at the cost of the discussion of the latter. Real violence is brutal and horrific. It isn’t a game.”

Based in London, arguably the theater capitol of the world, Breaking Fourth prides itself on bringing theatrical storytelling to VR. Abraham Parker, the writer of “CTRL,” is a playwright, and its director, Nigel Townsend, is a theater director. Like any good British production, the actors are all accomplished stage actors. In July, “CTRL” held a limited screening at RADA studios (RADA stands for Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts) in an effort to reach theater audiences.

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Kaskel and Breaking Fourth are to be commended for combining theatrical elements with this experimental new medium. Many film and theater-goers seem flummoxed as to how best engage with this futuristic technology. “CTRL” unfolds slowly and steadily, pushing the narrative forward with high drama and unceasing action. It is refreshing, though not surprising, to see theater-makers embracing VR, which offers such unexplored storytelling opportunities.

“The immersive nature of the medium allows us to fully capture the audience’s attention,” wrote Kaskel. “It also provides us with a built in context for the audience to relate to the story; they are in the same world as the characters and the action.  And the newness of the medium means that everything that we are doing feels fresh.”

“CTRL” screened at TIFF this August as part of the festival’s VR showcase. “CTRL” is now available for $3.99 in the Oculus Store

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