What If…? – An Immersive Story Teases a Potential Virtual Future for MCU Storytelling

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What If…? – An Immersive Story Teases a Potential Virtual Future for MCU Storytelling

What’s the future of the MCU? 

That’s been a constant topic endlessly debated by industry trades, ground-level geek websites and the fans disappointed by the Marvel Studios quality drop over the last two years. While a lot is riding on how Deadpool and Wolverine lands this month, that hasn’t hindered the studio from pushing their storytelling into new avenues. The burgeoning Marvel Studios Animation is gaining admiration, earning stellar reviews for its revival, X-Men ’97, and Emmy-nods for the What If…? series. But even less buzzed about is one of their most interesting narratives of late created exclusively for the fledgling VR platform, Apple Vision Pro. 

On May 30, Marvel Studios branched out into next gen interactive storytelling with What If…? – An Immersive Story. In development and production for more than a year and a half under Marvel Studios’ Dave Bushore, VP of Franchise Creative, and Shereif M. Fattou, ILM Immersive executive producer, What If…? – An Immersive Story is a tech-centric hybrid of the popular Marvel Comics What If…? concept and the Disney+ streaming series and its character iterations of The Watcher and Sorcerer Supreme Wong. Because of the fluidity of speculative storytelling inherent to What If…?—making them independent of canon timelines—and the streaming series success, it was identified as the perfect title to get experimental within the MCU. 

David Dong and Phil McCarty’s script pulls from comics lore mixed with already established  What If…? versions of MCU characters. “A lot is from the comics and specifically from a What If…? comic where Silver Surfer gets the Infinity Stones,” Bushore explains of their Vision Pro story foundations. “Soul World is something that exists in the comics. When they brought it to life in the movies, it was very specifically designed. But in the comics, it’s different and it serves different purposes. We were able to craft a narrative flow from a What If…? standpoint into a beautiful environment that [ILM] and team built.”

As a mixed virtual reality experience inside the calibrated Apple Vision Pro, What If…? – An Immersive Story invites the headset wearer into the animation aesthetics of the streaming series. The Watcher and Sorcerer Supreme Wong serve as your guide into navigating the Soul World universe. Using hand motions for basic magic conjuring of shields, projectiles and portal creation, the experience takes place in both the real environment your headset is synched to and then transitions into portals for a fully immersive, 360 perspective. 

While you initially practice skills needed for the narrative journey in the prologue of the story, there is no traditional gaming function to the experience. No points are acquired, just as no skills are built upon or expanded as the story unfolds. There are just simple hand movements with basic prompt instructions integrated into the fixed story elements, with ultimately a final participant choice that determines the ending of your story. 

For videogame players, this is basic level, virtual reality interaction that doesn’t feature any opportunities to grind for level ups or improved gameplay. Those expecting dynamic, repeat replayability will likely be disappointing for anyone over 13. However, for those who are excited about the potential of high end, interactive storytelling within VR tech, What If…? – An Immersive Story is a compelling proof of concept for a giant step forward. It provides MCU fans a singular experience to exist within the visual boundaries of the animated series, including time spent with dynamic characters in the world. 

“We’re not trying to force you into playing a role inside of another character,” Bushore says of its ease of entry. “We’re not trying to put you in the context of an adventure. You literally can just come right into it from the jump.” There’s an even quicker learning curve for those who have watched the What If…? series as this uses the same animation created by Flying Bark Productions. In particular, the glass-like shards that represent the myriad of alternate universes carries through the main narrative here as the headset wearer enters them with their guide to help correct time. 

“We knew we wanted to have The Watcher come in and present the multiverse in the way that he does in the show,” Bushore explains about their early intentions. “We knew from seeing the device early-ish, and what they could do from a fidelity standpoint, that the video would look amazing. 

“It’s also a passive/active experience where you’re doing something and then all of a sudden, you’re sitting back and you’re watching what’s going on with those characters in a very normal 2D environment,” he continues. “Because it is the theater in the round, to some degree, how do we move you between the worlds in an authentic way? And how do we stage it in a way, from a blocking standpoint, that’s not going to confuse you? I think that the first linchpin was we can make you track the story through the video content; that’s easy. And then we can play with all these other things. It was not easy by any stretch of the imagination for Indira Guerrieri, our technical art director at ILM and Pat Conran to get the 2D content into the shards and make it look amazing, especially in stereoscopic. But it was definitely a big part of the [end goal].”

In particular, the tech made them reconsider the ways of executing things like translating the powers provided to the headset player, or moving them from real time to within the world of the Soul Universe. Indira Guerrieri confirms that that was especially tricky to R&D. “We had artists who almost went crazy trying to figure it out,” she says. “The designers are trying to figure out how we do this transition so it doesn’t feel sudden and it feels natural?”

What If...? An Immersive Story

“How do we make this feel right?” Bushore continues about achieving elegance in the experience. “How do we make it feel graceful? Part of that conversation with the audience is where are the edits? People are used to watching 2D media and going, “Here comes the cut to the wide and here’s the close up.” But there’s no editing in VR. The only editing is going from place to place.”

Asked what What If…? – An Immersive Story represents for Marvel Studios and the future of their storytelling, Bushore says it’s essentially a partnership test to see where the boundaries of current tech are in relation to their interactive aspirations. 

“We’re not a game, and we’re not a movie,” he confirms. “What we made is a really, really cool short film version of what these things can be. Even though it’s an hour long, I really think we just scratched the surface in terms of expanding these narrative opportunities. Yes, that feels like a game, but it’s in fiction. It was trying to find the balance.”

For now, What If…? – An Immersive Story is a single chapter experience that Bushore says they don’t have current plans to expand upon with more levels. Instead, he sees entirely different story experiments heading into a pipeline as the demand for the Vision Pro becomes more mainstream. 

“Hopefully, we get to do another one of these as soon as possible,” he says of their goals for the tech. “Specifically from a Marvel perspective, the characters are so deep and rich and there’s so much to explore. When you look at it from a filmmaking or storytelling perspective, and you watch 2D content on the Apple Vision Pro, it’s going to break the idea of what a movie or a show can be. There’s no reason I can’t be watching the show on a device like this, and then have it expand in a way that’s never been done before. Outside of an experience that’s specifically built for it, there’s no reason content can’t continue to evolve.”

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, NBC Insider, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written official books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios, Avatar: The Way of Water and the upcoming The Art of Ryan Meinerding. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen.

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