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Hands-On: Empereur Shows Narrative VR’s Emotive Potential

Empereur

Created by Marion Burger and Ilan Cohen, Empereur effectively uses VR to create an emotional story on Quest 2. Read on for our full impressions.

Empereur falls somewhere between your typical VR game and a 360° movie. Produced by Atlas V and Albyon Studio, this 40-minute journey puts us inside the head of a father suffering from Aphasia, a condition that significantly impairs your ability to communicate. What follows is a deeply personal experience that will stick with me for sometime. Using stylish, hand-drawn monochrome visuals with great narration from Olivia Cooke, this story finds his daughter learning more about his inner self. It’s a mostly guided experience where events unfold around you, and interaction is usually limited to picking up objects with hand tracking.

Still, I appreciate the simplicity these controls brought otherwise. Moving to different areas requires pointing at them for several seconds, while grabbing items like the father’s tape recordings will advance the story. Empereur's strength comes from its narrative and what's most interesting is where these areas mix.

Some events are deliberately scripted to make you fail your first attempt. The letters segment mentioned above involved drawing an 'R', alongside another challenge that involved mimicking clock hands. I initially thought my fingers weren't tracking correctly, later realizing it’s a clever approach that highlights the difficulties of the condition.

As the player, your objective is clear. As the father, your means are not. Such moments remind me of Before I Forget, a flatscreen game about dementia. A game can't perfectly recreate these conditions, but mixing speech therapy segments with surrealist dream sequences seems to at least allow Empereur to offer a window into his life. It shows the father’s struggle without making him pitiable.

I’d be remiss not to compare it with Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which detailed his life before and after suffering a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. Calling this a VR version of Bauby’s tale isn't accurate, though – Empereur is inspired by Burger’s father. The two conditions are distinct, yet parallels with the film adaptation are undeniably striking.

There’s a similar raw emotion that Empereur captures as you watch his wife and daughter pick up the pieces afterward. The father can no longer communicate like before but he understands everything. Watching the dream sequences unfold and hearing tales of his life puts a human touch to this story and one part nearly moved me to tears. I felt connected to his struggle.

Empereur was shown at Venice Immersive in Italy. During this event, Atlas V informed UploadVR that Empereur launches on the Quest Store on October 29.

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