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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Using the Oculus Rift to keep Inuit myth alive

aurora--Qalupalik
Using the Oculus Rift to keep Inuit myth alive

Time may go on, and the world may evolve, but many lessons linger through generations. Even distant myths stress a modern value. In about a month, the ice of Nunavut will begin to weaken and thaw with the season, and their fragility presents no small danger to those who wander or play near them. The qalupalik story dictates that beneath the ice flows lurks a cold, conniving sea hag, with sickly skin and nine-inch nail fingers, who waits for children to approach the waters. When the opportunity presents itself, the qalupalik strikes, dragging kids to its domain. According to some stories, the qalupalik’s victims develop Stockholm syndrome, choosing to stay with the creature even when their families attempt to recover them.

In the game developer Pinnguaq’s rendition of the tale, a teenager who doesn’t credit the fables discovers that lore will wait patiently in the darkest depths of the sea, regardless of what they believe.

“A lot of what Qalupalik is telling the story of is the mixing of two worlds,” said Ryan Oliver, the game’s lead producer. “It’s going to be set in modern day, and our main character doesn’t believe in any of this mythology. As he comes to exist in these worlds he’ll come to terms with those moments.”

underwatertown---Qalupalik

Pinnguaq started in Nunavut with the belief that Inuit mythology can and should go toe-to-toe with the types of folklore and pop culture that have dominated virtual reality. It has not been an easy endeavor. Infrastructure in the territory has made entrepreneurships, even digital ones, costly. The company has eased these tensions with teams in Toronto and Burnaby to wrestle most of the technical work, while a creative team in Nunavut is delegated with art direction, creative direction and storytelling without busting their strict bandwidth.    

Oliver says that Inuit mythology, unlike the mythological epics that hold our attention, have an unappreciated edge for horror. The qalupalik is an example of an especially dreadful creature that teases terror more than heroics. The Oculus was also an obvious avenue for effective horror, capable of trapping players in a fearsome world, and with that pairing in mind Pinnguaq prototyped and experimented when they got their DK1.

The game has been tinkered on for a while, and Oliver says there’s still a bit of tinkering to go. Oliver said they  consider transformation to be a key element. The team saw the cross-communication potential of VR embodied in the recent success of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, and wondered how it could be used in a tense horror setting. Its proposed parascoping scout system, allowing players to hunt their hunters with a friend’s aid, sounds a little similar to the old game Siren’s “sight jacking,” in which you could get a greater glance at your surroundings, though in that instance by splitting the screen like a Brian De Palma movie.

Qalupalik searching final

“The way it is now,” said Oliver, “we envision the VR as a multiplayer component. One of the myths and cultural components that we’re grabbing in is transformation. There’s a lot of Inuit art where people will transform into different animals. In the game we’re envisioning a helper that tags along with the main character, at any point turning into a raven or a seal, depending on the moment.”

The creatures, the qalupalik, also possess animal advantages. Some appear amphibian and sleek, others more hulking, one mutated out of a narwhal with a single vulgar horn in place of its eyes. Beasts from a Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to the north. Monsters are undead and immortal, sticking to culture with their claws, crawling through campfire tales and nightmares alike. The qalupalik, like so many other fearsome shadows, is a lesson designed to keep kids astray from danger. But for those far from the ice, these Nunavut game developers are hoping the legend will still raise a few goosebumps.

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