If there’s one thing I miss about commuting to work every day on the subway pre-pandemic, it’s people-watching. My ability to create fake narratives in my head about random strangers really helped flex the creative part of my brain each day. So, when I put on my virtual reality headset to find myself seated on a train next to people I didn’t know in The Passengers, I felt right at home.
Premiering at this year’s SXSW, The Passengers is an interactive VR experience that tells the story of four strangers, all dealing with their own internal struggles, traveling on a train together. As the viewer, you have the opportunity to embody each one, getting to know them on a more personal level via their inner thoughts and flashbacks.
“When you’re taking public transit, you see different people and everyone’s in their own heads. You start making assumptions [based on] their body language and maybe physical characteristics. So, this experience really immerses you in the thoughts of someone that you may have judged from the other point of view,” Ziad Touma, director of The Passengers, said.
The game is built as something of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, with your experience based on the passenger you choose to play as and the characters you interact with. But rather than presenting you with options to physically tap through to trigger a scenario, the sequences are controlled strictly through your gaze and voice. Who you stare at impacts the narrative, and whether or not you speak up determines if the character completes their quest to solve issues in their personal lives.
The controls aren’t as intuitive as they could be, but it’s easy to get used to after a few tries. It’s all based on visual cues: Depending on the direction you move your head (whether it’s looking straight ahead, diagonally, or the right and left), it recognizes which character you’re looking at. If you stare at a character long enough, you’ll see an icon load above their heads that will trigger audio.