The Mr. Robot VR experience isn’t a gimmick — it’s true storytelling
by Bryan Bishop
Mr. Robot mastermind Sam Esmail has made a point of taking on nearly every creative role possible on his show, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when the idea came up for a virtual reality tie-in, he took the same hands-on approach. Debuting at Comic-Con, Mr. Robot VR is a 13-minute narrative experience written and directed by the auteur that takes viewers on a flashback journey with lead character Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) as he remembers an early encounter with his dealer-turned-love-interest Shayla (Frankie Shaw). The result isn’t simply a VR technical demo; it’s a legitimate storytelling experience that captures the atmosphere and sensibilities of the show and brings it into an entirely new medium — and then pushes into territory that television would never allow.
“Sam is an old friend of mine. I knew him before he was writing television, and he knew me before I was big into virtual reality,” executive producer and creative consultant Chris Milk tells me. Milk has been one of virtual reality’s pioneering voices in recent years, but at the moment he’s relaxing with a cup of wine inside the pop-up installation that serves asMr. Robot’s home base at Comic-Con. From the outside, the shop looks like a complete reproduction of the Mr. Robot computer store from the show; inside there’s a dusty office, replete with display cases of used Commodore computers, video games, and circuit boards.
“The idea came about to do a Mr. Robot virtual reality project, and there was a natural connection,” Milk says (his company Here Be Dragons — which up until recently was known as the VR house Vrse.works — produced the short). “It was an amazing experience, because I love trying to share things I’ve learned in this medium thus far with really inventive and innovative filmmakers in their own right. And it’s so fun to watch really talented people run up against the same walls that I’ve run up against, and try to figure out their own ways around them.”
When I step behind the back curtain of the shop, I’m handed a Samsung Gear VR and set of headphones, then led into another secret room: a complete reproduction of Elliot’s apartment. The attention to detail is impressive; from the binder of burned CDs on the floor to the fried hard drives in the microwave, the environment feels pulled directly from the fabric of the show, but it’s ultimately all just stage setting for the VR experience itself.