Reviewed – 1st October 2019
“in terms of its aim to be a video game come to life, Variant 31 is a triumphant success. However, its theatrical and storytelling elements don’t mesh quite as seamlessly”
Variant 31’s PR touts some serious ambition, as it claims itself to be the world’s largest live action video game experience. And in moments, that certainly feels like the case, as it perfectly captures the sense of having been transported into the likes of a Resident Evil game. However, at other times, it instead gives the impression that it bit off more than it could chew, and stumbles over those ambitions.
Set in a dilapidated laboratory that had been burned down decades ago after news of immoral human experimentation taking place leaked, it is up to you as a patient in a new trial to uncover the secrets of the past, as well as the laboratory’s present use, and stave off the horrors within. This essentially plays out like a horror game, where you have to explore the 42,000 square feet over 35 different floors, collecting points, shooting failed experiments in the face, and ensuring you don’t get infected. There’s an unbridled sense of fun to simply roaming around and investigating each meticulously decorated room (courtesy of Jamie Simmons’ and Roberta Volpe’s art direction), living out the bum-clenching fantasies perpetuated by the likes of Silent Hill or The Last of Us, and in terms of its aim to be a video game come to life, Variant 31 is a triumphant success. However, its theatrical and storytelling elements don’t mesh quite as seamlessly.
There is a narrative underpinning the action, but aside from the gleefully B-Movie-esque prologue and epilogue, it feels vacant and difficult to follow. You are given an objective as you start the experience, but if you complete it or stray from it, there is no way to attain a new one or maintain a sense of narrative momentum, which results in a lot of aimless wandering. The second half also sees some puzzles and riddles shake things up, in a style that will feel familiar to anyone who’s been in an escape room before, although the vagueness of some of these mixed with the expansiveness of the building can leave you feeling fairly clueless as to how to progress, and – unlike in an escape room – there’s no way to ask for guidance. As such, when time runs out and you eventually find your way to the epilogue (the doctors – who normally usher you away from out of bounds areas – are bafflingly unhelpful in pointing you in the right direction when your ninety minutes is up), it makes reference to a number of plot points that the average player simply won’t have experienced, which makes for a fairly disorientating and dissatisfying conclusion to the journey.
Additionally, although the vocal and physical commitment of the actors was exceptional – particularly the ferocious and terrifying failed experiments (featuring marvellously creepy makeup from Claire Golby) – the regular human characters felt a bit stretched thin, having to attend to the new group starting the experience every thirty minutes. This subsequently causes congestion as players end up backtracking due to the aforementioned lack of narrative drive leading to aimlessness. As such, the immersion is in some moments shattered as certain areas feel skimped on.
Variant 31 gets many of its elements very, very right – the mix of horror game, escape room, and laser tag makes for an undeniably joyous time with an eerie and adrenaline-filled atmosphere, but the experience is dampened by poorly-executed storytelling. Variant 31 may be the biggest, but it’s not quite the best.
Reviewed by Ethan Doyle
Photography by Tom Grace
Space 18 until 31st December
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