Presence as social realism: Pillow is a VR game with real audio logs from real people

[The author of this review from TheGamer describes how anonymous recordings of real people in the virtual reality game Pillow evoke presence as social realism (though he doesn’t use that term). The experience is reminiscent of a series of websites and apps that provide a forum for anonymous messages and interactions such as PostSecret, Whisper, Secret, YikYak, Omegle, and others. –Matthew]

Pillow Is A Virtual Reality Game With Real Audio Logs From Real People
By Mike Drucker
June 6, 2024

I’ll be honest, the mixed reality game Pillow came out late last year. In fact, I bought it a few months ago because it looked neat but never actually used it until this week. It’s essentially an app on the Meta Quest 3 that you’re supposed to play in bed while looking at the ceiling. Certain parts of the app allow you to look at constellations in the night sky, as if your roof had disappeared. Another section is full of meditations that slowly transform your environment around you. One lets you mix and match narrative elements to create a ‘unique’ bedtime story. It’s not the cheapest app, but it is one of the better ones I’ve used for meditation. It really just wants you to meditate! There isn’t a lot of to-do beforehand! Other apps could learn from it!

But that alone wouldn’t get me to write about a nine month old program on a platform that me and maybe six other people on Earth enjoy. What got me to write about Pillow is the section called ‘Fish’. Fish, while ostensibly about fishing, is in fact the first time in a video game I’ve ever experienced real audio logs from real people. It’s a little bit like the game Kind Words, in which you can send and receive anonymous notes with people’s thoughts and problems. This was affecting enough in writing and, at times, you’d read something from a stranger that really made you feel good. Or bad. Or sad. They don’t know who’s reading their messages and you don’t know who’s reading yours.

Pillow’s Fish Is A Window To Strangers’ Hopes And Fears

Fish takes this a step further by making them all audio recordings. Well, let me backup. Here’s how Fish works: when you look up, you see a body of water on the ceiling. On the body of water is written a prompt, like, ‘What is a moment of your life that you wish you could relive?’. Next to you in bed is a virtual fishing pole that you can use to throw a line into the ceiling. When you get a bite, you have to turn your wrist to match up some symbols. Eventually, a colorful fish pops from the ceiling. You can then grab the fish with your free hand and hold it to your ear to hear a stranger’s response to the prompt.

It’s not much of a game, and it’s not meant to be. At best, the wrist-turning mechanic is just an extra layer of friction to make it slightly more satisfying to catch another fish and hear another person talk about themselves. It’s not hard. There’s no score. In fact, I’d barely even think about it in game terms if it weren’t for the fact that every one of these little fish recordings plays exactly like an audio log in Fallout or BioShock. Just like in a game, you happen across a random recording. Just like in a game, you hold it up to your ear and get a tiny little story.

But what’s fascinating to me, is that these audio logs are – at least theoretically – true. And I do mean audio logs. Because I’m lazy and pathetic, I expected answers to be lazy and pathetic. There was a prompt to describe one of your best friends, but people gave long, detailed answers. The first fish I pulled out was a woman talking about her best friend who died and how much she missed her. Another was an elderly man talking about falling in love with his husband, who was his best friend.

Fish’s Audio Logs Constantly Surprise You

True, there were a few that were nonsense – a silent recording, someone simply saying a name and ending the message, etc. But these were actual voices. There was emotion behind them. Feeling. On the prompt asking which moment of their life they could relive, one person said his kids’ births. Great. Another, a child, described their dog’s recent death and how much they wish they could have just one more day with that dog. Some of them blindside you.

In these silly little messages, people joke around. They give plain answers. They give deep answers. But they give the answers in their real voice using their real experiences. It’s just talking, but it’s fascinating to experience. The fact that the fish makes a little perfunctory blub sound when the clip is over only makes it feel even more like an in-game audio log. Like in a game, you’re finding clips about people’s lives with little context. In games, we get boring ones where people repeat what their safe’s code is and we get dramatic ones where someone leaves their last will and testament. But, when done well, audio logs feel like the remnants of actual people who happened to pass through just a little before you did. As corny as they can get and as cliche as they can be, I love a good audio log.

Maybe that’s why Pillow has grabbed me so hard the last few days. I was looking for something to help me relax, and instead found a strange portal to other people’s thoughts and worries. Sure, we’ve all done the thing where we read anonymous thoughts on Post Secret and other confessionals. But hearing them, hearing the emotion in strangers’ voices while they talk about a sliver of their life, knowing that you’ll never know who they are, see who they are, or hear from them again – it’s moving in a way I didn’t expect. And it makes responding to the prompt yourself carry weight.

After hearing so many people emotionally talk about moments of their life they wanted to relive, it’s hard to just leave a lazy one-word response. I had to think. I talked about one of the first times I fell in love for some reason. For the benefit of strangers. A virtual reality app called Pillow made me do that.


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