I’m not big into VR. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done anything virtual reality–related. But this past summer, I interviewed the heads of Gugenka, a company dedicated to various forms of entertainment that blur the line between analog and digital. Thanks to that interaction, I recently received an invitation to participate in a Code Geass x FLOW virtual concert. It’s not a bad combo: I have generally fond memories of the Code Geass anime, and FLOW has done some of my favorite anime songs ever. So, even if my VR experience is limited to a demo booth in the 1990s and a Hololive Myth anniversary event, I decided to give it a shot.
Not only was it my first virtual concert, it was also my first time using VRChat—a program I only knew of through watching Virtual Youtubers. Getting things to work took a lot of coordinating, requiring me to link a variety of apps and accounts across various sites together. It might get easier with experience, but I was definitely confused, and I still doubt I fully grasped it all.
Because I don’t own a VR headset, I used VRChat on my desktop PC, and the experience was more like a first-person shooter (or like Incidentally, that’s also a form of entertainment that’s not really my cup of tea, but once I got the hang of it, I started to see the appeal of being able to navigate virtual spaces in a more naturalistic way. (It also let me understand how Gawr Gura navigated the aforementioned HoloMyth event.)
The actual concert consisted of five parts, each time starting with a speech from Lelouch (voiced by Fukuyama Jun), which was then followed by a song performance from FLOW. There were actually two ways to view the concert: VRChat and a Japanese streaming service called Showroom. Because of my own confusion, I actually watched the first song in Showroom, which acts more like Youtube or Twitch, but is aesthetically set up to resemble a simplistic movie theater. At first, I figured this was just the way the concert was, until I saw a bunch of 3D models run right in front of FLOW, clearly showing that Showroom wasn’t the only way to experience the event. That’s when I decided to switch and try VRChat after all, despite some earlier troubles.
One thing that complicated this process was that joining each part of the concert meant having to leave VRChat and click a link that would then send a message to VRChat with a special invite to the next “world.” The need to jump back and forth was a bit unintuitive, and I actually missed the 2nd part of the concert as a result before I figured out how the whole thing works. Once I got back on track, things finally fell into place.
This is when I finally understood exactly what Gugenka meant by having “instances” that allow their virtual events to have some flexibility for viewers. In the case of this Code Geass x FLOW concert, one could join in real time to mimic being part of a public concert, or one could join at a specific moment so that you can either coordinate with a smaller group or to make sure you didn’t miss anything. This isn’t permanent, however, as there were still specific overall time frames where the concert parts were available, and then they would go away. The difference is that if you missed something by, say, 10 minutes, you still had 45 minutes to watch from the beginning.
I don’t know if it’s because I started with Showroom and ended with VRChat, but in Part 1 of the concert, FLOW was being shown as video footage of the actual members, whereas after that, they were 3D models. In the VRChat experience, it was amusing to see people running up to the stage to get as close as they can to FLOW, while others would use the squat command to make viewing easier. The music was great (of course), but in some ways, the people-watching was better. I remember seeing one attendee in particular swaying and moving with a clear joy over getting to be there.
Tickets were 6,600 yen minimum, with a deluxe package that costs a great deal more. I don’t regularly attend concerts, virtual or otherwise, so I thought it was kind of steep. That said, understanding the kind of experience it’s supposed to be, and knowing that other virtual events cost similarly, I think I would pay for the right event. It also costs a lot less than actually flying to Japan to see a band in the flesh.
While the virtual experience can’t be a full replacement for a live performance, there’s a bit of joy in knowing you’re experiencing the same thing as people living in Japan. It also creates a great opportunity for those who don’t have the means to travel for concerts to do something more interactive. Especially in a time when COVID-19 is still affecting people around the world, it’s also a solid choice for those who are too afraid to travel to another country.
I want to end by talking about a funny incident that occurred. For one song, I hopped into the VRChat world, only to find myself somehow transported a great distance away from the waiting room. Confused, I tried getting closer and closer to the space, only to start hearing chatter from Japanese attendees who were discussing someone who looked to be stuck. Soon, I realized that the person they were talking about was me, and they were trying to help me get out of whatever weird glitch I was in. After resolving the issue, they asked if I was okay—to which I jumped up and down to show everything was fine. The way these random people looked out for me put a smile on my face, and it actually made the concert more enjoyable overall.
I’m not going to say that this is a universal experience for virtual spaces, but it reinforced the interpersonal connections these sorts of events can provide.