It is a dreary, cold Sunday night all across the Eastern coast. With a cup of tea and a blanket, I log onto my laptop. Roughly 6,500 miles away, dawn is breaking in Tokyo, Japan. In an otherwise unremarkable urban home, a shriek rings out from the basement. Maria, tip-toeing down the stairs of her childhood home, extends her phone around the corner to broadcast the source of the commotion to me. A man turns through a threshold, dragging Maria’s friend Sarah’s unconscious body down a hallway. Maria turns the phone on herself and pleads for my advice – should she try to rescue Sarah or flee to save herself?
IF MUSEBIYA is the latest online experience from Obaken, broadcasted live from Japan via Zoom. Up to eight participants can partner in guiding Maria around the house, searching for clues, and avoiding the homicidal maniac that roams the grounds. Including the introduction, the entire experience lasts roughly an hour, but is dependent on the decisions made by the group. As it is a timed campaign with outcomes that are influenced by the audience, light escape room concepts are present, but the genre is best described as interactive survival horror.
Brutality is the strongest asset of IF MUSEBIYA and serves as a hook to give audiences a stake in the fates of Maria and Sarah. Fear is a difficult emotion to instill in an audience in a remote experience due to the natural buffer between the participant and the horror. Obaken compensates with a harrowing display of violence against the former residents of the house within the first few moments of the show. The depravity of the scene is only matched with its execution; a clip could easily be mistaken for a real internet snuff film outside of the context of the experience. While this may limit the amount of people who can stomach IF MUSEBIYA, the cruelty is effective in establishing a rapport with Maria. The unspoken understanding is that without wise decision making, any choice could lead to seeing your host assaulted with a crowbar.
Such detailed scenes are possible only due to Obaken’s complete mastery of the technology available. Zoom has been a popular platform for immersive experiences over the past year and a half, but few have been able to creatively use the built-in functions as artistically as IF MUSEBIYA. Live-streams seamlessly blend into pre-recorded video during key moments, which allows for otherwise impossible effects to occur before the audience’s eyes. Occasionally, the videos offer a window into a past event, or cut to action in another room quickly. The result is a finely polished, relentless product with very little emotional downtime for the viewer.
Most who have used a video chat service understand that some aspects of normal communication are lost or stifled from the format. Fantastic, understated design has Maria interact in a systematic manner that is intuitive without a formal agreement ever being stated that minimizes these losses. In a style reminiscent of text-based RPGs, Maria specifically points the camera at each interactive item in a room upon entering, and assigns a name to each before asking for your opinion. For instance, she may show a clock, a set of cabinets, or an envelope, then specifically ask which one she should explore. This sounds robotic when stated simply, and in a lesser experience, it likely would fall flat, but Maria’s natural charisma and the aforementioned familicide keep the conversational pace frantic on both ends.
Obaken has gone to great lengths to make this show as approachable as possible for foreign audiences, and participants should have no accessibility concerns with the performance. Prime time slots are available for Eastern Standard Time despite being 13 hours behind Tokyo. The entire show is performed in perfectly dictated English, and Maria is a better ad-libbed conversationalist than many domestic actresses. The plot and motives are universal themes that feel sensible to Western audiences while still having a uniquely Japanese twist. If the tasks weren’t quite literally a matter of life and death, one could get distracted by the curious architecture and iconic fusuma panels in the upper rooms. Even as video conferencing has become downright ordinary in today’s society, IF MUSEBIYA provided a sense of awe by gaining an interactive window into a stranger’s life half a world away. If an inherent goal of interactive entertainment is to make the audience feel connected to a fellow human, IF MUSEBIYA delivers in a challenging era… even if the person on the other end may not be alive at the end of the hour.
IF MUSEBIYA is a complete and finished vision – a condensed, wicked story that fulfills a promise of brutish terror. The characters and consequences both feel plausible to the setting, and masterfully pull the audience into a frazzled, reactive state within minutes. To execute such a well-crafted, polished concept in a foreign language speaks to not only Obaken’s determination to share their innovations with the world abroad, but a pure comprehension for the language-less art of horror.