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CIFF’s Barcode XR merges silver screen with the latest in video games and VR

As many a Calgarian who’s attention is split between the latest movie and video game could attest to, the line between entertainment forms has become increasingly blurry over the past decade.

Ever more so in the film industry, which has turned to tools previously exclusively used to create video games to produce seamless backdrops and visual effects for some of Hollywood’s biggest productions.

The Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) is embracing local talent along with internationally award winning video games and virtual reality experiences as part of the festival this year, through Barcode XR at Eau Claire Mall.

“Writers write on video games [and movies]. Visual artists work on movies and on video games. And their story is being told,” said Brian Owens, Artistic Director for CIFF.

“When we made this revelation three years ago, that we’ve got so many good creators that go back and forth between the two worlds here in this province and we really wanted to work with that.”

This year featured the Neo-noir punk action game Gunbrella (doinksoft, Devolver Digital), the Scottish themed A Highland Song (inkle) which was won official selection at the 2023 Tribeca Games Program, first-person speed-running shooter cat themed Meowmentum Mori, the gritty tagger game Sludge Life 2, and the critically acclaimed isometric fantasy game The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood.

Among the nine different VR experiences available were Alone Together, where players act as replacement families for hire, the galactic scope Pulsar: The VR Experience, the celestial scope with godly consequences Reimagined Volume II: MAHAL, and a tea party with the Loch Ness Monster, Cthulhu, Mothman, and a guy named Brian all hosted by Dracula called Tea is Served.

Alone Together said Owens, was one of the standout experiences from Barcode XR and one that users could take home with them if they were iPhone users—as the game requires nothing more than an iPhone to play. It was also one of a growing number of games that reward players for empathy and social skills.

Brian Owens, Artistic Director for CIFF, plays Alone Together on the opening night of Barcode XR at Eau Claire Mall in Calgary on Friday, September 22, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Barcode XR growing, literally

Owens said that this Barcode XR expands upon last year’s offerings by having more space for visitors to CIFF to enjoy more experiences.

The space is housed in the former Eau Claire IMAX, located on the first floor of the mall.

“We’re in a much larger space, literally… and we can probably fit at least 80 to 100 people in that space, whereas last year, six felt crowded in the space that we had.”

“We’re literally looking at it being in a place that is connected to the festival, but also if you didn’t know the festival is going on, you’d still want to come in and take part in and have a good time. So we’re really excited about the steps that our work with interactive digital media has taken.”

Art Proctor, a board member for the Virtual Reality Augmented Reality Association of Alberta, said that largely VR and AR in the province have been used for training and work purposes, and that largely the industry is still in it’s infancy for the development of games and immersive experiences.

“I think Barcode XR is a great introduction to the industry, and gives an entertaining way to experience what gaming and VR is,” he said.

“In Calgary I would say it’s growing, but it’s not the main focus. Now, I would like to see that be utilized more, the green screens, the LED screens, the motion capture all all those things, and I’d say that Calgary is lent to gaming more than immersive media film.”

He said that despite that, there were large opportunities for companies to grow in the VR and AR space—provided they understand their market.

Not every user can comfortably use VR or AR, and the development of that software requires careful consideration said Proctor.

Letting people try it out at Barcode XR helps to familiarize people with the possibilities.

“It builds awareness, it opens up the opportunity so they can experience what actual VR and AR is in the real world. And we use these kind of like events as as a touchstone, as a kind of an introduction, to the industry.”

A player takes in a VR experience during the opening night of Barcode XR at Eau Claire Mall in Calgary on Friday, September 22, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

CIFF adds jury prize for games

Owens said that this year would be the first one that CIFF would be giving a jury award with a cash prize for games and VR experiences.

“I think after getting that first one off the ground, we expect that to grow next year to an even larger prize and possibly even more prizes for multimedia work.”

“We want to continue growing in this realm working in this realm.”

One of the ideas that CIFF has been workshopping is the potential of a festival long game jam, where participants will have a chance to compete to create games throughout the length of the festival.

“The very first versions of those games will be available for public play to test them out, and the public could actually pick who did the best job of creating a game in 10 days,” said Owens.

“That’s one of the visions I have next year to further expand the work in this field.”

For more details on Barcode XR, and on CIFF’s out-of-theatre presentations, see www.ciffcalgary.ca/festival/and-so-much-more.