On February 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. That night, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln arrives shattered by grief to cradle his son’s body. Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, and the powers of good and evil rendered as a 360-degree VR film released by the New York Times on the NYT VR mobile app.
Lincoln in the Bardo is the first ever direct adaption of a novel into VR. The experience was released as a companion piece, written and directed by Graham Sack, on the same date as the novel by acclaimed short story writer and McArthur Genius, George Saunders, which made #1 on the NYT bestseller list for its debut. Prior to this experience, NYT VR was principally focused on non-fiction, immersive journalism. Lincoln in the Bardo was their first move into experiential arts and cultural programming of this scale, and reached demographics that would not usually engage with interactive media.
The decision to re-imagine Lincoln in the Bardo in VR wasn’t made for the sake of novelty, but because the story was uniquely well-suited to the conceptual demands of the medium. The story-world leant itself well to the creation of an immersive environment with atmospheric elements and a clear role for viewer. As producers and technical directors, Sensorium provided critical expertise and vision to weave together this technologically aspirational experience that pushed the boundaries of VR by combining on-location, live-action VR with supernatural elements shot over three days on a green screen.
Before this production, there was also no legal precedent for adapting a novel into VR. Sensorium helped navigate the first ever book to VR rights agreement with Penguin Random House, thus paving the way for future adaptations of major literary works. In all, Lincoln in the Bardo pushed into new territory with interactive storytelling, especially at a time when narrative VR experiences need to become a fundamental part of pushing new audiences to explore this exciting medium.