The Key plays on a lot of familiar VR tropes. It can at times be whimsy and fantastical, with underwater paradises and companions that dance and sing when you poke and prod them. In fact, its surplus of pleasantries reaches a point in which it all feels a little too familiar.
Until it doesn’t.
Without spoiling anything, not all is as it seems in this effective free VR experience, narrated by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat. The Key follows Anna, a girl tracing her past through lucid dreams, distorted as if to protect her from something. She’s often seeing the world not with rose-tinted specs so much as ski goggles filled with petals.
But there are signs, warnings even, that something’s afoot. At first they seem scattered, confused and unrelatable. It’s not until the veil lifts that some of its more alarming imagery begins to make sense.
And that’s the beauty of The Key; through your ignorance you’re able to appreciate — if perhaps not experience — at least a taste of the frustration and pain it seeks to convey. You’re taught empathy and then given context; a clever ruse to hit home a message that many other experiences struggle to find an audience for. With the gift of hindsight, its at first disparate imagery is given a shocking new sheen.
The Key is also well-served under Shawkat’s dutiful delivery and, though celebrity voice acting might at first appear strange in a piece such as this, it’s important to the wider illusion.
It’s clear to see what made The Key a prize winner at Tribeca 2019, then. Though it appears overly simple at first, a deceptive late-game punch gives it immediate importance. Vague as that may sound, you’ll need to watch it yourself to see what I mean.