Tribeca Festival 2023: Taking Fun Seriously

The Tribeca Festival, New York City’s annual festival of film and other media, was held again this year in early June. Like last year, I was able to visit the Interactive showcase, highlighting experiences told in virtual reality, alternate reality, and video games. This year, the selections were more intriguing, the atmosphere was more energetic, and the press preview was taken much more seriously.

For comparison, last year I had to squeeze all the VR and AR content I could into a single hour. On top of that, I needed to verify myself to security multiple times because my “press pass” was a paper wristband. Happily, that’s all in the past. This year the Interactive section and the press preview felt so much more official. For starters, the session was four times as long. I was able to experience most everything during that time.

Woman in a green dress with a pink belt wearing an 8-bit helmet and gauntlet in an 80s-like room with an Atari console.

Not only did I have the chance to see more of the selected games and stories, but the extra time allowed me to talk with some of the creators and publishers. They helped me put what I had seen in context and explained some of their design choices and issues they had to overcome. Instead of just experiencing the content, in some cases I was able to understand why it had been created in the first place. I’m very thankful that the team at Tribeca has put the extra effort into making this event more of a priority.

Immersive (VR and AR)

The immersive section of Tribeca was much improved and expanded compared to 2022. The selections were more numerous and more meaningful and/ or fun. In some cases the creators were standing by to have a discussion. Even with the extended time frame relative to 2022, I still did not have the chance to experience everything but what I did see was exciting. Here is what I was able to spend some time with.

Screen with a stylized, "Immersive" logo.

VR for Emotional Impact

Over the Rainbow

Over the Rainbow was a 360° VR movie that was surreal and dreamlike. It purports to explore the “balance between desire and happiness, fantasy and the familiar.” I’m not certain that I deeply understood that message, but I was intrigued and entertained for the whole 10-minute run. The experience was very intimate, which I found out afterward was exactly the intent. I spoke with one of the creators following my viewing, and he told me that Over the Rainbow was an adaptation of a live theater show typically done for an audience of 1. In creating this movie, they were trying to recreate that same sense of intimacy. I believe they succeeded; the pacing, the eye contact, and the proximity to the actors all combined to make this a very personal experience.

Reimagined Volume II: Mahal

An assortment of detailed Mahal figurines on individual pedestals.

Mahal was a story about loss, grief, and the journey through it. It is based in Philippine (specifically Tagalog) indigenous religious tradition. Bathala, the creator, had recently been defeated and his four children were dealing with the loss in their own way – one pushing themself entirely into their work, another training to fight so no one would be lost again, etc. Their struggles within themselves led to problems in the real world until they found common ground. Mahal was created as a tribute to the director’s deceased father; as someone who has lost his own father, this piece spoke to me on a deeply emotional level that I wasn’t entirely prepared for. It felt meaningful and real and it encapsulated the many ways grief can take hold of us.

VR to Start a Conversation


Fortune was a series of micro-documentaries told in AR. Seven roughly 1-minute documentaries explored the ways in which money is an extremely important part of everyone’s lives, in good ways and bad. There were stories about the prison work economy, tenant farming, and getting extremely lucky with Bitcoin. Each documentary I watched was interesting in its own way. The experience is integrated into social media apps such as Instagram and Snapchat, and each one ends with a social media-friendly shareable question that hopes to start a meaningful conversation.

Maya – The Birth (Chapter 1)

Photo and art installations. An illustration of a woman made of red topography lines.

Maya was the story of a modern teenage girl dealing with the stigmas that surround menstruation, specifically the way that her classmates and her religiously conservative family react to it. Chapter one took me through what I consider her “origin story” because the pitch of the series is that Maya gains superpowers that are derived from the process of menstruation. I’m not certain exactly what form that takes, as chapter one ended before any superpowers were actually gained.

VR to Get You Moving


Monstrorama was the coolest experience I had at Tribeca this year. It was my first time playing a game without a controller, and using my hands as the input devices made everything feel extremely magical. It was one giant step closer to full immersion. Storywise, I was visiting a museum of monsters curated by a strange flying steampunk robot (voiced by Andy Serkis!). I was given a choice of monsters to visit, but this being the demo I was railroaded into choosing the werewolf. What ensued was an entertaining and somewhat difficult fight where I had to physically dodge an enemy while using my hands to create a portal to send my enemy through. It was an engaging mixed reality adventure that broke down some barriers between myself and full immersion.

The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend

A blue lit space with a trunk that has an assortment of LED candles resting atop it.

This is the story of Cheng Shih, a 19th century woman who became one of the most famous and revered pirates of her era. The game begins in the aftermath of her husband’s death and the subsequent power vacuum. Shih (voiced by Lucy Liu!) is trying to reunite the disparate factions that she and her husband had brought together, and thankfully for me that took the form of the closest thing to a virtual escape room I played all day. The puzzles were on the easy-to-medium side, but they made sense for the setting and felt like they belonged. The short section I played was very linear but enjoyable. I look forward to the full release of Pirate Queen in early 2024.

Pixel Ripped 1978

Andrew with a big grin, wearing a strange 8-bit helmet.

Pixel Ripped 1978 is a tribute to and a collaboration with Atari. In this game, you take on two roles: a game programmer testing out a new game, and the character in that game. I had a blast playing Pixel Ripped, and the enthusiasm of the creative team made this a more than memorable experience. The full version has already released and is available on PS VR2, Steam VR, and Meta Quest 2.

Video Games

I was able to sit down with three of the featured video games this year. They were all very different, each entertaining in its own way. There were eight games available, and I focused on the three that I felt had the potential to be the most interesting.

Screen with a stylized, "Games" logo.

Chants of Sennaar

Based loosely on the story of the Tower of Babel, Chants of Sennaar places the player in an intriguing environment filled with puzzles. While the puzzle play was not anything groundbreaking (at least for the opening section of the game that I played), the other major component involves language translation. The NPCs communicate with you using glyphs which need to be interpreted based on context. The translated glyphs are used to solve more challenging puzzles and advance through the game. Chants of Sennaar launches in early September 2023, and I highly encourage checking out.


Coming from a studio based in Qatar, Nightscape is a dreamy action game about restoring fallen stars into the night sky. Players battle fantastic beasts, talk to the sky, and use the power of constellations to move through the world. I enjoyed the concept of this game and found the environments to be beautiful and tranquil. I was not, however, in love with my celestial goat companion; its voice and overall presence was a jarring juxtaposition to an otherwise attractive game. Even given that quibble, I look forward to the release of Nightscape, which is currently TBA.

Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical

A beautifully lit room with a series of couch/ screen setups where people can play game demos.

I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to play Stray Gods. A visual novel style, based on Greek mythology but set in modern times, and it’s a musical – definitely a unique combination. I’m not sure that this game was intended for me as visual novels aren’t my typical genre. But the voice acting and singing was spot on, and the narrative hooks – murder! the main character became a Muse! – made this compelling from a story perspective. Stray Gods is set to release in August 2023.

A Final Thought

Apart from the great games and VR experiences I got to play around with, I have to reiterate how exciting it was to see the Immersive exhibition be bigger and feel more official than last year’s. 2022’s setup felt quieter, like I was walking through an art gallery. VR is meant to be experienced, literally hands-on. There was an excitement and buzz in the room this year that made everything feel more vibrant. As the medium continues to grow and develop, I expect the selections that make it to Tribeca to continue to increase in quality and meaning, and I anticipate great things in 2024.

Disclosure: Tribeca Festival provided a complimentary media ticket.

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