With so many shiny floor entertainment shows currently leaning on the idea of virtual avatars to hide their performers, but struggling to replicate the success of pioneering formats such as The Masked Singer, it would be easy to consider the genre saturated, if not stalled. However, Kakao Entertainment’s latest entertainment reality show, GIRL’S RE:VERSE (pictured), may buck the trend.
The show launched on South Korea’s Kakao Page, Japan’s ABEMA TV platform and USA’s KOCOWA platform but is also available worldwide on YouTube, where the debut episode has already surpassed 10 million views to date. The format follows 30 female K-Pop performers, both current and past, as they compete to be part of a brand-new idol band. The twist is that all their interactions, performance and competitions take place using anime-styled avatars, and everything takes place in a virtual “metaverse”, which not only includes their rehearsal rooms and stadium, but also a burning lava land, a digital park and more. The contestants’ identities remain concealed until their elimination, so they must use their voice and personality to charm the audience and judges in order to be in the running to take up one of the five openings in this new band.
So far, so familiar, and from that synopsis it can be hard to see the difference between GIRL’S RE:VERSE and shows such as Talpa’s Avastars, which launched on SBS6 Netherland in February, and Alter Ego, which aired on Fox in the US. In execution, however, there are considerable differences that seem to make a big impact on viewers.
The key point of difference is that the audience does seem to feel immersed in its universe. The avatars feel like real characters thanks to the decision to give each of the 30 contestants their own virtual “world” to reflect their personality. For example, the contestant known as “CacaoPrincess” spends her free time in a virtual palace while “Nemo” lives by the virtual seaside. This creates dozens of unique virtual worlds for the show, which notably puts it closer to video game production in terms of design than a normal talent competition show. All the hosts are also represented as avatars, while VIP audience members can enter the virtual world in real-time to watch the premier of the finished music videos. Judges then use this “in-fiction” panel to select who performed the best.
This allows the show to attempt more intriguing narrative ways of handling typical format points. For example, in the sixth episode, all the eliminated contestants meet in the virtual park for the last time, sharing their thoughts and exchanging their feelings for each other, even taking virtual selfies just as they might in the real world. One by one, their avatars vanished.
The ninth episode was even more operatic in how it removed failed contestants, as they each sat in their own carriages on a virtual train heading into the ocean. As each eliminated girl’s name was announced, they got to give their last words to their friends and fans as their carriage detached, rising into the sky before disappearing. This may sound ridiculous in the cold light of day but fans ate it up, filling comment sections and social media threads with earnest emotional reactions. It’s this ability to zero in on what the intended audience will respond to, rather than what the mainstream viewer might find palatable, that has enabled GIRL’S RE:VERSE to find and dominate its niche.
Of course, the eliminated girls are pulled back to the real world. They take off their VR headsets and put down their controllers, and are revealed to be in a small, dark, isolated VR cubicle. It’s apparent that they feel genuinely sad their fantasy bubble has popped. As a viewer, you really feel for them. Some can’t help but try to wear the VR headset one last time, wishing to return to their virtual world. Many leave the cubicle in tears.
As you can imagine, the technological hurdle is high to make such an immersive and technically demanding show. The investment of time, money and resources is considerable. According to producer Jo (조주연), each shoot took three times longer than just listening and selecting audition tapes. The production team must collaborate with multiple studios and partners to provide the heavy computing power needed to generate, animate and stream this many motion-captured avatars in real time. There are also legal aspects to consider, ensuring the generated anime avatars do not infringe on any existing character copyrights.
It’s clearly a huge commitment to the concept, but then this is more than just an aesthetic gimmick. The “metaverse” element pitches the game squarely at a younger audience already consuming playable “visual novels” on their devices or immersed in the sprawling casts of role-playing games and dating simulators. The core guesswork and performance aspects of the masked talent show genre remain, of course, but now they feel more like gameplay elements in a digital soap opera – puzzles and “combat” encounters that your favourite characters must navigate and survive – with just as much attention spent on what the contestants do in between.
Rather than just dropping in alien-looking avatars to a primetime singing show, GIRL’S RE:VERSE feels like the serialised adventures of popular characters in a vibrant anime world. It’s probably not a surprise that this kind of immersive experience works so well in South Korea, the home of webtoons and hugely successful online games. Indeed, Kakao Entertainment has also revamped the obligatory “behind the scenes” spin-off show as GIRL’S RE:VERSE BEHIND, an ongoing webtoon comic strip that expands on the adventures of the contestants with a fun fictional twist.
It’s this full and enthusiastic commitment to the potential of virtual avatars and metaverse adventures that puts GIRL’S RE:VERSE in a very different position from other superficially similar shows, which have mostly just taken The Masked Singer concept and given it a digital makeover. By wilfully blurring the boundaries between drama, pop music and reality show, this could be more than just a fresh twist on a trending format but could even be an early pioneer of the sort of entertainment that will become the norm once today’s kids, raised with one foot permanently in the virtual world, come of age.