Staying in to go out: exploring the VRChat club scene

Clubs like Loner Online and Tube provide a new frontier for virtual performance and immersive events.

It’s 1 AM, and my friend and I are standing in the smoking area outside of the club. Somebody is lying on the floor, quite possibly drunk, and when we ask if they’re ok they murmur about being stuck in an endless cycle of unrequited love.

While enquiring around to see if any of their friends are close by, a googly-eyed speaker on wheels whizzes past my legs, shouting something in a language I don’t understand. I chase it to a set of stairs and the speaker disappears into a sea of light and sound, never to be seen again. This is the reality of clubbing in VRChat, a compelling cocktail of authenticity and the absurd at a time when UK nightclubs are still closed.

You see, the speaker on wheels is the avatar of a real person, a patron of the underground virtual reality venue Tube that I’m currently standing in. A recent project spearheaded by UK DJ Hadean, Tube is a user-generated club inside of the virtual reality MMO VRChat. It makes a strong first impression too, with its custom projected wall visuals, DJ booth dancers and groups of clubbers laughing and shouting over the top of hard-hitting music. It has many of the things you would expect from a typical IRL nightclub experience, as well as an anthropomorphic frog in a suit two-stepping in the middle of the dancefloor.

VRChat - Tube

I’m here to meet Zeal, a DJ from Australia who will become my tour guide to this brave new world. Zeal is part of a collective called Loner Online, the name and its frowny-faced logo being a homage to a beloved Doner kebab shop the troupe frequents in their local Melbourne. The Loner crew host in-person events and now virtual reality ones too, at their own custom club inside of VRChat. Loner’s virtual space is inspired by real clubs like Melbourne’s The Sub Club and MOGRA in Japan, offering an immersive grungy rave aesthetic. Volume 31, headlined by Ninajirachi, takes place on May 29.

After a short introduction on the stairs leading into Tube, Zeal and I start talking about the scene as the set (provided by drum and bass DJ Muzz) rages in the background. At one point, a user who is clearly enjoying themselves turns into a gigantic camel and then back into a stylish anime avatar. My eyes dart around the room as Zeal explains how he performs live in VRChat while wearing his Valve Index.

VRChat - Loner

“You lift your headset up slightly, but because the Index already has this little gap, the immersion’s not ruined and I can just look down to see my DJ decks,” he explains. “And when I’m looking up, I can see a crowd and hear everything they’re saying – total immersion”. Valve’s knuckle peripherals provide further freedom to the fingers, which means that Zeal can interface with his decks while maintaining his virtual stage presence.

It’s a new frontier for virtual performance, one that I only truly came to understand a fortnight later, when I caught Zeal’s incredible closing set at Loner’s 30th event in mid-May. You can catch my shiny avatar raving the night away in this VOD from the Loner Online Twitch channel.

When you arrive at Loner you’ll be outside the actual venue, with the Tokyo skyline looming large and a quaint konbini across the road. A rolling artist archive shows you the stacked list of talent that has played the venue, before neon signs and scanned posters lure you into the main area. Getting inside is an atmospheric spectacle in itself, and I’m yet to touch on the aesthetics of the actual DJ set.

The most impressive thing about the club is its realistic lighting system, controlled from a station behind the bar. Red beams flash across the ceiling, with circle siren lights and a strobe augmenting key moments for performers and audience alike, lighting up ceiling vents and illuminating avatars.

There’s also this remarkable feeling of community in there as you can see and hear the people around you. Folks were conversing and anticipating songs as they were mixed, and then roaring and pumping their fists when the drop landed. At one point in the night, there was even a virtual reality moshpit…

VRChat - Bathroom

It’s clear that the Loner VR project has come from a place of pure passion, but it’s the fine level of detail that elevates the in-game immersion into the stratosphere. For example, Loner also has its own restroom for when you need a break from the show. I spotted patrons napping in cubicles and having heart-to-hearts in front of a long mirror, the walls behind them caked with shiny stickers and custom graffiti art. The whole thing was a mind-blowing reintroduction to authentic club culture, from the comfort of my living room.

And while it was enhanced dramatically by virtual reality, it’s worth noting that VRChat also has a desktop client for those without the expensive equipment. With or without the kit, it’s well worth a look if you’re trying to re-engage with some of those communal club feelings we’ve been missing in the pandemic. This felt like the bleeding edge of music, technology and creativity, and I can’t wait to see what this community does next.

Check out Loner ONLINE for details of their next virtual club night.

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