Speak of the Devil VR — Part 1: Designing a “Mesh Narrative”

I knew creating this project would be hard. I don’t think, however, I realized how many techniques I’d have to invent and learn in the process. I hope the following series of articles sheds some light into our process and vision for creating interactive live action narratives in VR.

If you aren’t familiar with Speak of the Devil, watch our trailer below.

2D Trailer for Speak of the Devil, you can find the 360 version here.

PART 1: DESIGNING A “MESH NARRATIVE”

When I was 10 year old, I played MYST for the first time. It was a transformative experience (much in the same way that putting on my first VR headset was a few years back). I decided after I finished MYST that I wanted to make my own version someday. I remember using my dad’s clunky digital camera to capture a “walk-through” of the woods behind my house. I used HTML hotspots to create that feeling of walking through the forest. 20 years later, now I want to do it in VR.

Do you remember playing this game?

I had just seen Sleep No More in New York City and while some parts of the narrative structure went over my head, I was really intrigued by the idea of trying to something similar to immersive theater in VR.

My business partner, Robert Watts, and I started to create a narrative story with the location interactivity of MYST. We didn’t want it to be a game. We didn’t want it to just be a movie. We wanted to explore what is in between the two with live action video. It was a very ambitious goal, but one that we had set out to do over two years ago when we first launched Light Sail VR.

BUILDING THE STRUCTURE

Robert and I began to sketch stuff out. First we thought that we had to make the map big enough so that it would feel like you could explore anywhere. We settled on a 7x7 grid and placed our “spawn” point right at the center.

The first outlines that would become Speak of the Devil

We had built some excellent relationships with horror projects we’ve done (Paranormal Activity, The Parksville Murders, The Off Season) so we decided to lean into the horror genre and also have the opportunity to work again with talented people we love. Our story was going to be about a couple lost in the woods who accidentally summon a demon. At this point, the story is very loose. We begin by pointing at locations on the grid and saying “Let’s hear scary whispers in this square!”, or “This is where she summons the demon,” etc.

We quickly realized that we had to design the narrative in a way that would transform into act breaks and then close up the grid so someone watching doesn’t accidentally ruin the building of the tension by getting lost and hopelessly wandering in circles. So on our whiteboard we duplicated our grid anytime a major event happened. This forced us to think in “Act Breaks”, which helped define the narrative story structure we were after. For example, the “inciting incident” of Brian getting his arm hurt (an indication that this was not going to end well for our characters), the summoning of the demon, and then the death of one or both of our characters were all moments that move the horror narrative forward and that we wanted the audience to experience on some level. Making sure that certain scenes wouldn’t happen until those milestones were met was important to keep the story coherent.

Each time we would hit a major plot point, we would change out several of the squares

Eventually you’d either be killed by the demon or cultist character, or you’d find your way out of the forest. We planned our grid so that you would be boxed in by deaths. Coincidently, we ended up with 12 deaths and one way out, for a total of 13 unique endings. Very fitting for a horror piece. The structure morphed a few times as we played with subplots, additional characters, and how exactly we were going to communicate all this information to our audience.

By the time we took a look at all our scenes and how they were fitting together, we ended up with a map that looked like a mesh net of interwoven story beats. Our audience could engage with the story in a number of ways, coming from many different locations on our map. This wasn’t a branched narrative, in which the audience is given a binary choice that creates a tree. This was a new kind of storytelling much closer to the immersive theater productions I had been inspired by. We needed another term. This is how we coined the term “mesh narrative”.

At this stage there was certainly a lot of plot holes and work still to be done. There were a few things I had in mind that I think were extraordinarily helpful in the design of this interactive narrative.

  1. Characters needed to enter and exit each scene with motivated reasons so that the loops could feel endless and organic. This was really important to nail down, but made tougher by the fact that the forest at times was pretty open.
  2. Characters should engage with the audience, but not ask questions of them. At all times I wanted to audience to feel like an observer, trying to mind their own business. It was also important that the audience member could be any age, any gender, any race and still feel a part of the story.

In hindsight I think I would have added more characters and subplots and a few less locations. But I’ll talk about all of our lessons in the final post of this series.

FLESHING OUT THE STORY

We also were trying to create this on a budget, so we were very flexible on creative decisions as long as they still served the narrative intention of the scene: that is to say that each scene needed to move forward the story.

For example, one of our biggest challenges was figuring out what exactly this monster would look like. We pulled some reference photos and took them to KC Mussman, our makeup artist from Nocturnal Designz. She went over several books with us that were filled with different looks and we chatted about the story and characters. She mentioned that she had just put together a Windego for a trade show and had all the molds and parts still in her workshop. It was perfect. I want to stress how important it is to work collaboratively with talented professionals who can bring a lot of their art to a vision if you let them.

Checking out the Windego mask at Nocturnal Designz

KC’s Windego gave us some narrative backstory about why THAT particular demon had been summoned. We worked all that’s into the script and the character arcs. It is why Lindsey seems so selfish. She puts her work and that quest for success above all else. KC’s suggestion of also covering up our cultist character in burns was equally compelling and helped us write his backstory too. We imagined that he had been worshiping this demon for some time and the proximity of being this close has given him radiation burns. All these small details went into building this world we were trying to create.

With the larger details in place, two things were key to moving forward. First, we needed to hone in on our location. Second, I needed to figure out how to write a script.

After some research, Robert and I settled on Big Bear Lake as being the perfect location to film. It took us three separate scouting trips to lock our location and translate our scene grid from the 7x7 sketch on the whiteboard, to what the scenes would actually be during production. We ended up purchasing a Garmin GPS unit so that we could be accurate on each waypoint that we scouted. We also took photos with our Gear360 camera and created an interactive tour that allowed us to quickly reference each of the 56 locations we had scouted. Using Pano2VR made this process incredibly easy and we only needed it as reference. This site (which we downloaded onto our tablets) would come in handy when in production when talking to our art department about what I needed in each location.

Click here to visit our “scouting” website.

We put a flag down at each location so that we’d know the number and where we’ve been. It was REALLY easy to get lost in those woods.

With our locations in place, it was time to revisit the whiteboard and start plotting which scenes would go in which spots and then churning out script pages so we could go out to our cast.

I ended up writing the script like I would for any screenplay. I first started by outlining the beats I wanted to capture, except this time I would write that same narrative beat a few different ways for different play throughs. The script took on a rough sort of order in order for me to focus on whether I was building a narrative arc enough. We ended up at about 20 pages or so.

The problem was that there wasn’t really a way to play through this in the interactive sense. We had some ideas about printing note cards or putting the script into an interactive story tool like Twine, but none of that happened because we were suddenly part of Google’s Jump Start program and we needed to get into production, FAST.

Again, in hindsight, I think it is crucial to put your script into some sort of interactive tool in order to test it out and we would have saved ourselves a lot of problems in post had we done so. But this was all part of learning as we were creating. We now have those proper tools in place.

WRAPPING UP

I don’t think we fully grasped what a monumental challenge this was going to be and we would hit several logical roadblocks later. At this stage, however, we were excited and ready.

Our scripts went out to cast. Robert finished the pre-production logistics. Permits were in place, an amazing crew was signed on. The train had left the station and we were going to produce our first original project.

Pick up the story next week in PART 2: It Takes A Village, detailing the production of this project and how exciting it is to see a vision come to life.

Download Speak of the Devil NOW for Google Daydream

Coming soon to GearVR, Rift, and HTC Vive.


A Light Sail VR original. Speak of the Devil was filmed on the GoPro Odyssey as partners in the Google Jump Start Program. Media storage was sponsored by Lumaforge. Hosting and Unity Development in collaboration with Wemersive and The Oberon Group.