VR is about the player’s story, not the author’s

Or: What’s the point of being immersed in a film in which you have no role?

I’m in the middle of editing a pitch for a VR short experience about two missile officers in a cold-war era Titan II missile silo. I really need to finish this and it’s hard. One reason I can’t focus on it is that I keep coming back to a discussion loop in my brain that I need to get off my frontal-lobes before I work anymore on my pitch deck. Also, I’m happily and easily distracted and this keeps me from editing my deck for a little while longer. My modern attention span is a thing of amazing frustration. How did I manage to read The Recognitions a mere decade ago? I’m currently working on Mason & Dixon and despite loving it, I don’t know if I can do it in 2018. Anyhow….

I have been following VR since 1993. I had an HMD in my house in 1997. It was the VFX3D, if anyone remembers that blurry, clunky beast…my eyes still ache. I’ve also been designing and building real-time 3D worlds since 2005, most notably a bunch of the city of Rapture for 2007’s BioShock. I’m extremely enthusiastic about the latest wave of VR hardware and content…it feels like the tech is finally starting to catch-up to the visionary thinking of the late 1980s computer revolution. To the VR naysayers I reply: “If you told someone in 1920 that there was a new form of media that actually convinced you that you were in an alternate world and you could have all sorts of novel, fascinating, weird, imaginable/unimaginable experiences without taking any real bodily risks, don’t you think it would be clear to everyone that this is the ultimate media destination for artists and experience creators since the dawn of cave painting?” What vision-less idiot would tell you “Nah, that sounds dumb, I’ll stick with silent movies instead.”

Of course the hardware and experience design isn’t that great yet, but also of course VR is going to be one of humanity’s ultimate vehicles for art and media. Of fucking course it is. It believably transports you to another world, into another being, and gives you the opportunity to have actual experiences there. The experiences aren’t virtual. They’re real. Duh this is going to be big.

VR is spurring all sorts of re-evaluations and imaginative prototyping. It’s also at a point where it’s trying to attract a bunch of investment both in capital and public attention. Because of this, the nascent VR industry is struggling to define what, exactly, the point of VR is as an artistic medium. Unfortunately the industry is using off-the-shelf terminology that people readily understand to try to explain its value as an artistic medium. I get this. I also think we are largely doing a terrible job of it.

I just got back from SXSW where I spent a night and a day with Meow Wolf helping them with the VR Piece The Atrium that I did some world-building work on. It was in a lounge in the Austin Marriott called “The VR Cinema”. Yuck! No! Other than the fact that they both incorporate visual and auditory components, I fail to see a meaningful creative overlap between cinema and VR. IP sharing doesn’t count here and neither does pre-production world-building.

I align with Jaron Lanier’s ideal that unless your player can actually do something in a virtual world, it’s not actually a Virtual Reality.

In fact, creating passive “VR Films”, in my mind, is actually the worst of both worlds. I can be extremely emotionally engaged watching an experience on a screen. I can be enthralled by trying to figure out where the linear narrative* is going to turn next. I can be taken along for the ride that an expert writer and director have crafted for me as the godlike authors of a film experience. I don’t need it to be 3D or have head-tracking or smell-o-vision, for those ideas to work their magic. In fact, it’s better if I’m still my meatself while I experience the lovely medium of film. Fuck the goggles here. They’re just a hindrance. My corporeal self is not a part of the film, and I don’t have any reason to imagine that it should be. If I were part of the film, and I couldn’t do anything except look around, what would be the point? One of the most important tools of film-making is the director’s careful use of framing and camera movement; why would I want to remove that critical tool just to be able to turn my head all around? If I were part of the film and I could change the events onscreen, it would cease to be a film. Why would I want to mess up what the expert storytellers have crafted for me? I wouldn’t. Nobody would.

The latest wave of VR investing and content creation is wonderful to see, but I am frustrated that we are doing our industry a disservice by continually focusing on “VR Films” and “VR Storytelling”. I understand that there is a desire to get away from the initial assumptions about VR being “mainly for video games” and I think that’s a fantastic motivation — I happily made video games for over a decade and I’m happy to have moved on to a bigger, boundless world that incorporates games but is open to a lot of other experiences as well.

VR is definitely not “the greatest storytelling medium of all time” unless what we’re talking about is telling the player’s story. Period.

This can get a bit fuzzy when we expect our players to inhabit a character that isn’t literally “them”, but even with you inhabiting a virtual duck or a sword-fighter it is still about the your story as that avatar. Great video game designers have long understood the balance between crafting story content that is external to the player and engineering a set of world rules and events that allow their players to author their own stories. Because content is expensive, there is always some sleight-of-hand happening at the game design level that makes it feel like the world will let you do anything while subtly (hopefully) steering you down a track(s) that allow you to have the types of experiences that the world’s rules will most satisfyingly reward. Sometimes there are no tracks…

Rather than being about authored storytelling, VR is the ultimate experience generating medium out there, besides Real Reality.

So, how do we make a VR player experience translate into a player story? Verbs. Figure out what our players can do in the world.

There is a continuum to play with here. Assuming we are looking at some level of player participation and interactivity (ie. not a film), there are some interactive experiences that are tipped towards authored story content, and others tipped more towards player freedom. These two concepts are diametrically opposed. Anyone who tells you they’ve turned both of these aspects “up to eleven” is bullshitting you and probably themselves. Lone Echo is a fantastic VR experience (amazing work, Ready At Dawn team) that is tipped more towards a mainline story & external character. You are “assisting” the story as the player. You inhabit the body of a service android and the main character is your human companion. Your actions are kind of mundane: fetching things, turning power on/off, charging batteries, etc., but they absolutely give you a sense of existing in that world, helping move the plot forward. Lone Echo also has a movement mechanic that makes inhabiting this world a wonderful trapeze of flinging yourself around a space station in zero-G — this is a huge contribution to making Lone Echo a true virtual reality. The movement mechanic cements you into that virtual reality. Minecraft, by contrast, is entirely about the player’s story. There is no authored story, really. But if you listen to people talk about experiences they’ve had in Minecraft they describe riveting narratives of adventure, discovery, fear and creativity — all driven by the player(s). Minecraft player stories are even better when you are creating them with a friend. I wish Minecraft had better implementation in VR at this point because I think it has the potential to be even more mind-blowing as an immersive experience. Keep working on it, Microsoft.

Film on the other hand, is tipped 100% away from the audience’s personal story, at the far left of the continuum. It’s designed that way. You give yourself over, wholeheartedly, to the filmmakers to be taken on a visual/audible/emotional journey that they’ve crafted for you. Film has the story content turned up to eleven. Good film makes allowances for the audience’s emotions, but is unconcerned with the audience’s verbs and actions. It doesn’t matter to the film if you’re eating popcorn or Twizzlers, scratching your butt or texting your friends. The film is going to be the same no matter what. Don’t mess with film. It’s great the way it is. It’s a different medium than VR.

I don’t understand what a “VR Film” is other than a film that you have to watch while wearing some uncomfortable hardware. The verb “watch” should not be used to describe VR experiences. “I just watched this VR movie”, for example. If you felt like you merely watched something, you aren’t part of the experience. I don’t appreciate all the rhetoric on “VR as a storytelling medium” other than it sounds great in a VC Pitch Deck. I don’t think people really think about what they mean when they say “storytelling” and what compromises they are making to the vision of true VR by focusing so much on it. We need to think about what makes reality interesting for conscious beings — it’s not really what it looks like, usually. It’s also not really the narrative element of it — we piece narratives together after the experience. Check out Errol Morris’s incredible book A Wilderness of Error, which is all about this. The feeling that you are a creature with some kind of free-will within an environment and set of circumstances is the heart of it; it’s the consciousness-in-the-universe part. Even better — you are in a multi-user environment with other free-will creatures that makes the entire thing even more unpredictable from a narrative perspective. What happens when two players’ stories influence each other? What about 200 players? Now we’re really getting away from authored storytelling.

I’m not saying we cannot have crafted narrative content in VR, I’m saying that crafted narratives can sometimes be an ingredient in VR, but they should never be the main course. Think about your players and what you want to empower them to do. Watching is passive. Give them some interesting verbs to play with and a world that responds to those verbs. Pay attention to what players describe as their own storylines after a VR experience and double-down on those. Create opportunities for people to have real experiences in VR instead of watching passively.

OK, now it’s time for me to get back to work on this pitch document, thanks for reading…

  • Side note — There is a difference between the idea of Linear Narrative and Linear Chronology. Linear Narrative means that the order of the experience and the content will never change once it is edited. Linear Chronology means telling a linear narrative in chronological order. All films are linear narratives; They start at the same beginning and end at the same end, every time, no matter what the audience wants. Every frame is the same every time. Most films a not chronologically linear — they have flashbacks and jump cuts and stuff. VR experiences (true ones) might have all manner of player directed diversions in there that either 1) form the backbone of a self-directed player’s story, or 2) form a background chatter of player choices and activity upon which a linear narrative rests. This player agency means the experience is never the same thing twice. Interestingly, most interactive, player-driven experiences are largely Linear Chronologies from your subjective frame of reference as the player. Saving and Loading games kind of short-circuits this idea, though.
  • Side note 2 — I love VR, but I’m also a person who craves corporeal experiences. I am a recreational skydiver and I promise you that there isn’t a VR simulation, no matter what the fidelity, that will match the experience of actually skydiving. Even if you could replicate the sensory experience exactly, it’s not the same thing. There are a lot of people who are interested in feeling/seeing the sensations of skydiving, however, and don’t want to gamble on the dangers. Here is where VR becomes second best. Skydiving isn’t really about the seeing/hearing/feeling sensory experience, though, there are elements at work on a much deeper level when you purposely jump out of an airplane at 13,000 feet.

Art Director, 3D World builder, oil painter, former airline pilot, lover of aerobatics, skydiving and everything else that flies freely.

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