VR Storytelling; A Dance between Participant and Space.

The consensus is that virtual reality or VR cannot replace ‘traditional’ film as a choice of medium for storytelling and there really is no need. Films present the viewer with a passive experience where everything is fed to them in a sequential order. In VR, the screen is removed and the viewer becomes a part of the story. This demands the viewer-turned-participant to interact with the contents of this world and explore the story in a non-linear format. This is a remarkable shift from film where the participant did not have to do much for the story to progress whereas in VR, progression may delay if certain actions aren’t completed. This sounds a lot like video games and notably, video game designers are some of the early adopters of virtual reality.

Filmmakers had a huge impact on game designers

Learning from the New Masters

From the 8-bit days of systems such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), many game developers were not only movie buffs but were keen observers of film techniques that made blockbusters like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Game designers often drew upon cinematographic techniques to create compelling narratives. Pacing, camera-action, suspense, thrill, jump scares — all transferred from the masters of the theater. But, in order for filmmakers to make the leap from the silver screen to immersive realms, they must turn to the designers who have spent almost two decades creating interactive environments.

These stories relied heavily on the player’s input for the story to progress whether it was 2-D or 3-D. This is an art-form game developers have worked on continuously and it was no real surprise they began creating content for VR. The major difference between 3-D video games and VR games was the removal of the screen. Now, if filmmakers and writers plan to make such a leap from 2-D and flat to 3-D and immersive, it would be wise to consult help from those who have mastered narrated interaction.

3D games taking cues from the cinema adding to a player’s experience

Space as a Character: Playing on the senses

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi, we are introduced to the character by the camera’s focus on the rear-view mirror. The camera is the narrator and it shows us what we should pay attention to, taking us on a journey. When it comes to virtual reality, ‘Space’ should be treated like it’s own person, alive and breathing, making gestures that play on our senses. Much like the camera draws our attention to what the viewer should focus on, in VR we should use elements that appeal to our senses and instincts.

Referring to Ashley Taylor Anderson’s amazing article, a dangling of keys coming from one’s left would naturally encourage turning in that direction. Likewise “playing with dark hues helps suggests the story has gloomy undertones and a quiet scenery where a pen is shimmering says to us, ‘Hey, look here!’ ”. This helps us learn and navigate the environment in a way that gives us a sense of natural discovery.

There’s no need to use arrows and lengthy text that break immersion to tell people what to do and where to look. Subtlety is key — there is an extreme level of gratification in figuring out how to do something with as minimal but effective help as possible. We are instinctive beings who instantly react to stimuli and that’s what VR storytellers need to manipulate. Space is a character, so what is the dialogue between it and the participant? Figuring out how much you want Space to tell us and how much we can respond to Space is a significant technique in creating a meaningful experience.

Microsoft HoloLens’ Fragments: A great example of the relationship between user and Space.

Generative Storytelling

In Mike Cartel’s breakdown of the challenges of VR storytelling, he reminds us “that stories are told in retrospect” but VR is a continuous present-time experience. How can we account for that? Randomly generated story sequences can provide something magical.

Both movies and games have made use of the multiple endings — movies do this with director’s cut or bonus endings in digital downloads. Video games provide different endings based on your performance during a game’s run. In VR, the participant is free to look and move, usually all over — sometimes in the wrong direction. This scenario is more or less unique to virtual reality. Many adopters think of “VR as a way of imitating realism”.

You can do the same thing each day — get up, walk to the station, get on the train and head to work — but say one day you stare at the ground while walking and the next day you decide to sit instead of talking to the guy with the weird hat, surely along this journey or progression there are differences in the outcome. Implementing such a mechanism in VR, means participants can have vastly different experiences. A participant can try the journey twice in a row and come out with different a experience each time depending on the randomness of their actions. As Mike Cartel has said, it is important to re-examine whether VR is the most appropriate medium for the story and this makes virtual reality the choice for a type of storytelling that you can’t experience anywhere else.

Simplicities

To that end, less is still more. Subtlety and constraints are major assets for anyone writing stories for this medium. VR Storytelling doesn’t have to compete with film nor is there only one method to tell a story but these are some aspects existing and emerging designers, filmmakers, TV writers and VR enthusiasts such as myself should consider. It’s all about the dance between user and Space and dances have subtle gestures for who, when and where does the leading and the following in a beautiful and emotionally-charged journey.

References:

Anderson, Ashley Taylor. “VR Storytelling: 5 Explorers Defining the Next Generation of Narrative” Ceros, August 30, 2016. https://www.ceros.com/blog/vr-storytelling-5-explorers-defining-next-generation-narrative/

Bridgam, David. “Learning the Ropes: Tutorials in VR Storytelling That Don’t Break Immersion” Maximum Games, August 8, 2016. http://www.loading-human.com/learning-ropes-tutorials-vr-storytelling-dont-break-immersion/

Cartel, Mike. “Why VR “Storytelling” does not currently work. And can it ever work?” Medium, January 11, 2016. https://medium.com/mobile-lifestyle/why-vr-storytelling-does-not-currently-work-and-can-it-ever-work-728ff15efb1c