Why VR “Storytelling” does not currently work. And can it ever work?

Time for some perspective on the juggernaut that is “VR Storytelling”.

By way of an intro, i’ve created quite a lot of VR.

And been invited to comment and talk on “Storytelling” in VR on many occasions, and it’s always sat quite awkwardly with me.

I’ve ‘directed’ or overseen many non-gaming VR experiences, and every one of them has led me to a similar place. Confusion.

Perhaps we’ll start with a history lesson.

I’m old enough to remember the advent of Flash Video on the internet. At the time i was working at a large VFX studio who had many household name Director clients. Some of these clients got very excited about the idea of the internet, and particularly interactive video. Within a couple of years we were inundated with interactive film ideas. Choose your own adventures, held together by viewer choice, yet aesthetically presented by a brilliant film director, a “master storyteller”.

And what happened?

Well. Nothing really happened. HBO Voyeur was quite good, but mainly categorised as an “interesting experiment” (i’ll come back to this phrase later...). And we’ve recently seen stuff like Interlude admirably challenging linear filmmaking. But this is 10 years since full screen Flash video, and Interlude to be fair, isn’t full of blockbuster Hollywood directors.

Of course, Virtual Reality is very different to the Internet, but not in one profound way. It DEMANDS to be interacted with. Like real life does, and indeed, demands.

And this brings us to the elephant in the room with the current notion of VR Storytelling. Storytelling is a RETROSPECTIVE thing. It always has been. People didn’t sit around the campfire telling stories in the timeframes that they actually occurred. And i’m not aware of realtime books. Linear narrative mechanisms have evolved to break down the constraints of time and emotive viewpoint.

But herein lies the VR Storytelling anachronism.

The hardware has raced forward at an incredible speed. It’s barely three years between Oculus Rift DK1, and Oculus Rift CV1, but the change is extraordinary. But with this charge forward brings a storytelling problem. The new Rift, HTC Vive and PSVR headsets behave and look close to real life. Screen door and latency has been nearly obliterated. The hardware is challenging our brains to differentiate with real life.

Hardware mimics real life, and real life timing. Whilst current non-gaming VR content relies upon existing forms of linear narrative.

These things do not co-exist. Yet.

But will they ever? Can they ever?

We can happily breakdown user interaction to passive, active, et al, but what actually IS “non linear” storytelling? Perhaps they’re currently called “Games”? Is the Gaming world the world where the Hollywood directors should have gravitated towards? Why didn’t they? Do the skills not transfer perhaps…

I’m not going to attempt to explain the relationship between the Games world and the Film world, but having lived at the crosspoint for ten years, i know it’s fraught with misconceptions and ignorance from both sides. In particular, it’s sometimes (but not always) very hard to explain to the Film world just how clever and advanced user interaction understanding is in the game development world.

The work of Telltale Games, Naughty Dog and The Chinese Room have all proved that you can create wonderful story narrative within a user controlled world. But even something as marvellous as ‘The Last of Us’ relies upon cutscenes to further the narrative story arc. Why is this? Is it the only way? Do you have to disable interaction to further story?

Two distinct forms of non gaming VR have emerged already. The 360 Video, and Game Engine based short form VR “experiences”.

Both have grappled with storytelling to some degree, but can we honestly say they’ve been successful? What stands out at hinting at a strong future for VR “storytelling”?

The documentary genre has certainly flourished in 360 video. It clearly feels tremendously affecting to be in a refugee camp. And as soon as you hear a omnipresent voiceover booming, the viewer is comfortable in the format. Nothing is being asked of them. They can just look around and witness. You could argue this takes away some of the magic of the true documentarian artiste, who will build the mise en scene for maximum effect, but there’s no denying it’s a powerful empathy hit. But it doesn’t require us to HAVE to see something happen, like linear narrative might. I might miss something by looking left rather than right in a VR Docu, but the voiceover can ultimately save me.

Fictional or genre based narrative stories aren’t always afforded the luxury of a voiceover. Many of my VR projects have started earnestly as VR ‘stories’, but ultimately descended into something akin to voyeuristic explorations, full of audio or action cues designed to attract your attention to one part of the world, so that we can deliver something we feel is key. This is problematic to say the least. And always brings up the most frustrating of questions. What’s the point of doing this in VR? Wouldn’t this be better served in 16:9? I ask every new VR content maker to ask themselves this question on a regular basis.

The other seemingly effective form of non gaming VR is the work of Oculus StoryStudio. They’ve made two delightful short films so far.

And what we see here is something different.

Both ‘Henry’ and ‘Lost’ let the action happen in front of you. And dress up the world around you. There is a definite immersive thrill to be there as these stories play out. The rear 180 adds to immersion, the front 180 tells the story.

It’s like having a cinema kitted out with all the props from the film around you, and people really like this.

Film makers can use this. It’s no different to Tarantino wanting to shoot on 70mm film. Its an aesthetic choice that pulls a deeper immersive trick. Like Cameron with 3D in Avatar. But it still firmly follows the set rules of classical narrative.

This is effective for sure, but then you realise the problems. I loved Henry , and for the first 7 minutes of the “film” i was happy to sit as his dining room table and watch events unfold like a ghost. (I’ll let Matt Burdette explain the ghost pun) But then Henry suddenly looks at me. And having ignored my existence for the first part of the experience, he can now see that I DID TURN UP FOR HIS PARTY!. Fourth wall obliterated. Its a great moment, (Funny Games anybody?) but i’m convinced it was a moment Saschka Unseld put in as a coded message to all budding VR film makers. This changes everything doesn’t it? If Henry is now aware of my existence, then the “Swayze Effect” kicks in. I can’t talk back to Henry. I’m dumb and mute. Illusion blown. If i could talk to Henry, would not VR then require a level of AI not imaginable for 50 years yet? Difficult. Pleasurable and invigorating to creative minds, but very difficult.

There are many other examples from other storytelling mediums where “audience involvement” has been played with, but they are surprisingly unsuccessful compared to their truly linear counterparts. (Let’s not debate the definition of ‘success’ right now)

Sleep No More is dazzling, and thoroughly recommended by me. But it hasn’t caused all of Broadway to rip up what they’re doing and follow suit. In fact upon leaving Sleep No More the conversations around me were similar. People loved the “experience” but didn’t have a clue what was going on with the “story”. Difficult.

The title of this piece is “VR Storytelling doesn’t work”. Well that’s not true is it, it does work in some very distinct circumstances, but are these distinct circumstance enough for the “thing” to flourish as a whole? Or will these constraints ultimately become too frustrating for people from the film world, and that VR will become something akin to an internet enabled games console? And if the future of the “genre” VR is gaming based, that is not a negative thing.

Rather than be wowed by the amount of attention VR is getting from Hollywood, i’m actually rather nervous. It certainly at first glance seems like the best thing ever for Hollywood film makers, but i worry about that. Especially when all we currently have to show are some interesting experiments, and nothing more.

I’ll leave this by saying i’m a positive person, who continues to live and work full time in VR. I’m obsessed with it, just like you are for reading this. Palmer Luckey recently alluded to stats that said GearVR content consumption seemed to lean towards “experiences” over games. There is an appetite out there. But how many of the “experiences” on GearVR are attempts at actual storytelling? Not many.

I’m bothered about the continual “storytelling” proclamations. I don’t want VR to become a lost storytelling vehicle like the internet has. Whoever could have imagined with all the amazing early interactive web experiments and promise of a participatory internet, that we’d be left with the mass adoption of Netflix 15 years later. How terribly boring and disappointing. What a waste of story interaction.

Let’s hope the similar gold rush around VR does not take it down the same path.