8 Notes on writing a scenario for a multiple character VR production (Social VR)

1. the reality of the virtual

The concept of ‘hyperreality’ introduced by Jean Baudrillard in the mid-eighties of the last century described the idea that reality had been taken over and replaced by a simulation of it, all due to the emergence of new technologies like VR. Or phrased differently : the substitution of signs of the real for the real. Given that these signs no longer represent or refer to an external model, but refer only to other signs. It is the dizzying horror of a tautological world in which any sense of meaning has imploded. The gravitational pull to ground anything uttered or communicated is absent. This absence produces a sense of interchangeability : every utterance can be replaced by any other, anything will do as adequate or as solution, as all will amount to basically the same.

Stop!! Cut!!

That was 35 years ago! This nightmare of indetermination and frenzy of the asphyxiated referent started more than three decades ago. Yet, alarmingly it appears that this very same thought is still powerful enough to keep the most of us hijacked in the same cynical, speechless and abandoned state like 35 years ago. With the loss of an earth to help us center, thus being forced to be our own ‘ground’, but then in the electrical sense, what to do otherwise then to blame, like then, the infamous duo ‘Simulation and Simulacrum’, these ‘end-of-time’ bad guys, for having robbed away our old, oh, so beloved reality, for ever?

Why are we still compelled to reiterate this type of thinking when confronted with VR? Is it because ‘Virtual Reality’ is positively an oxymoron, and as such a cognitive dissonance we deem to be unable to overcome? Why this unstoppable urge to be this type of crybaby about VR? Why is it so difficult to understand that VR is not so much about the virtuality of reality? But rather the reality of the virtual!

‘Act so there is no use in a center.’ Gertrude Stein, 1914

2. the potential to be affected

When I started my involvement with Anyways, I was wondering why this lament upon the loss and nostalgia for this old reality, this whining over spilled milk is still so persistent, especially in the context of VR. Why not accept the emptiness of the center of meaning, and why not feel relieved to have lost ‘the grid of resemblance’? For it seems that this lament is based on an assumption that the secret, maybe hidden flip side to indeterminancy and confusion is a representative order that bolsters all the chaos in the world. Why not rid ourselves from the fantasy that there is an escape route out of all the chaos in the world? Against this cynicism and whining we should see hope in the fact that just because any centrality of meaning is lacking, we have to embrace wholeheartedly the deep acceptance that our situation is fundamentally non-consensual, relational, combinatorial. We rather play and probe all possibilities that in their occurrence have the potential to affect us, rather than submit to what the ‘horrors’ of indeterminancy can do to us, like : render us numb, cynical and basically into a recruit for a Baudrillardian, passive army of a ‘silent majority’. Given the choice I would rather file for the status of a ‘conscientious objector’ and focus, especially in the context of VR, on play and becoming, rather than submit easily to any post-modern lethargy or.

‘Images are meant for people to orient themselves in the world, but when they become very strong, people use their experience in the world to orient themselves in the image. The image becomes the concrete reality and the world is only a pretext.’ Vilem Flusser, 1990

1+2=3. ‘anyways’

Against the backdrop of these thoughts I began my writing for the scenario. Already in an early stage the title came up : ‘anyways’. It is the Dutch bastard appropriation of the British ‘anyway’, by adding an ‘s’ to it.

When used in a Dutch conversation, the ironic exclamation ‘anyways’ generally marks a referential break (not only by the often sudden transgression to another language). In this sense the Dutch ‘anyways’ is a bit similar to its British equivalent, in how it marks a referential break. However in its Dutch usage, this specific referential break comes at the end of a sequence of dialogical exchange, reaching a dead or deadening point. A point in which the conversation has reached a certain temporary conceptual exhaustion, that can offer only the chilling view into the abysmal emptiness of human communication. The only to resolve this confrontation is to shrug the shoulders and utter in ironic, meek despair:’anyways’. Mostly it is followed by an awkward, if not stoic silence. Depending on the level of ‘post-modernity’ inscribed in the people involved. As for those captives and jailers alike of this dangerous mental mode, chances are that this type of confrontation with the Real will remain a rather painful trauma, not to say yet another legitimation of the universality and ubiquitousness of the ‘post-modern’ communicational horror altogether. As a result of this bias this communicational abyss, post-modern or otherwise most likely will open wider. Or, it might just function as its opposite : the moment to jointly embrace this void with an ironic smile, having the confidence that something new will break open and expose a new vista, like a blazing sun that all of a sudden pops up from behind a grim, dark cloud.

4. missing center

This focus on the abysmal void in human communication, combined with the polyperspectivity of having 6 characters thrown together in a cramped tiny space, urged me to give up the idea to control or dictate centrally the dramatic development altogether. I was reminded of a lot of examples in literature (novels, prose, theatre pieces, poems, weird literary experiments) that all had demonstrated a refusal to adopt such a centrality. Some of them written 80 years ago, yet, when reading them back, they still had the quality of keeping the reader empathically and intellectually lean, agile, and alert. E.g. I was particularly struck by the freshness of William Faulkner’s ‘As I lay Dying’ (1930), when reading it again after having it read in the late seventies (approx. 40 years ago). Not only its compelling use of the technique of a ‘stream of consciousness’ was inspirational to probe funky and fresh new ways to connect a reader directly to one of the characters in the narrative, but also the idea of shifting to really different registers of identification in the way a reader connects to either one of the characters, was again a big eye-opener I benefited enormously from it conceiving the scenario.

5. ancient identification with a virtual node

What I wanted to happen in the head of the participants was the recurring questioning throughout the piece : ‘what is ‘the’ story (public) and what is ‘my’ story (personal)?’. That the participant would understand that this question marked the fundamental instability of his or her relation with his or her virtual persona and thus with the rest of the company in the train, and implicitly with the more general question concerning the specious edge between the public and the personal. In most of the productions (cinematic, VR, etc.) we are held hostage in rather conventional ways to psychologically identify with the characters portrayed. It is not only the repetitious and instructional way ‘how to identify’ with a character, but also how this character should be recognized as the virtual node in a web of story threads, set within an easy to grasp narrative that conforms to Aristotle’s tragic plot structure (Aristotle’s poetics dates back to approx. 335 BC). Either in films, games or other VR productions, in most cases the Hollywood’s adaptation of Aristotle’s poetics (dramatic theory) of identification remains the dominant, unquestioned way of designing and ordaining this identification (as it will be very unlikely to assume that e.g. central African, or Buddhist ways to conceive drama, or love stories, all of a sudden will become the new identificational paradigm). Maybe the realm of Aristotle’s idea of identification should be critically re-assessed within new forms of storytelling, as the addiction to it has only given leeway to a Western, superficial, sentimental way of connecting to alterity, otherness, difference and generally, the complexity of life.

6. monkeys, typewriters and comfort out of necessity

On the other hand we do not seem to have any problem accepting that our use of (social) media appliances or formats exerted a huge impact on our social conduct and orientation. To such an extent that we even experience a weird form of pride when pointing to the monumental break in our biography marking a pre-social media era and an era that came after. Yet, when it comes to appreciating the artistic use of new media we want things to be rather comfortingly traditional, classic (335 BC !) or even regressive. Artistic productions are increasingly being associated with leisure and spare time relaxation, as being a mere quirky, yet amusing annex to the whole of the phylum of commodified ‘infotainment’, a new form of ‘storytelling’ that blends narcotic comfort with an infinite belief in ‘objectified data’. It is imaginable for the necessity of an endless, labyrinthine (Borgsian) library[1] to exist somewhere on the internet, crammed with ‘scientific evidence’, doctored stats and ‘data visualizations’ that proofs once and for all the ‘infinite monkey theorem’ not to be true.[2] Moreover, based on this proof it logically, inevitably follows that cultural artefacts and artistic expressions (and maybe life altogether) ‘should not be so complicated and demanding’. For otherwise the chances are that ‘almost surely’, ultimately, confusion will arise.[3]

I fear that this online version of the ‘universal’ library is run and managed by a flaming horde of alarmed snowflakes that, equiped with Master Degrees or Doctorats, have succeded to manufacture a library similar to the one Borges depicted in his story : Babelonic, inoperative, inexhaustible, nonsensical. Although this version most likely provides only politically correct ‘solutions’ to basically everything that might jeopardize the survival of this very library itself. It is this tautological absurdism, this ‘reality effect’-causing, projectional way of creating cultural impact that Flusser understood when he was asking himself critically : ‘Does Writing have a Future?’

Of course his answer was no, yet, it did not stop him from defying that same negation in writing.

[1] From : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Library_of_Babel :
‘Jonathan Basile enterprised to recreate the Library in Borges’ story on his website https://libraryofbabel.info/About.html
adapted to the English language. An algorithm he created generates a ‘book’ by iterating every permutation of 29 characters: the 26 English letters, space, comma, and period. Each book is marked by a coordinate, corresponding to its place on the hexagonal library (hexagon name, wall number, shelf number, and book name) so that every book can be found at the same place every time. The website is said to contain “all possible pages of 3200 characters, about 104677 books”’.
[2] “that a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum.”
[3] Maybe in this context it is good to be reminded of the 3 ‘Hauptsätze’ that Vilem Flusser once jotted down that summarize his position towards the problematic relationship between information, entropy, chance and necessity (vide the start of this blog entry), that he in many of his texts associates to the second law of Thermodynamics; (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_law_of_thermodynamics), that states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time. Based on this principle he came to formulate his prime take on communication theory in these three statements:
What is not communicated does not exist, and the more it is communicated the more it exist.
Everything that communicates something has a certain value, and the more it is communicated the more value it has.
Anyone that has the desire to communicate, should inform as less as possible. (vide Vilem Flusser, ‘Kommunikologie (Schriften, band 4)’, Bollmann Verlag 1996).

7. habit as addiction

Although VR as a medium, is by design not equiped to foster easily a linear narrativity, or the traditional simplicity of a linear single-perspectival story line, it very much seems that most productions are an exhaustion to forcefully mimic these conventional approaches. What explains this addiction to these worn formats and habitual patterns of social orientation and conduct that fundamentally destroy all potential and the social, cultural promises these new media, and that these new media formats in their nascent state embody?

Wendy Chun’s ‘Updating to Remain the Same, habitual new media’,[1] argues with a massive load of arguments and examples that demonstrate and stress the power of the logic of imitation, and media induced slow training as the big neoliberal subjectivization machinery that is based on the exploitation and making productive of the nonconscious : habit. Yet, she argues that our media matter most when they do not seem to matter at all; when they have moved from ‘new’ to habitual.

Why not enjoy confusion and disorientation, and see it as the rewarding luxury that art and culture can offer a human being. For art can help to allow confusion, doubt, or the suspension of disbelief to render life more meaningful, challenging, adventurous, critical, emphatic, compassionate, …..

8. ‘inciting incident’ = ‘exciting incident’

Why not accept that ‘Anyways’, very much like life itself, makes an appeal for a recurrent resetting of ourselves, in an effort to figure out ‘if it already is happening’. Not so much the ‘what’ of the ‘it’ happening, but rather, the ‘it’ of the happening, as answer to the question : ‘is it happening already?[2]. The ‘it’ then is the generative spark for a story, a narrative that basically is virtually offered to us in every split second of our lives. The Aristotelean plot structure starts with the ‘inciting incident’, the moment in which the engine of the story is turned on, and an anticipation of a plot is suggested.

‘Anyways’ focusses on this generative aspect of the story as a something, an ‘it’ to occur, as an ‘inciting incident’. The whole of ‘Anyways’ can be seen as being held in the immersive trance of a virtual story to happen as an ‘exciting moment’ throughout. The participant cannot otherwise understand that they are the dramatic material, animating the lives of the characters they have become.

We tend to see things that we don’t actually see. It is the same capacity that allows us the experience of ‘something happening’. In ‘Anyways’ this ‘something’ is the moment in which the Virtual becomes the actualization of the Real.

[1] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, ‘Updating to Remain the Same, Habitual New Media’, MIT press, 2016, in which she confronts the problematic idea of ‘new media’ altogether by stressing the urge that neoliberal societies exert to basically ‘update to remain the same’, and in which habit is central to the inversion of privacy and publicity, being the drive of the networked machinery. Can we make a call for public rights again, instead of a fake privacy, the right to be exposed, to take risks, and to be in public without being attacked, because the idea of difference is accepted, instead of being purged because it defies the habitual? http://www.noakaplan.com/design.futures/readings/updatingToRemainTheSame.pdf
[2] In his media critical philosophy of time Jean-Francois Lyotard makes recurrent note of this question as an important mark of a focussing on a philosophy of the event as having the possibility to escape memorization (recording). And thus allowing for a ‘PASSABILITY’, vide Yuk Hui on this topic : https://meson.press/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/9783957960313-30-Years-Les-Immateriaux.pdf

This blog forms part of the Scenario and VR research trajectory, a collaboration between the Netherlands Film Academy in Amsterdam (AHK), Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA), and PIPS:lab, an Amsterdam-based collective creating multimedia installations, performances, and inventions. The research sprouts from the 360° VR movie Anyways (PIPS:lab, 2017) and includes audience research, design and development of two interactive scenario writing tools Dialogus and Paperol, two use cases regarding Paperol, and three workshopswith scenario students of the Film Academy to test Dialogus. The blog seriesdocuments this research trajectory. The research is supported by RAAK.