Next time you’re in a virtual reality experience, I encourage you to try and identify where the creator may want you to look — and then I want you to turn and look in the opposite direction.
What do you see when you do that? Chances are, probably not much.
Virtual reality is a medium that involves a fully encompassing experience, yet a substantial amount of energy has been placed on trying to get a visitor to focus on one particular, premeditated part of it.
The frame is a hard thing for creators to let go of mentally and we find ourselves asking a lot of the wrong questions as a result, like How can we force the visitor to look where we want her to look? or How can we discourage a visitor from looking somewhere else?
If these are the questions that are most important to you, VR is not your medium. You’ll end up spending a considerable amount of wasted time and energy attempting to control something that you fundamentally can’t.
But if you believe that the other 240-some degrees matter, you want to embrace a visitor’s freedom as an asset rather than a curse, and you’d like to attempt to leverage rebellion and curiosity instead of rejecting it, then hello and welcome to the crazy.
And now, an example.
Shameless plug, I know, but here’s a scene from our latest VR piece, RESONANCE, where Kennedy is practicing her violin. This is what you see if you are compelled to watch Kennedy.
And here’s what you get if you decide to turn around and look in the other direction.
Does the visitor lose something by staying focused on Kennedy?
No. There is no vantage point more directly revealing than Kennedy playing her violin in a scene about Kennedy playing her violin.
Does a visitor gain something by turning away from Kennedy?
Yes. You gain insight and a little backstory. For one, Kennedy has parents. They seem to care about what she’s doing. They also seem somewhat wide-eyed, which may suggest that she’s finally getting the hang of this whole violin thing.
We do this a fair amount in RESONANCE, but we kept it all relatively simple. As you can imagine, this can get mighty complicated depending on what you craft in this space, say an alternate plot or an additional character. With those complications comes even more questions, like do we perhaps risk drowning any meaning or story if we answer too richly to a visitor’s freedoms? Do we risk losing the visitor altogether?
Thankfully for us, computer games and video games have been exploring visitor defiance and curiosity for some time now, and they’ve done so with inspiring and insightful results.
Take a game like The Stanley Parable. You play a man named Stanley and you navigate your office while a narrator tells your story and specifically tells you what you’re about to do before you do it. As you start to go through the motions, you also start to notice that there is constant opportunity to defy this narrator.
After you get to the end of a particular string of these sorts of decisions, the gameplay resets itself so that you can make a set of new decisions. This inevitably leads you to a different outcome and an increasingly frustrated narrator.
And then again to the beginning, in a cycle that can only be described as story purgatory. Sounds pretty dreadful as far as gameplay goes, yet here I am, picking the blue door instead of the red one, the narrator is losing it, and I’m feeling great.
Now let’s take something like Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption. In Red Dead, you play Jon Marston, a former outlaw hired by the authorities to track down his former gang. There is a main story arc where you go out and catch those bad guys, but you could also decide to revert back to your outlaw tendencies and be the bad guy— or you could do what I did and spend a considerable amount of your time finding and taming wild horses.
Regardless of what you choose to do, the game can handle it. At any point, if the horses aren’t doing it for you anymore, you could go be a hero. Or if the hero thing has you frustrated, you could go out and find horses again. Or maybe rob a bank instead. You could do any of those things and more. There are consequences for your actions, sure, but the game overall nurtures whichever path you chose.
Which gets me to what these games inevitably teach us.
The game’s creator isn’t the storyteller. The storyteller is the person playing the game. All a creator can hope to achieve is constructing the best kind of experiential world for that person, so when she comes out of it, her memories craft a story both profound and powerful. Added bonus on the creator-front if she is emotionally and spiritually on point with what the creator had hoped.
The above is as true for VR as it is for games. Take WeVR’s theBlu VR experience. Here was Person 1’s take.
I was watching a school of fish swimming near the deck. They scattered suddenly, so I turned and found this big round eye just staring at me and we froze there together, locked. Only when it started to swim away did I realize it was a gigantic whale.
And now Person 2's.
I saw a small glimmer out in the water and started staring at it as it got closer and closer, bigger and bigger. The whale emerged. It lingered and stared at me for a moment before swimming away.
Which story is true? Both. The elements in theBlu experience are the same, but within that construct are an infinite number of stories that exist simultaneously – a multiverse of sorts. Kennedy played violin in her room. Kennedy’s parents watched eagerly as she finally played the notes right. You are what the narrator wants you to be. You’re not what the narrator wants you to be. Jon Marston is a just and honorable man. Jon Marston is a ruthless bank robber. Jon Marston is an expert horse trainer.
I recently hung out with Rand and Robyn Miller, the co-creators of a game called Myst, and during our conversation, this came up.
Rand: Let’s put it this way. I think, as humans, we love hearing stories. And, we love reliving someone else’s story. We’re used to that from the campfire on. You hear that story of the hunt and you want to be part of it…you feel like you’re, at least, taking part in that hunt. I think what we, hopefully, turned the page on was making it feel more like you were, actually, doing the hunt and would become the storyteller later…That’s a weird kind of shift where, instead of hearing it, instead of being told, you become the teller. I think that’s powerful.
We are the builders of worlds, the makers of storytellers. What an amazing concept.
On that note, a piece of gameplay from Red Dead Redemption. I had a similar experience three years ago when I played it. Made it to Mexico after this hellish battle, I rode into the sunset, wind whipping through the mane of my Kentucky Saddler (which took forever to find and train after my old KS just walked off a cliff for no reason), the sound of José González’s guitar permeating the vast untamed frontier.