Virtual Reality and the reimagining of Story

The beginning of 2016 saw finally a wide release of several technologies which have made Virtual Reality available to the masses. Although the required PC equipment remains very high-end (read expensive), it is quite possible to get an own VR-setup from the likes of Occulus or HTC Vive, right this moment. As the tech is beginning to slowly trickle down to the masses, we are already seeing the first attempts at different approaches to storytelling in this new medium.  Coming from a film background myself, with visual storytelling as the main cornerstone of my profession, I would like to take a look at the potential which these new technological tools might bring for us, the creators. I would also like to elaborate on how VR differs from film, what inherent obstacles this might throw our way, and what this entails for future VR-filmmakers.

The nature of the beast – the immersive experience

But let’s go back a little in time, to 2004 to be exact and reminiscence on a golden gaming oldie. That year Doom 3 launched and in many ways set a new golden standard for the quality of graphics available for first person shooter games. But even more interesing was the psychological impact this game had upon senses. This was quite an interesting threshold, because for the first time we had a game which just wasn’t a game.

It was an immersive experience.

I clearly remember playing this with the lights turned down at night. And frankly, it scared the hell out of me. It was actually so damned scary of an experience, that I remember turning the sound down, way, way down, as low as it could go, just to make sure, I wouldn’t choke on y own screams at the next horror awaiting around the corner.  This was a staggering revalation, to be transported into a world which ceased to be mere bits and bytes. tnis was something else. A full on experience which was able to batter my senses into the feeling of just being there. And giving a heart attack at the same time. Although Doom 3 was a rather mindless and unimaginative exercise in gameplay, this was the first hint at the true potential of the kind of immersiveness which VR could deliver in the near future.

 Scare the bejesus out of me

Fast forward to the glorious year of 2016 and we have another beast in the house which hints at the nature of VR. Take look at the video below which shows the first hand on reactions of IGN’s (entertainment site) staff to the Paranormal Activity VR game\experience. Watching this, another revelation becomes apparent.  Especially when we reach the climax of the experience, and shit really hits the fan in the haunted house, the seasoned gameplayers are turned into crying babies. Watching this, I had goosebumps, because I knew that what Doom 3 offered over a decade ago, was nothing compared to the sheer schock, exhiliration, nauseau, and terror which VR will have on our senses in the coming years.

 “Cheap scares” do not equal genuine storytelling

So we are the dawn of a new storytelling medium. Everyone seems to agree on that. And in some part it is true. Seeing the kind of visceral and quite traumatic reactions this medium will provide is promising and uplifting. This holds a lot of potential.  But as the title says, cheap scares are just a small subset of the tools and emotions which are called upon in such an advanced storytelling medium as for example film. I will not bang too much on the storytelling skills which are at display in the “Paranormal activity VR”experience, because they are certainly on display there. There is a clear escalation, from subtle to the more gross, there are lots of interesting foreshadowing tools as to what will happen. There is even visual subtletly, and visual ambivalence hidden in the shadows. And this is much more scary than any gross splatter scares provided by Doom 3.  But we are still in a very small spectre of the human emotions. Where is there a place to be amazed, to be touched, or to even cry a little? Not in the house of Paranormal Activity. Given this, I think this experience is quite emotionally flat.


 Interactive storytelling as art. Well, sort of interactive.

But instead of bashing way to much at paranormal VR, because I still think it’s quite an amazing acheivement, I want to give you another case example. This time it’s an amazing piece of interactive story which was driven by nothing less than true emotions of loss and grief. It’s quite a rare experience in the interactive/gaming world to aim as high as the “That Dragon Cancer”. This little game which lasts just under two hours was created by a team of two people only. Ryan Green, the main creator of the game saw this as a an opportunity to deal with the death of his son. This spawned not only an interactive story never seen before, but was also the birth of a poetic experience which challenged what a game, or interactive story should be. This game was also the breeeding ground of a slew of conflicting human emotions. Guiding you through a first hand experience of what it is like to deal with a dying son in your family, it is both heart breaking and traumatic, in equal mesures. Ryan Green should be congratulated to handle such a difficult subject matter in such a poetic, and transcendent manner.

And although I am amazed at the acheivement, and the genuine emotions at display here, “That Dragon Cancer” has an inherent flaw in it. And that is not Ryan Green’s fault, but a challenge which every struggling storyteller will face when dealing with VR or interactive storytelling. Despite its beaty and heart breaking experience, “That Dragon Cancer” still remains a very linear experience, where you just sit back and enjoy a story well told. There is inherently nothing wrong about this, but being a passive spectator to unfolding events is not what will transcend Virtual Reality into a full blown artistic medium, just like film did a century ago.

Baby steps towards the storytelling Nirvana

Through these two polarised case examples, I wanted to illustrate where interactive storytelling is heading. I think these are the first small steps towards a new kind of stories, the baby steps. Ones which will have a new and reinvented language. And ones which might, ultimately,  become the melting pot of all known mediums. The epitome of the human artistic experience.

Except life itself, that is.

Here is the next INSTALLMENT in this series, contemplating the possible major hurdles which the VR medium might present. What people are doing about it, and what I personally, as a film maker, would love to have at my disposal to tell my stories.