VR and the reimagining of Story - part 2

In the first installment of this series I wrote about how seasoned game fanatics were turned into crying babies by the power of the VR medium, thereby proving what potential psychologically this medium holds. I also touched upon the utterly heart wrenching semi-interactive story “That Dragon Cancer” which more than proved that some artists do have something worthwhile to tell.

This time around, as promised, I would like to get more into the hurdles which the VR-medium poses on the storyteller, and how some people think it’s an obstacle, while I think this is only an advantage and holds the true power of this particular entertainment/art form. I also want to make a humble appeal to the future VR-filmmakers for a more sensitive sensibility in their tales. To create stories which search for, and question, something deeper, more humane, existential and morally complex, than what most games/interactive stories have to offer right now.

Let’s go!

Two different beasts.

Personally I am utterly in love with Film as an art form. But when you break it down to its simple building blocks, which are more than a century old, you discover it’s quite an artificial construct.

The different kind of shots, the scenes, the mis-en-scene, and the flow of time in film, is a language. And its purpose is to emulate the flow of the story. When you peer closer, it’s quite striking how this language differs  from the way we perceive reality, from one instant to the next.

You could make a case for the indie film which uses less cuts, wider shots, and is generally less prone to force upon the viewer author’s intention.  But even those films have a distinct vision and a multitide of artistic choices, be they more or less subtle, which force upon the viewer some kind of vision. And there is nothing wrong with this. On the contrary. It’s an art form, just like any other, with its rules and rigor.

So when you think about VR as a storytelling medium, you realise a lot of what works in film, just doesn’t make any sense in VR. The framing of the shots which is the staple of the filmatic language goes right out of the window. This one is a biggie. I mean, what simple tools generates more emotion in Film, than precise framing. This not only directs our attention to the action, but is also able to conceal or reveal true human emotions in a very subjective way. This is what makes film an art form.

But if you think about the real time rendered, open-world VR experiences, which have a freeform camera, this (the framing) is no longer valid. Although games like Fallout 4 are not yet done in VR, they are a good example of well done interactive stories, but where the camera is the viewer’s player’s eye.

You could argue that there are cut scenes, of course, and here the artist can force upon us short snippets of well composed filmatic shots.  Here he can manipulate our feelings at will, just the way he inteded it. And when you inspect interactive stories like  “That Dragon Cancer”, they resort to this simple tool as well.

But, I think these sort of storytelling tools are on their way out. And if one uses them, one misses the point with the medium. In my opinion Virtual Reality, as the name implies btw, has the biggest impact when it emulates life itself. So when you think about framing, and watching something passively, even a story well-told, you are not using the power of this medium. Once you get into the pre-made shots, where the viewer loses control of their ability to look around, you lose the viewer’s sense of free will, and the illusion that he is in a real/parallell reality.

And this brings us to another powerful tool in film. Just as framing, the passage of time, has its own tools which the public is well used to. But when you break it down, it’s again a very archaic way of presenting reality. The ellipses and shot cuts are necessary but that doesn’t mnean they work well in VR

A man by the name of Cartelmike makes a succint point:

And this brings us to the elephant in the room with the current notion of VR Storytelling. (Storytelling) 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… Storytelling is a RETROSPECTIVE thing. Interlude narrative mechanisms have evolved to break down the constraints of time and emotive viewpoint. But herein lies the VR Storytelling anachronism.

Cartelmike continues to make an argument that VR can never succeed as a storytelling tool. Personally, I think it’s missing the point. The true power of storytelling in VR lies in its natural 1:1 passage of time. Only this true to life flow of time has the ultimate power of immersing us in the story. Anything less woul dbe jarring. Of course there will be some ways as to jump bigger chunks of time, for the sake of the story, (a fade comes to mind) but mostly we want to get the viewer grounded in the here and now.

I think that in order to batter  the viewer’s emotional heart-strings, we need to see the story unfold before our eyes, while we particpate in it in real time. Not while we watch a lengthy cut scene where the author’s tools are visible right in front of us.  But  done, “behind the scenes”, through dialog with another character, by exploration in real time, or by performing a certain story tasks, making the veiwer active. We need to feel that we are tight in the middle of the story by the way of participation. This is the true power of this medium. And we need to make him believe that what is evolving in front of his eyes, is 100% real. That’s powerful.

Image from the game “Fallout” by Bethesda Studios. The image illustrates one of the cut scenes which push forward the main storyline in the game. This is an example of the pre-defined storytelling tools used by the team.

To  reiterate my point, I think we are missing the point with VR by emulating the tools which work so well in Film. In my opinion,the closer we get to life, and the subtler cues we can create behind the scenes of the VR narrative, in order to guide the viewer through the story, the more powerful of an emotional experience we will end up with.

As a side note, read this excerpt by Carolina Milanesi:

Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has been studying VR for more than a decade. In 2009, the lab published the results of a study that focused on children’s memory and VR. A group of children played with whales underwater through VR. A week after the experience took place, they were asked about it. Some 50 percent of them said they remembered it as if it actually happened in the physical world.
And she goes on to say:

Even more interesting was how viewers reacted to one tested story ending, where the other bunny dies. Killing the bunny triggered much stronger feelings than it would have done in a regular movie. You are in the story; you are the bunny’s companion, yet there is nothing you can do to save it. You can see how this must be much harder on children — and adults, for that matter— I cried watching “Pete’s Dragon”! — than a traditional screening, even a 3-D one.

Image from Wong Kar Wai’s sublime movie “In the mood for love”. Few other movies embody such a poetic sense of framing, mis-en-scene and musicality.

An appeal for the future.

Let’s leave the toolshed of these mediums for a while. And go over to something inherently more important. The sensibilites and the artistic motivation to tell your story as an artist.

One could argue that some stories are better suited to tell in VR right now than others, it would probably be much easier to recreate a Mike Bay  blockbuster with all of its emotional crudeness, than it would be to emulate a sublime european art-house flick. One where the characters struggle with inner conflicts, and  structure which veers wildly away from the classical three-act structure.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t create beatiful stories which are set in our world. I understand the needs of the market and the economic environment which drives the development of these games. It’s obvious that especially games are driven by the target group’s needs and wants, and the pragmatic thinking within the companies to stay financially afloat. But games like “That Dragon Cancer”proved two people can create a piece of art, and it can still be just as appreciated by young and old.

So why not strive for stories which are more true to life, stories which brings us, and the viewer more in contact with the dilemmas of our own world. And ultimately in contact with ourselves.

These stories don’t have to be filled with passive characters, doing nothing else than living through invisible to the eye, inner conflicts. On the contrary.

“A Child made to order” is one of my own stories, and is inhabited by the main protagonist, Viola. She is an investigative journalist who stumbles upon illegal therapy treatments in an in vitro clinic. Through this, she is faced with the biggest dillema in her life. Should she do what’s right as a working professional, and go public with the story, or fulfill her lifelong desire of being a mother which these therapies can provide her.

This story has a very clear goal-oriented character which researches the clinic and discovers, bit by bit, the secrets which the people hold at this place. Beside the clear emotional stakes playing out for this character, there are also enough secrets in this place and characters, to hold us vested in the story from beginning till the very end. But more importantly, told in parallel, the protagonist confronts her innermost longings for a child she could never have.

By giving this story as an example, I would like to propose a more realistic, and character based, sensibility for the future stories done in VR. Stories filled with real life dilemmas and emotionally truthful people.  Tales which could hold their place in the tough marketplace and entertain, but also simultaneously fulfill a healing role in our society. And given the immersive power of this medium, I do believe there is great opportunity here, to tell exactly these kind of stories.

A few images from the leaflet from a fictitious company “Invitrogen” selling in vitro treatments. This leaflet was created by me for the project “A child made to order” which is being developed both as a book and a movie. For more info go to www.piotr-ryczko.com.

 The future redefined – a new kind of VR-making.

In the next installment, I would like to take a look at what’s on the horizon of the future of VR. And with this I would like to draft a rough picture of a new kind of movie/hyper-reality experience which I think Virtual Reality might be headed for in this decade. Something which we are just beginning to see in a very few places in the world right now done with VR, but taken to a different artistic level. And this might just be where the true screenwriting/actor/theater/ film talent might be heading for.

If you want to read first part of this story please go HERE.