VR and the reimagining of Story - The secret sauce - part 5

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. In the second installment, I went into the hurdles which the VR-medium poses on the storyteller. And in the third part, I took a peek at what the future might hold for VR and how future VR-makers might use new tools which are becoming available right now. In the fourth part I talked about Story Masters and the over arching idea.

This time around, I want  to dive into the subconcsious sauce of a potential protagonist.

The inner world of the character  

My intention this time around is to take a look at how one might enter the inner world of our protagonist through the VR-medium and the first person narrative.

I’ve chosen a scene from my soon to be published novel A child made to order. I chose this scene because of the way it’s written. Meaning, it’s filled with inner monologue which is difficult, if not impossible, to translate into a visual medium like film or VR. And unless we want to resort to some very crude voice-over, we will have to look for other solutions. On the other hand, this scene also has a clear and tangible line of action performed by the protagonist which is the manifestation of her inner drives and desires.

Viola, the protagonist of the novel is a forty year old woman struggling with infertility due to a rare genetic disease. After quite a few unsuccessfull attempts, she finally managed to give birth to a small boy named Markus. However due to her genetic disease, Markus died only a few years later. Scarred by grief and struggling with shame, Viola has never managed to recover after this.

When I set out to write this scene, I wanted to convey to the reader a sense of how deeply Viola is tainted by her past. A history which acts as a distorting lens through which she views the world.

Let’s dive into it.

Wednesday, 13th February 2016

The subway was filled to the brim. Viola’s breathing grew more desperate by the second. She knew she couldn’t go on like this for much longer. She couldn’t stand these people or her situation.

The last two years had been so by the book. Under control, just as she expected of her life. After her breakdown, shortly after Markus, she had done some grim therapy sessions. The luxurious retreat had cost way more than she could spend at the time. But her mother was more than happy to pay for her daughter’s well-being. After all, it was either that or be forced to reveal a failure in the family.

And Anne didn’t accept anything less than success in her life. So Viola spent two months in the northern part of Norway, just to make her mum happy. She proved to everyone, including herself, the breakdown was just a coincidence. A sudden blip on the radar that would never show up again. Anne was happy that Viola seemed stable. Or at least could fool the experts into thinking this was the case.

Still, the retreat had not been all that bad. It helped her to regain some much-needed distance to herself. It had also taught her some basic meditation techniques. She was never much into spirituality or New Age thinking. Her mind was way too pragmatic to even consider going down that road. But the basic meditations had done wonders for her. And ever since then, she had done the breath-focused meditations each morning.

Now, as she stood in the cramped subway, choking on the lack of air, she attempted again to focus on the breath. And what usually worked wonders, did nothing for her now. On the contrary, she got even more agitated, bordering on delirious.

When she was finally prepared to push herself towards a premature exit, something caught her eye. A boy’s profile standing sideways to her. Perfectly curly blond hair and that nice rounded chin.

It looked just like him.

Markus.

Viola blinked once, twice. And the more closely she peered at him, the more she became mesmerised by every single detail about his features.

Viola began to push herself towards him. Shouldered everybody in order to reach the boy. And he was just standing there, all by himself. All alone. And then it struck her. It wasn’t just that he looked like Markus.

Maybe it was Markus.

After all, it would make sense. He could have gotten lost. And, somehow, he was taking this subway, maybe he was even looking for her. Hoping to find his mother again.

She pressed on, elbowed her way through, and when she finally reached him, he spun around towards her. A flash of recognition passed through her body. His ethereal face looked right into her eyes.

Of course.

It was Markus.

It all made sense now. Him being here, finding him, a miracle.

Everything that followed was just bliss.

The feeling of the boy’s soft hand against her callous palm. The trustful exchange of glances between them. And she realised all this suffering she’d had to endure, it wasn’t for nothing. No. It was just so she could find him. Right here, right now. As their eyes met, she understood he was just as alone and lost as she had been.

But at this moment, nothing would ever come between them again. And nothing would force her to let go of his hand.

As she drew him out of the subway, Viola suddenly felt a woman’s hand lash at her back. The woman’s fingers wrenched at her coat, and her eyes glared with a blistering accusation.

Viola thought the subway stations gathered all kinds of crazies. And this woman had to be one of them. So she shielded her Markus, and decided to make a run for it. She had to get him to safety.

But she had barely made it across the platform when words finally pierced through her clouded mind.

“What the fuck, Lady! What the hell are you doing with my son?” the woman shrieked at Viola. And this time, she ripped the boy away from Viola’s hand. And as she peered into the kid’s face, Viola was hit by a simple realisation.

Not Markus.

Not Markus.

After that, other accusations followed. Lots of nasty words were thrown at her. Unintelligible, toxic threats of police and other grim consequences. Stuff she knew she couldn’t deal with.

So she made a run for it. And as she escaped, she was encapsulated by a dense fog.

The main protagonist and the distorted lens that is her mind.  (Image, Shutterstock)

The  adaptation process of the narrative into VR

So with this small scene in mind, let’s try and map out a similar narrative for VR.  A little story which would convey the same over arching idea as in the novel – Our scars and traumas from the past are, for better or worse, the single most defining quality for how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, in the present.

Keep in mind the goal. Not only do we want to experiment with the adaptation and see what works in VR and what doesn’t. But through this micro-narrative, we want to see what kind of tools might be available in order to drill ourselves into the inner world of our protagonist, get under her skin without the all too obvious and literal voice-overs or expositional dialog/text.

For this little experiment, let’s also say we only have  today’s tech at our disposal. Meaning a game engine like Unity or Unreal Engine, and simple game logics programming.

Wednesday, 13th February 2016

Your eyes take in the whole subway. It’s filled to the brim, people squeezing at your body left and right and your breath spinning out of control.

Then you notice something peculiar. Someone is holding your hand. You glance down, and catch a glimpse of a boy’s tiny hand. It yanks at you, calls for your attention. You peer right into the boy’s face.

You see Markus. There is no doubt about.

It’s your son.

“Mum? I can’t….”

He is trying to tell you something but his puny voice is drowned by the subways jeering noise. And judging from the burning urgency in his face, this is a matter of life and death.

So you fight your way to more space, you push away the sordid and obnoxious woman beside you, shoulder past the grubby, unshaven man, just so you can kneel in front of him.

And finally, as your ear brushes against the boy’s lips, you hear a distinct.

“Mum? I can’t… breathe…  Out. Please. I need to get out.”

So you grab his hand, and scramble for the sliding doors. You shoulder your way across the jeering crowd, you trash and jerk away at the people who are standing between you and your son’s well being.

You are almost there, the way out to freedom, but as you reach the doors, they are gone. You whip your head around and realize you’ve been pushing the wrong way. But you are 100% certain the doors were on this side.

No matter.

So you make a valiant effort, and crash your way onto the other side. All this time Markus, begs you to hurry. He is about to capsize, and every second counts. It’s your son goddamnit, and those bastards are everywhere, standing in your way and his life.

You blast out of the subway, clinging onto your little treasure, saving him from the most certain death.

Once you get out and onto the platform, Markus begs you to stop, yanks at your hand. He pleads with his beady eyes for help. The boy is hyperventilating, his face wrenched in pain. In the next instant, he slides to the ground.

You catch him before he falls, and realize you have to get him to a medic. So despite his weight, you wrench him up and into your arms. And you scatter down the platform. But the further you get, the slower the progress becomes.

Then you hear some shrieks behind you, way too distant to intercept at first. You realize Markus is fighting you, trying to halt your progress. The shouting finally drills right into your brain-stem, unequivocally pristine.

“Lady! What the fuck, Lady! What the hell are you doing with my son?”

You whip your head around, inspecting for the source of this voice. Your eyes lock onto a woman just behind you. Before you can do anything, she lashes at you, then rips the boy away from your grip.

You glimpse into the kid’s face, and you are hammered by a simple realisation.

This is not Markus. Not Markus.

After that, other accusations followed. Lots of nasty words are thrown at you. Menaces of police and other grim consequences. And seeing security personell racing towards you, you see these threats might realize a lot sooner than expected.

So you make a dash for it.

The secret sauce of this, and any medium, the inner world of the protagonist. (Image, Shutterstock)

The storytelling sauce digested

So this was the same scene but tuned into something which might work in VR. There was one major hurdle to overcome to make this work. In the original scene (from the novel), the protagonist noticed her own child in a way which was quite passive. It was all internal and literary. Fine for a novel, but trying to replicate this in VR would most probably end in disaster.

Please keep in mind, that I’ve outlined the story in a linear way. The game logics, and the branching “what ifs” are not the focus of this article.

In a non-linear narrative, I had to do more legwork into engaging the VR-participant. This was done by making the child way more active. In the VR-version, Markus propels himself towards us, yanks at our arm and begs us to save him from what must appears to be a life threatening situation. This immediately creates an urgency and a goal for us. Get our newly found son out of the subway before he suffocates to death.

And from here on, it’s the storyteller’s job, to make the seemingly easy task, get of the subway, nearly impossible. So Viola attempts to fight her way through the dense crowd, and for every turn, the situation gets worse. The people turn more aggressive, and Markus’ situation more dire. Everything happens in real time, there are no cuts or fades – we want the real-time, continuosus and hyper-realistic immediacy of VR. Yet as we turn one way, the subway doors are missing on the right side, despite that we saw them there a moment ago.

Adn when we finally manage to get out, we realize we’ve been dragging some boy stranger by the arm.

So this scene uses several methods to alter the reality, in order to pull us into the protagonist’s head. The crowd which turns more aggressive by the minute, the doors which are misplaced, and finally the boy who turns out to be someone else.

And this is what I think VR will excel at. Manipulation of the reality and the environment in real time. All this, so we can drill ourselves into the mind of the protagonist.

Personally, I think that if these narrative tools are supposed to have an emotional impact on the VR-particpant, they have to be done “under the hood”. Meaning, we have to slide into the main character’s head without crude queues which might imply this. Or in other words, as is apparent in the VR-version of the narrative, there are no visual queues which suggest Markus is some other boy, suggesting this is just happening in our head.

So it becomes all the more poignant point at the end, when we realise what we have done. How our senses have distorted our reality.   And ultimately, how a character struggling with personal issues like Viola might feel. Why she does what she does, however illogical or insane it might seem at first.

Or to repeat the over-arching idea. Our scars and traumas from the past are, for better or worse, the single most defining quality for how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, in the present.

What are the most burning questions for us artists, in any medium? (Image, Shutterstock)

Vision and storytelling

Considering how technical the VR-medium is, it was unavoidable with all the tech-talk of the previous articles. So this leads me to a question which I heard recently. And it went something like this:

“But do you have any experience in VR?”

This is a question which probably many budding VR-makers will be confronted with.

And although it’s a perfectly valid question, implicitly, it’s also a question focused on technology.  Don’t get me wrong, personally I love tools and technology, as they’ve consistently made new art forms available to us. But ultimately they are just that – tools.  I know because I come from an animation background with Maya, TV and feature film work. But whether it’s Maya for building 3D assets, rigging and animating them, or using Unity and Unreal Engine for VR-development, given enough time, technical skills can be mastered.

But developing storytelling maturity, and a unique artistic vision? Well, that’s a lifetime.

So coming back to the original question. If you really want to get more specific about VR, maybe it could sound something like this: “How do you transpose a story, any story, simple or layered with meaning, into a medium which, right now, is in its infancy, has so many limitations, so many unknows, and most of all, an undefined language?”

Though ultimately, I think the most burning question for us storytellers, in any medium, will always be: “What do you have to say about the human state, and the world around you which is uniquely yours?”

The end?

So for now, this is the end of my VR-series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and I would love to hear what you think.

Personally, I think VR holds an incredible potential, especially when the A.I. algorithms come up to speed, so they can drive the human psychology in a believable way. But my heart still beats the strongest for the rigorous yet sublime beauty of the film image, and the abundant richness of the novel’s narrative.