VR: Finding The Storytelling Language of A New Medium

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Virtual reality--as both an art form and an industry--is still pretty much uncharted territory. The maps that we do have, limited as they are, come from other disciplines. Film and games are the two mediums that are most commonly evoked when talking about VR, and we will likely maintain that status for some time.

There are, of course, incredibly good reasons for this. Familiar language lets us wrap our heads around strange and novel concepts. Yet the practice still leaves creators and observers longing for a creative language that belongs solely to virtual reality--or at least to the "immersive" craft of which virtual reality may one day be the most widespread form.

The current generation of VR pioneers have set "presence" as their North Star. Edward Saatchi is the producer at Oculus' Story Studio, and I spoke with him at the recent premier event for Henry--the studio's second short cinematic experience. We started our talk by establishing a baseline: I wanted to know how Saatchi thought of "presence."

"I think presence is the sense of the body, the spirit and the mind feeling it is somewhere that it is not. In Henry something that we discovered is that we started to get the sense of a character presence. What are the tricks that you can perform to make a character feel present?"

"Tricks" are the operative term. "Presence" may be a simple idea, but its one that turns out to be a powerful, if fragile, illusion. There's a lot jumbled up in the concept, and plenty of hurdles--technical and otherwise--which make realizing the magic tricky. Field of vision and frame rate play a part, but when the technical issues are all accounted for and a baseline of presence is established the artistic puzzles begin.

As it turns out the signature feature of VR is, according to Saatchi, often at odds with his studio's namesake goal. This became apparent with the very first short, Lost, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year.

"We thought with Lost that presence clashed with story," said Saatchi, "because it's very overwhelming you don't necessarily want all this story."

The "overwhelming" refers to the simple experience in being inside a fully realized virtual environment. This is something that traditional game makers are finding as they bring their work to VR as well. It might be something that changes over time, as we all become used to navigating in virtual environments, but there stands a chance that the alienating effect of entering into a virtual environment will always be with us.

As it turns out, environmental presence is not the only element that can undermine narrative.

"Character presence also clashes with storytelling because you just wanted to hang out with that character."

From a certain point of view this is an awesome problem to have. There's also something of the beauty of real life in this concern. After all, we don't necessarily look forward to time with our friends and family because of the drama that they bring to our lives. Quite the opposite, actually.

In one sense story is a way of condensing the world down into an intelligible form. Something linear, that unfolds in a way that our prone-to-distraction and pattern matching minds can make easy sense of. There are rhythms to most stories--whether it's Hollywood's take on the three-act structure or Joseph Campbell's version of the Monomyth.

In most cases our models for story come from a "telling and listening" paradigm. You know this, but I'll spell it out anyway: one person tells the story while the other listens. The power in that relationship lies primarily with the former, with the later having little agency in the exchange. The listener can walk away, or stay and hear. That's about it.

The computing era has opened up new avenues of engagement in storytelling. From games right on through to social media. VR experiences are the next step in that evolutionary track.

"I kind of think of us as exploring agency," said Saatchi. "So in a movie I give up my agency to the protagonist and that just wasn't happening in Henry to the same extent. We made animatics, which are essentially storyboard to teach us what was happening. It worked great in animatic, and we'd keep going back into VR and it didn't work. I didn't connect with that character in virtual reality. I was there, but I didn't feel like I connected with him. I wasn't going through his story in the way that I would in a movie where I'd become this great actor."

To solve this problem the team broke the fourth wall. Henry the Hedgehog acknowledges the viewers presence, in the way that a character in Shakespeare does. We are let in on his inner emotional state--not through a soliloquy but through eye contact. The advantage of a computer generated character seen through a head mounted display being that the location of the viewer's eyes--if not gaze--is never in doubt.

That connection can be too much of a good thing.

"I think we always feel like we have to balance presence and storytelling, as they don't always go hand in hand," said Saatchi. "We had to tone down a lot of how much Henry interacted with us because it messed with the story. Massively. As you can imagine. As we explore it more it's going to mess with pacing... whose in charge of the pacing at that point? Do you have to have a moment with the character before the story proceeds, does that screw things up?"

The good news is that VR pioneers aren't going it alone as they seek to solve these puzzles. Saatchi says that the Story Studio has an expansive sense of what this narrative frontier is about.

"I think for a lot of us the feeling is that the new medium is immersive theatre, plus narrative gaming like Gone Home, Stanley Parable, plus cinema. We started from one of those so it's really easy for people to perceive that we're just gonna focus on that, but as people see the movies that are coming out from us... there will be a shock as people see: well, wait a second? Is this a game anymore? Is this a movie? What is the dividing line? Is this just an experience where I'm supposed to be in the environment?

"That really is immersive theatre, narrative gaming and cinema. Those three pillars."

So while there has been much hand wringing in the press about how film will translate into VR, the medium's pioneers are already raiding the toolboxes of the performing arts. Theatre alone has a grab bag full of tricks--from Shakespeare to Grotowski--just waiting for someone to rediscover.

Bringing together the differing traditions of Saatchi's "three pillars" is where the conversation about virtual reality actually begins.

Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.