PART III: SWAG, OR SCIENTIFIC, WILDLY AIMED GUESSES
There’s always been a kind of implied power dynamic that exists in visual storytelling, a power that the storyteller is meant to have over his or her audience. And it’s more or less defined by the frame in which the story plays out. Because there’s always a frame. And the existence of that frame means that the storyteller has the ability to locate the components of his or her story in the space that the frame prescribes. He can compose a shot or a moment on stage and he can then juxtapose that with other shots, other moments. However you may or may not interpret the things you see, what, in fact, you are seeing is always up to the storyteller. Except not in VR. With immersive, 360 content, the frame is the entirety of the user’s field of vision which means, at any given moment, they’re creating their own frame and dictating what’s in it. Which, as a storyteller, is really a pain in the ass.
This new kind of storytelling medium, this new medium of communication and interaction, this whole thing that we’re doing with VR and AR and all the other, new kinds of Rs, it is tremendously exciting. But from the perspective of the storyteller, it presents first and foremost a set of challenges. Some of us here at VR Playhouse come from the theater world, which has been facing these challenges for a few years now with the emergent popularity of immersive theater. Immersive theater is extremely good at creating visceral, emotionally resonant experiences for an audience to enter into and interact with while also struggling mightily to deliver anything resembling a wellconstructed and sophisticated plot. Which is totally understandable. Like VR, immersive theater allows the audience to dictate the particulars of their own experience, in this case by allowing them to wander freely through a fictionalized, physical space; through the play’s world.
Meanwhile, plot is just the sequence of events that make up a story. It’s just hard data: who, what, when, where; raw information that needs to be delivered to the audience (preferably by showing it to them rather than telling it to them). But if we can’t ever be sure where an audience member is or even what they’re looking at, how can we deliver that information to them with any sense of coherence?
An audience member/user’s relationship to a story’s protagonist is similarly, seemingly challenged. As we’ve already discovered, the medium’s immersive quality means the user always has a sense of presence inside the story. There’s a line of thinking that says that since every story told in VR is going to feel like it’s told from the firstperson, you might as well just go ahead and tell it from the firstperson. You’re harderpressed to write from the third person, frankly, and have to explain how it is that no one seems to see or acknowledge you when it feels so much like you’re there. And storytelling from the first-person perspective can create incredibly cathartic moments for an audience, made ever more so here in VR by the totality of the immersion. But collapsing the space between user and protagonist means that the audience rarely if ever gets to observe the protagonist. They don’t get to see the world from any other perspective other than the protagonist’s. They don’t have to do that valuable work of closing the space for themselves. And now you’ve gone ahead and reduced the amount of content you have to fill up a frame that you’ve already ceded control of.
So then, how do you face these challenges and overcome the obstacles? I think it’s safe to say no one has solutions yet. We have some ideas here, areas to explore, fodder for experimentation. If, for instance, there is no difference between the protagonist and the user, if we agree that the user is always the protagonist, we have to find the storytelling techniques that bring the user into this virtual, fictionalized world, just as technology already does. We have to look to extend that fictionalized world into this real world, maybe through the use of AR or ARGs, while continuing to place a priority on interactivity, on the technological advances that will bring on that interactivity, and on the continued evolutionary merging of classical storytelling with gameplay. If we concede that the communication of hard data in this medium is very difficult, then we must translate that information into more communicable forms. We may not be able to tell the user what is happening, but we can show them how it feels, for instance, and we can trust our users to get to the hard date from there.
It’s all pretty speculative but this is uncharted territory so it’s going to have to be. The thing to remember too is that we’re after emotions here and true emotions are rarely easy to find. The path to any is speculative, wild and chaotic and dangerous, just like all initial advances in a new medium are going to feel wild and chaotic and dangerous. And actually, danger is cool. And dramatic. So really, we’re right on track.