Virtual Reality and the reimagining of Story – part 4

by Oct 11, 2016Storygeist, Virtual Reality0 comments

VR & Storytelling as seen through a filmmaker’s eyes

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.

This time around, I want to dive into some basic storytelling, in order to illustrate some of my points.

(This story appeared originally on my Blog

Involuntary prisoner of your own nightmares

Your eyes blink open, then blink again. You attempt to grasp at a coherence, but the only thing before you is a dense fog.  Your eyes shutter again and finally a smeared out vision coalesces into what looks like a hospital room. Now, if you could only remember how you got here, where is here, or who you are for that matter. Minor details. The only thing whis is certain is that your pupils have serious trouble adjusting to the reality at hand. Do the windows seem skewed, or are you just going out of your mind?

This is interrupted by a nurse who races into the room. Soon you are vivid enough to realise what she is saying to you.  She probes you delicately for simple facts, your name, your age, and other basic things. Simple enough, right? Well, no. You just woke up and your brain feels like it’s been churned through a meat grinder. And when she fails to get any sensible answer from you, her face fills with worry. Or is it simply pity? She tells you that maybe it’s for the better. What is for the better, you ask. That you don’t remmeber anything, she murmurs under her nose.

Did she really say that? Or did you just imagine it? You scramble for some simple answers. How come does a stranger know a hell of a lot more about you than you do? But before you can stuttter out something meaningful, the girl leaves just as hastily as she came in.

You grab onto the glass of water on the night table. But you realise it’s gone. even though you are sure it was there a moment ago. You glance at the walls, and they feel like they are about to come down on you, suffocating at you from every corner. Are they pulsing with your breath or is it just your heart spewing up adrenaline into your brain, making you an involuntary prisoner of your worst nightmares. You realise that if you stay around here for just one more second, your thoughts are going to drown your mind.

Fortunately there are options. You don’t have to stay around here, answer to some goddamned nurses,  attempt to make sense of this situation. There are alternatives, and none of them seem better at this moment than fleeing this place.

So you grab onto the bed railing and are about to blast off the bed. At least that’s the intention. Except, it turns out that you don’t. You can’t. You can’t move an inch. And that’s when you realise, the place where your toes, your knees, and calfs should have been, there is nothing. Just an empty void.

You hear someone screaming. A muffled shriek. Probably from another room. It has to be. Pour wretched soul.

But when you readjust to it, you realise it’s only yourself, screaming for help.

The baloon that kindles our soul, in the darkest hours. Hope just within reach, yet unobtainable. (Image, Shutterstock)

The  exposition of the narrative in VR

This is an unwritten story, just a snippet of an idea.  This story’s point is not to have some attention grabbing or thrilling high-concept. On the contrary it was to be a “realistic” and psychological approach to a major life crisis.

Its goal was to prototype how one might approach starting off a VR-story. In other words, how do you introduce the main character without doing a major info dump on the character’s life, relations and values.  How do you dramatise something as serious as a car accident, and the post traumatic feeling of disorentation, loss, fear and depression. How do you show it in VR? And also how do you use the power of this medium to show the inner-world of the character?

Let me point out why I think this story might be a good fit for VR.

The main thing was to start right off the bat, to make us active. Meaning, creating a situation which puts us right in the middle of the narrative, where we as the participant need to get answers. But the answers aren’t handed to you on a platter, or told to us by some omni-present narrator. We have to fight for them, but only because we need to find out what happened. So immediately we kick off with some major narrative questions. What happened to the main character? Why is the nurse not sharing anything with us? Why does she think that it might be better that we don’t remember anything? Did she really say something as insensitive as that? Why is the reality being so heavily distorted? And ultimately, how will we deal with this life crisis?

Gradually these questions are revelead to us, or dramatised by real and psychological encounters with the nurse, later on the doctors and finally the family.

These encounters force us, to make sense of what happened. And most importantly to take action, in order to learn what happened. To speak to people, to learn about oneself, to learn about the past, and to deal with the trauma in order to push the narrative forward. As the secrets are slowly revealed, we have to take a personal stance to this character’s past life.

The over arching idea

And while she/he (the main character of the story) starts over, basically from scratch, we as participants discover the fallout of this character’s past life’s wrong doings and toxic nature.  While we participate, we have to, day by day, make difficult choices in our new life.

Do we become embittered by what life has given us, deny the help of our family, everyone around us? Or would we learn to appreciate the simple things which this new situation presents to us? Do we take responsibility for our past actions, and move on?

All these choices are forced upon us, through the encounters with differeent characters in this VR-narrative.

The over arching idea of this story might then go something like this: Tragedies happen all the time, at various scales. Sometimes the only choice we have left, is how we deal with them.

So through this narrative we would be in control of what life path we choose, despite the hardships dealt by life. And in this narrative, through our participation, we would not be told how to think. We would rather have to make up our own minds, perform our own actions in order to come to terms with life. This would be the power of this story. The choice bestowed upon us by this medium.

Much like life itself.

The over arching idea – to transcend a crisis, to transcend ourselves and the limitations life poses on us.  (Image, Shutterstock)

And what about the glue that holds it all together?

Last time I promised to talk about some kind of magical glue – a Story Master.

Dungeons & Dragons had a Dunegon Master who was in control of the story, and who would be the medium through which the players experienced his vision. And so it  would be in the case of  this VR-experience.  Each story would have to be steered by a controlling idea. The over arching concept. What is the story about? What are we trying to convey to the participant, despite the boundless freedom given by this kind of interactive experience/story.

With this over arching and controlling idea, the Story Master would role play the main characters of the narrative through several, escalating, psychological encounters. To be more concrete, the Story Master would use a similar technology to the one mentioned in my last article (Ninja Theory’s facial motion capture) and participate in the your story as the nurse, as the doctor, or as the family members. Each with their own psychology and character traits.

And with this over arching idea, the Story Master’s ultimate message, he would create the story together with us.

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

The ultimate beauty of this medium

This story concept is just one way, out of a myriad others, how one might deal with a VR-narrative. It illustrates how to make use of the immersion of the medium, tell a story without dumping tons of exposition on the participant, and let him write their own story (within bounds of the pre-planned improvised narrative but within the over arching idea).  All this so the participant can tell a story which is her own and ultimately personal.

And this very fact is what would lift this experience into a new space. A place where not only the VR-maker (the director, story master) makes up the story, but where there is a collaborative effort between the storyteller and the viewer/participant to forge and improvise a wholly unique tale.

If you ask me, that just might be the ultimate beauty of the VR-medium.

The secret sauce called art.

But there is more, a “secret” ingredient.

For a filmmaker, it’s just as important to pay attention to what he is saying through his story, as to how he is telling the story through images. And the VR-medium presents a unique opportunity, which my little story from the hospital already hinted at.

I’ll give you a clue – subjective POV, only this time, done in VR – the filmmaker’s secret weapon to enter the inner world of the main character. And if done subtly enough, it’s able to elevate simple moving images into the sublime.

Let’s talk about it next time.

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