I wonder if one barrier to realizing virtual reality’s storytelling potential is that we don’t all agree on what “story” even means.
When you ask a typical person what a story is, he or she is apt to say something along the lines that a story has a beginning, middle, and end, or that it involves a hero and antagonist. These can certainly be attributes of a story, but I’m more inclined to probe this question by meditating on what a story actually does.
One way to think of a story is as an aesthetic pleasure-delivering device. If you consider a story in the abstract, divorcing it from its content, you behold a system that regulates curiosity and enlightenment. Stories are about problems and exceptions to everyday life, and typically resolve by leaving the characters and readers with renewed understanding of their world. James Joyce, in his story collection Dubliners, demonstrated the notion of the epiphany, or moment of truth. We are attracted to stories because they’re little machines that start with a problem and end with a character surmounting that problem and learning something important about him or herself in the process. (This definition purposefully ignores the late twentieth century flowering of postmodern literary forms that claim the label of “story” but deviate from expected norms of conflict and resolution.)
The best storytellers are masters of regulating this push-pull process of curiosity and epiphany. The Harry Potter series, on one level, is about a school for young wizards. On a more abstract level, it is about the deft introduction and resolution of elements and tensions. I’m convinced that JK Rowling’s popularity is a result of her mastery over conflict and epiphany, rather than the appeal of child wizards, per se.
When we speak about narrative arcs, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the narrative arc model, popularized on undergraduate white boards with Freytag’s triangle, is itself a metaphor. An arc is the parabola of a rocket’s trajectory. An arc is a rising and falling. We think about narratives as operating in relation to the earth’s gravity. Further, we think of an arc in two dimensions, a line that proceeds from left to right, mimicking the trajectory of words in Western languages on a page.
The spatial properties of virtual reality mean that the old metaphor of the narrative arc is no longer sufficient. We’re struggling to shape storytelling in virtual reality in part because we’re applying old narrative models in a medium with unexplored properties. It’s like attempting to use flat head screwdrivers on phillips head screws.
A narrative in virtual reality still operates according to gravity, but that gravity is like a sun acting on other celestial bodies, rather than a planet acting on a figure stuck to its surface.
If we take to heart McLuhan’s idea that the content of any new medium is old media, then we can see ample ways that traditional, linear narrative can be embedded within VR. Old narrative methodologies can exist in virtual reality if they are presented via representations of the old media from which they came. Perhaps there are television sets in VR that broadcast clips, or even books that users can pick up and read. The structural properties of old media can’t govern the structural properties of VR, but can exist as content within VR. The membrane of virtual reality fully encompasses old media.
I am especially interested in how the social elements of VR influence story. The emergence of such social VR experiences as The Wave, Altspace, and Rec Room suggest new opportunities for storytelling the likes of which we have never enjoyed as creators. Social VR is the first art form that includes the viewer inside the work of art itself, indeed converts the viewer into a participant, co-creator, and aesthetic element of that experience.
The narrative unit of fiction is the chapter. The narrative unit of movies is the scene. The narrative unit of VR is the realm.
The transitional tissue of a work of fiction is the chapter break. The transitional tissue of a movie is the cut. The transitional tissue of a VR realm is the portal.
Portals connect realms.
The state of social VR as of this writing is simple. Build a realm that people can hang out and do stuff in together. The realms I’ve experienced so far are beautiful and engaging. I think there’s more we can do with social VR if we take what I call the summer camp approach.
A summer camp isn’t a free for-all. There is a schedule, a social framework. Part of the pleasure of summer camp is the interplay between free play and counselor-led activities.
The same principle can work in VR. We’re seeing a bit of this dynamic at work in such things as events, like the Wave’s Wednesday DJ performances.
A schedule in VR can include such things as the appearance of gigantic pit in the ground at 3:00, a passing storm, or a limited opportunity for everybody’s avatar to get a new head. This schedule serves as a narrative structural element.
Let’s pause and review our structural elements. Realms. Portals. Schedules. A realm is a place. A portal is a link between places. A schedule is the temporal blueprint for what happens in a realm. The artistic experience depends upon the interplay between these elements and the participant’s free will.
Here’s me imagining a potential VR experience.
Picture a series of realms as a solar system orbiting a sun. The narrative gravity pulls you from the outer realms, closer to the sun’s nucleus.
The experience opens when you appear in an outer realm, alone. You interact with the environment and gather information. Perhaps you’re alone in a room with a TV set broadcasting a story. Maybe you piece together what happened to this place based on notes, audio clips, or other ephemera.
At some point you discover the portal, through which you pass. You now appear in a new realm. And in this realm you meet another participant who is signed in via their own home VR rig, elsewhere on earth. You exchange information about the realms you just came from. The story depends on your sharing and withholding information from each other. Is this new person a rival or an ally? Do they want the same things you do? The story depends upon dramatic irony, and what information is shared or withheld.
Every portal leads to a new realm that is more populated with player-characters than the last. The narrative nucleus, or the “sun” in our metaphor, is a realm where all player-characters converge. The coming-together of all the player-characters ties into the thematic climax of the story.
In this way, we can convert players into characters. Players are both witnesses and participants. This radical aesthetic shift represents a sea change in how art is created and perceived.