Creating More Fulfilling Stories in VR

Several years ago, when I first heard about The Drowned Man, I was enthralled with the concept. The performance is based around the audience walking around a house and witnessing parts of the play, allowing them to put the pieces together and experience parts of the narrative as it unfolds, moving on when they feel they’ve seen enough of a certain room (also known as promenade theatre). This allows the audience members to experience the play again and again, each time gaining a new perspective and understanding on what’s happening. Personally, I’ve heard anecdotes of people “watching” The Drowned Man over fifty times without getting bored, which doesn’t surprise me.

Last week, a colleague linked me to Jessica Brillhart’s presentation on VR & Cinema from Google I/O 2016. In it, she talks about traditional cinema and how, as story-tellers, we need to break out of the classic idea of having a single focus point when creating a virtual reality experience. In it, she talks about one VR experience in particular where the viewer watches a young girl named Kennedy practice playing the violin in her bedroom. Without a doubt, Kennedy is the focal point of the video however, if one were to turn around, they would see her parents in the doorway, looking proud. Brillhart makes the point that if we focus on Kennedy, we’re not losing anything from the experience, but turning to see her parents adds to the story.

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Virtual reality film makers can learn something from The Drowned Man, other promenade theatre pieces, and videos like Kennedy playing the violin. While it’s important that the viewser comes away with a solid understanding of the story behind what they experienced, virtual reality is handing us the opportunity to further build it out and add details which aren’t possible with traditional cinema. We can (and should!) build worlds around our stories, our characters, and the elements that resulted in this world. We can provide the details that give our audience reasons to come back, to provide more insight and background into the story we’ve created.

When you tell a good story, your audience will be hungry for more details. Having two characters give each other a knowing glance while a third (the focus of this scene) sololloques or providing proof of one character’s dedication to her work through the years of research that we see on her shelf (while our focal point is her finishing the final touches on it) just provides a deeper understanding of what we’ve created. Virtual reality challenges story tellers to consider the whole world that their characters are living in and not just the current frame or the present moment.

As virtual reality technology becomes increasingly accessible, it provides us with the opportunity to bring audiences into the worlds we’ve created and fill in details, backstories, and relationships in ways which were never possible before. It gives us a chance to immerse our audience on more than just a visual level. It’s a truer, fuller experience where every character’s personality is added to, even if just in the periphery, where every object has a meaning and a story, even if that isn’t the point of the story we’re telling right now. By embracing this idea we can create better stories, and better virtual reality experiences, for our audience.

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