The question of how to tell a story in VR has become a hot topic. But the answers some are drawing to that question seem to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater…
In the article here, Meghan Neal from Vice media site Motherboard tackles this thorny issue leading off with the provocative statement; ‘How Traditional Storytelling Is Ruining Virtual Reality Film’. In the meat of this piece, the writer makes very sound observations about the biases of VR as a narrative medium - most notably that it is Spatially driven by an audience’s own curiosity and exploration motivated Agency, which fundamentally separates it from the linearity of cinema as we know it.
However, where my alarm bells go off is in regard to the the broad brush use of terminology and blunt misunderstanding of what a Story is. In essence I think the article confuses ‘Traditional Storytelling’ with ‘Cinematic Storytelling’, equating them to the same thing, and in doing so draws the conclusion that; “VR necessitates breaking the traditional construct of a linear story that hits certain beats: this happens, then this, then this….”
The reason I pick this up is to point out a truth - Every story Ever told on ANY medium - from campfire tale, to book, to cinema, to game console - is based on ‘this happened, then that happened, then that happened.” It’s called Cause-and-Effect and without it you don’t have a ‘Story’ (you might have an experience, an emotion, a feeling, but you do not have a Story). BUT, this fundamental bedrock story principle of cause-and-effect should not be confused with Cinematic Sequential Image Storytelling where the audience are Shown this and then Shown that and then Shown something else in order to Tell that story. This is the core difference between Plot and Narration - What Happens vs How it is Told (the word Narration itself from the Greek origin meaning ’to tell’).
What we might call Traditional Storytelling is, in many ways, platform agnostic; and, moreover, what people expect from a story doesn’t (and hasn’t ever) changed from medium to medium - suspense, dramatic questions, tension, action, character wants and needs, transformation, reversals, escalations, climax, catharsis - these are all universal to what a story does and how audiences expect it to make us feel. A good VR story should have all of these, and the ‘plot’ of a VR story will look more or less like any other plot in any other medium - B happened because A happened and C wont happen until A and B happen. And through the accumulation of those events the audience experience a Story…
So…. the Real challenge for VR is HOW the audience ‘accumulate’ those events..? Cinema ’shows’ them to an audience one by one, But VR (because of audience agency and 360 immersion) cant do that. Instead VR compels us to find them, explore them, collect, assemble, uncover or construct them. The underlying traditional story principles are absolutely still there - a VR Story that doesn’t have cause and effect between events, doesn’t escalate, or provide emotional catharsis, is no story at all. In other words, VR doesn’t change what a story is, nor does it in any way break or dismantle what a story has always been (no medium ever has). What VR does do is force us to use a different kind of story-telling grammar. All the traditional principles of a story are still there and absolutely essential, BUT the audience must be compelled to be an active participant in the story, they cannot be ‘shown’ the story as cinema does, they must be motivated to engage with, and be a part of, the cause-and-effect chain of the story’s telling.
And in this regard I find myself wondering if those who are writing about the ‘challenges of VR Storytelling’, have been sleeping under a rock only watching auteur cinema for the past 25 years? Because, in truth, there is Nothing in this regard for VR that hasn’t already been front and centre of Video Game Storytelling for nearly 3 decades! The first-person video game has been very successfully telling rich, complex and compelling stories in immersive 360 environments for many years; stories told by spatial player/audience exploration and gathering, rather than simply being shown sequential images. I fear many articles like this seem to ignore that history and approach VR as if it is the first medium to face these challenges. If you’ve played Half Life, Bioshock, Myst, Special Ops: The Line, Call of Duty MW, Gone Home, Dear Ester, Amnesia, Everyone’s Gone To Rapture, or Portal, you have already seen immersive, spatial 360 storytelling of the highest calibre; stories that are profound, dramatic, engaging and poetic. And they all pre-date VR headsets.
There’s no doubt I am personally excited about VR - my first VR narrative project, VRNoir, will premiere at this year’s Vivid Sydney festival and I have a stack more in the production pipeline. But I come to writing for VR very much aware of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whilst we will no doubt spend the next decade grappling with what exactly is the grammar of VR storytelling, what remains true is that VR Does Not break the traditional principles of storytelling. It, like all mediums before it, embraces and builds upon them. Moreover, VR is far from being the first medium to tell a story in a 360 spatial environment and we would do well to remember that…. Else the baby goes out with the bathwater.