To answer that, we need to journey into our minds. Take a moment to watch this quick animation:
Did you see how the triangles faced off with each other? How the circle hid from the bigger triangle? Whatever your interpretation, if you experienced a story here, congratulations, you’re human! But you’re wrong. Objectively speaking, these are simple shapes moving at random across a two-dimensional plane.
What Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel discovered when they put this animation to the test was that humans will assign meaning and patterns to virtually anything. Our perception, in its most basic form, is wired to suss out story in everything we see.
And our memories do the same work after the fact. We draw upon a well of random life experiences — no matter how ostensibly disconnected — to assemble and re-assemble stories that serve as lessons for ourselves.
So it’s no exaggeration to say your brain is a storytelling machine.
Our earliest attempts at directly sharing stories with each other likely came from gathering around the fire. Since we couldn’t really get much meaningful work done at night, we socialized. We told stories. This element of socialization created what has been the dominant storytelling mode for the past few hundred thousand years: the “Teller-Listener Paradigm.”
We’ve developed a variety of storytelling media since then, but each is rooted in the conventions of teller-listener. The teller projects the story, the listener receives it.
Video games and immersive theatre were the first to deviate from this mode. Open-world video games grant players a high degree of agency within a story (they can choose where to go and what to do within a larger world), but there’s still a level of remove. In a video game, no matter how artful the first-person interface, you’re still the player, not the protagonist. Meanwhile, the magic of immersive theatre is its framing in time and space; the parameters of the story and the venue determine the number of participators and the nature of their participation. Often, the power lies in what is developed by the collective.
Virtual reality is the intersection of three discrete storytelling modes: narrative gaming, immersive theatre, and cinema. Edward Saatchi, the producer at Oculus’ Story Studio, cites these as the three pillars of virtual reality storytelling.
And this intersection marks the advent of a new storytelling era, what I call the “Builder-Participator Paradigm.” With its unprecedented degree of immersion, VR hijacks your visual-spatial intelligence to plant you directly into the story. In other words, there is no remove between “you” and the experience. In this mode, your participation — where you look, where you move, the choices you make — effectively creates the story. No longer are you a listener. You’re a contributor.
And therefore, you implant the story into your brain as if it were your own memory.
A single virtual world can yield drastically different stories among different viewers. In fact, in a fully interactive virtual reality, stories aren’t told at all. Environments and circumstances are constructed, and while they can certainly be built with particular directorial vision(s) in mind, the agency lies in the hands of the participators. In VR, participators don’t simply receive content; they create an individual story for themselves. This only becomes truer as artificial intelligences (and in particular AI characters) integrate into the virtual sphere.
In 2D visual media (ie. film), stories are visual and perceived.
In immersive media, stories are spatial and embodied.
This new breed of storyteller who embraces the novel possibilities of VR (and beyond) is what I call a “Spatial Storybuilder.” A spatial storybuilder builds environments rich in detail and possibility and invites viewers to participate by creating their own stories. The most innovative stories in this new form will be the ones that deeply consider audience agency — in equal measure as plot.
But this is not to say that every story should strive to grant participators the greatest degree of agency possible or altogether ditch existing teller-listener conventions. As with any piece of art, storytelling decisions should be made by considering what best serves the individual story; one of the key jobs of a storybuilder is to determine what degree of interactivity best serves the specific experience.
There’s a debate in the VR community over whether 360° cinema constitutes “true” VR. In a VR game, the plot is responsive to your actions — what you do potentially changes the course of a narrative — but in a 360° video, the narrative is pre-ordained. Instead of having been created in a game engine, the experience was filmed using a 360° camera, so you can’t change the narrative. Does this really achieve the requisite degree of interactivity to be considered a truly virtual reality?
Based on some of the excellent pieces I encountered at VRTO, I’d argue that it can. Allow me to expain.
In film, we have the POV shot. In VR, every moment is a POV “shot”; you are inherently the POV. This holds true even when that POV has no correlation to a particular body or object in the story. A storybuilder can position “you” anywhere and from any vantage point in a 360° environment. A thoughtful storybuilder makes choices about what perspectives and POVs to employ, as well as when and how to cut among them. These choices demand that a viewer respond with choices of their own. A conversation is happening, an individual story is being built. To deride 360° cinema is to foreground interactivity of plot over more subtle forms that are equally powerful in giving participators a chance to engage with the storybuilder and consider “who” they are. Without the task of gaming, viewers can more intensely focus on matters of identity. What kind of voyeur am I? What piques my curiosity? If the storybuilder wants me to look one way and I choose the opposite, what does this say about me? I may not be able to directly interact with the characters, but I’m absolutely interacting with the story.
I bring all this up because it’s important to bear in mind that even though VR is a storytelling revolution, that’s not to short-change prior modes, or the artists who use VR with the artistic ethos of more established media. I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake — I hope people will still want to read my poetry and fiction in the Era of Plureality. In the words of Jeff Preyra, “I can pick up my kid and put her on my knee and tell her a story, and that’s the best way to tell that story.”
This gets at something key. As we develop more and more ways to share our stories, it’s important to use these understandings to figure out which medium best serves a particular story. To that end, if we’re to say that VR is the biggest shift in our storytelling capabilities since we started doing the thing (it is!), what exactly can it bring to the table that other art forms cannot?
Dave Dorsey, Creative Director of SilVRscreen Productions, is leading the charge in building stories that incorporate what he calls, Invisible Interactivity.”
“Imagine watching a movie that changes depending on what part of the screen you’re watching,” said Dorsey. “Your eyes drift to the bird in the tree instead of the dog on the lawn, and as a result the next scene is about flying between houses instead of roaming in alleyways. In 360° virtual space we can take this idea much further. Imagine you’re watching a scene unfold all around you; to your right there is a mysterious man sitting at the end of the bar and to your left is an upbeat waitress serving drinks. Maybe it’s the man’s darting gaze, or his nervous twitch, or simply the way he wears his hat, but for whatever reason you find yourself looking at him much more than you look at the waitress. As a result the narrative shifts — we begin following the man’s story, and from this point on we are in a neo-noir mystery. Yet if we had instead looked at the waitress, we may have found ourselves in a coming-of-age comedy. As a passive viewer in this type of content, we may have no idea that our subconscious preference to watch the man instead of the woman has fundamentally changed the story we’ll see, but the content we are viewing has reacted to us nonetheless.”
Suddenly, our stories aren’t inert anymore.
“For storytelling purposes, invisible interactivity is the single most important capability differentiating virtual reality from any other medium,” said Dorsey. “For the first time, content can react to the viewer in a fully visceral and seamless way. The story doesn’t need to stop in time for you to decide between two illuminated doors — the content already knows which you’d prefer based on where you have been looking.”
Imagine all the new, inventive ways we can learn about ourselves and each other through techniques like invisible interaction. The possibilities are truly limitless.
In the Qualia: Zen Eagle experience, participators link up to an EEG monitor, which translates your brainwaves into a “Calm Level” reading at the bottom of your field of vision. In real time. At any given moment, you can observe how your body responds to the sensations of the experience. And this is just one entry in what will soon become a huge facet of the VR-world: experiences that monitor, track, and translate our physiological responses. Imagine all we have to learn about our bodies and biases that we haven’t even thought of, and further, imagine the ways we can train ourselves to develop new senses. And then the stories we can build that incorporate these new senses. And on and on…
This is insanely exciting stuff. VR is only the very beginning of Plureality storytelling. As Pokémon Go evinces, AR is going to bring about a whole new revolution in its own right. Meanwhile, the Internet is finding its way into daily objects, and artificial intelligence technologies are increasing in their capacities by the day. We’re bringing ourselves deeper into our stories, and our stories deeper into ourselves.