The first time I tried virtual reality, on the HTC Vive, the demo had me standing underwater on the bow of a sunken ship. A whale swam past, almost within arm’s reach. It was cool, but I actually stopped watching the whale to examine the ship. I moved around the bow, gazing at rusty rails and schools of fish below. I looked up at the cabin and wondered how this ship sank.
That’s the magic of VR. It makes you a participant in the story.
In a movie, the camera would’ve held onto the whale. Even in a game, to look around would’ve required moving a joystick and directing the view — actions that distance the player from the experience. But with VR, I could just naturally inhabit the space.
As the VR platform grows, its approach of centering on the audience will transform the stories that filmmakers and game-makers can tell. They’ll require a lot more work to make, but they’ll pay off with even more depth than the stories we already know and love.
Fully fledged VR will be all about the stories
Whales are one thing, but now apply the VR approach to a more complex story: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 classic “Rope,” for instance. The setup is simple: just before hosting a party, two friends murder a classmate and hide his body in a chest.
The whole story takes place in a single room — the murder, the body-stashing, the party — and what makes it enthralling are the small interactions between various characters who know, don’t know or suspect that a heinous crime has just occurred.
What if you could stand in the middle of that room and eavesdrop on different conversations? It wouldn’t so much be a linear plot that moves you from A to B as an event, an experience — something fundamentally different from the original movie.
This type of storytelling is something that neither the gaming community nor filmmakers have ever created — and it’s exactly what VR offers.
Of course, new methods of storytelling that allow a more choose-your-own-adventure approach will require more complex writing than ever before. In a room full of potential murderers (think: “Clue”), there could be five different conversations going on at once, each adding different contours to this deep virtual reality. Moviemakers will need to create robust environments that keep participants coming back for more.
As with video games, I envision Easter eggs for thorough fans, and enough depth for repeat viewings to yield a fuller picture of the story and characters. But unlike many games, the focus won’t be on gameplay mechanics — mastering skills with the controller — but rather on truly inhabiting and learning about a whole fictional reality.
The kind of fully realized VR storytelling that I imagine might not be too far off in the grand scheme of things (I hope only 10 or 15 years down the line). But for now, VR headsets are complicated and expensive, and many require a lot of space to use.
To really revolutionize storytelling, studios would have to invest a massive amount of time, money and effort into a medium that is right now still in its infancy.
But it’s already clear that the VR we have now is only scratching the surface. I’m excited for the Steven Spielbergs and Stanley Kubricks emerge in this new medium.
I’m eager to watch how future visionaries reformulate genres like mystery, horror, sci-fi and fantasy — transforming them into totally new experiences. Because before I’m a devoted film fan or gamer, I am a lover of stories.
And I can’t wait to see what new, rich tales VR will finally make possible.