Picking your medium

One of the first lessons young writers are taught is how to pick the format best suited for their story. Are they trying to explore a unique character as they navigate any number of situations? That’s a TV show. Are they delving into the innermost depths of a character’s psyche? That’s a book. If they’re looking to discover characters and plot through the physical actions they choose to take, then that’s a movie. If they want to have characters talk everything out, they’re going to want to write a play.

The lines are frequently blurred, of course, and one story may often exist in any number of these formats to varying degrees of success. But for the most part, each medium has staked a claim on the type of stories it’s best at telling.

As the new kid on the block, VR is fighting to establish itself in the narrative space. Experiences and games come easily to virtual reality; but, in terms of storytelling, it has yet to find its footing. VR may prove better at delivering one of the established story categories. As a screenwriter who’s found his way into the world of VR, I find myself most excited about the possibility of discovering something new. What is it that VR can do in terms of a story that none of the formats available to us in the past have been able to do?

It’s tempting to cheat! VR is a powerful technology that can recreate almost anything, including most of the other formats I’ve mentioned. I could, for example, place the viewer into a virtual theater and have him watch a play. I imagine this would actually be rather compelling; watching a brilliantly produced play from the comfort of your own home is clearly a great value proposition. This isn’t novel, however; it’s appropriation. Most viewers will balk at having to strap a headset to their faces just to experience something they’ve already done in the ‘real world’.

If narrative VR is to succeed, it has to do so on its own terms. An experience made for VR must embrace the things that VR offers that can’t be found anywhere else, otherwise audiences will go back to what they know.

What’s been done so far

There’s been a lot of compelling work done in VR. Oculus’ Story Studio has produced several shorts that begin to make a solid case for virtual narratives as a legitimate storytelling medium.

Efforts like Henry, in which the viewer invisibly attends a charming hedgehog’s birthday party, and Lost, in which the viewer finds himself lost in the woods with a mysterious presence, have both demonstrated a transportive capacity that brings the viewer somewhere new and interesting. Both of these pieces toy with scale, making the user feel either small or very aware of the largeness of the characters around them. The experiences also employ various visual and auditory cues to lead the user’s attention to where the creators want it to be. Trying to imagine Lost succeeding in another format is difficult; and, though Henry could work as a traditional short, the intimacy of the experience greatly heightens the viewer’s sympathy toward the titular character.

Other efforts, though wonderful in their own ways, have failed to capitalize on the unique elements of the medium. The Rose and I by Penrose Studios is visually impressive, but it would be hardly any different were it viewed on a traditional screen. It is easy to argue that The Rose and I is best viewed in VR, but it’s difficult to go so far as calling VR the only way to experience that story.

Losing a powerful tool, forging others

Screenwriters have long understood what they can and can’t do with their medium and have embraced the inherent confines to improve their storytelling. A traditional screenwriter controls what is seen and heard, as well as controlling what isn’t. By carefully directing the audience's attention toward the gun in the first act or away from the killer hiding in the shadows, they dictate what information is shared and when.

In VR, the writer loses that power. The viewer can look where he pleases. It becomes incredibly important for the writer to think about the set, the motions of characters and items, and the techniques he might use to have the viewer looking where he needs to look when he needs to look there. To date, this has often been achieved with sound cues, virtual “ahem” moments that say “look over here” followed by enough time for the user to turn and focus.

Again, I think this is cheating a bit; it’s using stagecraft where it doesn’t belong. Ideally, the VR writer will find innovative and creative ways to direct attention and move the story forward, instead of thinking of the viewer’s new capability as a handicap. The answer isn’t always in finding innovative ways to direct the user’s attention, but also in embracing their freedom. In my writing for VR, I find myself trying to find ways to reward the curious viewer. I place items or actions around the scene that are not needed to forward the narrative, but enrich it for the viewer who makes the extra effort to really take in his surroundings. It may prove best to try filling scenes with so much story content that there’s something rich and important no matter where the user directs his gaze.

Of course, the best way to tell stories may be some wild and crazy thing nobody has tried. It’s my hope that more and more writers will flock to this new medium, and we’ll start to see less clever variation on existing tricks and instead see something genuinely new. VR is the wild wild west at the moment; we should embrace the freedom that it offers us as well as the freedom it offers our audiences.

—Greg Sullivan