When your viewer wanders onto set

In film and TV, the screen creates a natural barrier between you and the action. Even when the content is in 3D, it’s only toying with the fourth wall; the viewer is never transported into the world that she is watching and she certainly never feels present in the situations that are taking place. Even in live theater, the roles of observer and observed are clearly defined. The actors are putting on a show; the audience is watching.

The boundary between the viewer and the action is so solid that most stories contain an audience surrogate, a character that represents the audience within the narrative. This character is the one that other characters can explain things to so the viewer stays in the loop.

Narrative virtual reality is different.

The nature of VR puts the viewer into a scene in a way that is new and unique. The sense of presence created by these amazing new devices, one of their great selling points, forces the user to be aware of his own role in the events that are unfolding. If he is ignored, he tends to feel invisible. This sensation can be distracting and even off-putting.

On the other hand, current technology doesn’t allow the viewer to freely interact with events. We aren’t at a place yet where a viewer can interrupt Hamlet’s soliloquy and strike up a conversation. “You know, Hamlet, I think ‘tis nobler to take arms against a sea of troubles, and let me tell you why.…”

We are, therefore, left with an interesting problem: how to acknowledge the intimacy of the VR viewer’s perspective within the confines of the technology available to us.


Embracing the second person

I like to write my screenplays with as little distracting content as possible. I come from the school of thought that you should avoid technical phrases and other elements that would remind the reader that they are reading a screenplay. I never write “We see…” or phrases like “The camera pans to…” unless it is absolutely essential to the moment. When you look at the motivation behind writing phrases like that, aren’t you almost always directing? Directing isn’t your job. Let the director do that!

So, within the accepted rules of the format, I like to make my scripts read like books. This makes the script itself a compelling experience and not just the blueprint for something yet to be created. I’ve found that, in writing VR, the rarely-used second person perspective can be really helpful.

Second person perspective is so rare that I once earned extra credit in my high school English class for even knowing what it was.

First person -- “I battled the monster.” -- has a powerful intimacy to it.

Third person -- “She crept into the room.” -- has a wonderful voyeuristic quality.

Second person? “You knock on the door and wait, your heart pounding.” It’s just... weird. No, I didn’t knock on the door. I’m sitting here reading, and my heart is just fine--thank you very much.

Second person has never really caught on except, famously, in Choose Your Own Adventure books. So, it’s fascinating to me that as I write for various Virtual Reality projects, I find myself in the second person mode a lot by simply using “you” in the script, or by constantly saying either the “user” or the “viewer”. When creating a story in which your audience inhabits or is the main character, it makes good sense to write this way. It places those people reading the screenplay more accurately into the headspace the final audience member will enjoy. Though second person is distracting at first, it actually creates the most accurate mental image for the reader when writing these types of stories.


Moving Past The Ghosts

There’s been a lot of effort made to explain the user's presence in early VR. The user is often cast as a ghost or a robot, something that makes narrative sense to be in the scene but that can’t interact with the story. We’re early in the medium and many people view these experiences immediately after putting on a headset for the first time, so these types of storytelling devices make sense. They answer questions that many first time VR users instinctively ask. “Wait, who am I?” “Can they see me?” Etc.

In early cinema, there’s the story (almost certainly apocryphal, but still) of audiences diving out of the way of a train as it races toward the camera. We are still in those days in VR. The entire idea is so novel that we have to hold the viewers’ hands as we usher them into these worlds.

As the medium matures and we try to tell deeper, more compelling stories, we’ll need to work to get past these devices. Not every story allows the presence of a mute robot or a disembodied soul. What other options are there?

We can ignore the user, but, as discussed in the first part of this article, that’s often quite off-putting. I think in time users will adjust to this feeling, but that time isn’t here yet. So, maybe we lean in on that. Maybe we force the user to somehow incorporate his feeling of awkward presence into the experience. For example, a story where a reluctant prostitute goes to bed with a john may create powerful feelings of discomfort and helplessness in the viewer, feelings that would be much less powerful in another medium.

Some other options I’ve been playing with include simply breaking the fourth wall, Deadpool style. I can imagine powerful VR stories that feature characters turning to the camera and saying how they feel. Maybe VR is the medium that brings back the soliloquy?

There are so many great concepts and conceits that come to play when we stop trying to explain away the user’s presence and begin to embrace it as a story tool. Put users closer to the action than is comfortable; force them to look or look away and make either choice reinforce your story. Or put the user further from the action than they’d want to be and make them strain to get back the feeling of presence to which they have become accustomed.


Writing for VR

VR is currently the Wild West of storytelling. There’s so much unexplored territory. There are amazing techniques waiting to be found and there are terrible ideas waiting just as impatiently. I’m eager to try, and to see others try the techniques that will become the language of narrative VR. So much of what’s been done to date has been an effort to bend the will of VR to the traditions of the existing mediums, but VR will only sing when it finds its own voice. Those of us who write out on this fun new frontier have a unique ability to help sculpt that new language.

Right now, the low hanging fruit is plentiful and delicious. Soon, we’ll need to start putting in the effort of climbing higher into the tree, and I, for one, can’t wait to see the view from up there.


—Greg Sullivan