VR Storytelling: 5 Explorers Defining the Next Generation of Narrative

Ever since I binge-watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as a teenager, I’ve been eagerly waiting for a real-life holodeck to hit the market. The idea that writers of the future could create alternate realities players could step into and experience first-hand blew my mind. Sure, I’d been doing the same thing in my imagination when reading books my whole life. But being able to share your vision of a world and characters via virtual reality seemed like a storyteller’s dream come true.

While we’re not able to don a fedora and step straight back in time to the 1940s (yet), today’s VR devices are bringing us closer and closer to a seamless blending of physical and virtual realities. These devices have enormous potential to unlock creativity for storytellers—and indeed, they already have. The first generation of narrative geniuses is exploring uncharted territory in VR, discovering best practices and overcoming challenges that come with an immersive environment.

Here are 5 of the most intriguing VR stories I’ve seen to date, along with some key lessons we can learn about VR storytelling from each one.

Microsoft, Fragments: Gamified Storytelling

Microsoft’s forthcoming HoloLens game, Fragments, was created in partnership with Asobo Studio. As the protagonist of the narrative, you play a detective searching for clues to solve the murder case you’ve been assigned.

HoloLens Fragments Game - VR Storytelling

One of the amazing things about the game is that it scans physical objects and conforms the narrative to your space. HoloLens can recognize furniture and place holograms of game characters on your couch or hide a clue on a shelf. It also scans for walls and ceilings to adjust the placement of people and objects within your room. It can even transform an everyday object like a coffee table into a game-related item like a subway bench.

Fragments Game Concept - VR Storytelling

Another compelling aspect of the game is its use of life-size holograms. These characters are modeled to behave like real people, which helps the player orient himself in 3D space. For example, if a new character walks into the room, another hologram might look up and greet them. These kinds of everyday interactions guide the player through the game and direct his attention to the people and objects that matter in the story.

Key VR Storytelling Lesson: Use Space Wisely

One of the most difficult things about crafting a narrative for virtual reality is that the story no longer functions in two dimensions. With VR, you have a 360-degree canvas the audience steps into instead of passively watching the narrative unfold from outside the frame. This new canvas has the potential to make storytelling truly immersive—but it’s no easy feat to design stories for this type of experience.

The key differentiator in Fragments is its clever use of space. Not only does the game’s visual framework conform to the user’s physical location—it also uses real-world conventions and cues to help you orient yourself in the story. Instead of looking around dazedly in all directions, the narrative is constructed to lead you toward the actions you need to take to progress in the game.

Any storyteller who wants to try their hand at VR content needs to consider space as a key narrative element. How does your story change depending on where the audience looks? How do you prompt users to engage with specific elements that are important to the plot line? How do you guide someone through space and time using a nonlinear format? These are the types of questions writers will need to grapple with in order to develop stories that make the most of virtual reality as a medium without sacrificing clarity or meaning.

Penrose, The Rose & I: Animated Film

Penrose Studios is doing ground-breaking work in animated VR storytelling. Their short film, The Rose & I, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Inspired by The Little Prince, the story is incredibly simple. The Prince finds a lone rose growing on his moon. The rose is thirsty. The prince gives it a drink. Then they watch the sunset together.

The Rose and I - VR Storytelling

The film’s mechanics are also very simple. There’s little interactivity required: The viewer looks around, discovers the Prince’s moon, and watches it from space. This kind of engagement is all the narrative requires. The art and animation is so beautiful and immersive that being a (mostly) passive bystander is incredibly enjoyable. As a spectator, you don’t want to interrupt the lovely exchange between the Prince and the Rose. Just watching it happen is enough.

Key VR Storytelling Lesson: Sometimes, Simple Is Best

Virtual reality has the potential to support incredibly complex narratives tailored to complex viewer interactions. But simple stories with more limited user involvement can be just as powerful when told through this new medium.

If you’re making your first foray into VR storytelling, writing with simplicity in mind can help you develop successful narratives without too much tinkering. Trying to completely reinvent everything you know about telling stories in traditional formats takes a lot of work—and frankly, may not be the best thing for the narrative you want to tell.

Within, The Evolution of Verse: Wordless Narrative

Within is one of the leading VR storytelling studios to date. They’ve developed a number of short and feature-length virtual reality narratives spanning fiction and nonfiction, animated and live-action, and everything in between.

One of their most intriguing short VR narratives is The Evolution of Verse.

Evolution of Verse - VR Storytelling

There’s no dialog in the film—just music and sound paired with stunning, surrealist imagery—but there’s really no need for it. Graphic and audio elements work together to lead the viewer through the narrative and pay attention to key elements of the story. For example, the sound of the train whistle calls attention to where the viewer should look; likewise, the pattern of the birds’ flight guides the viewer’s eye and makes the camera pan upward feel natural instead of jarring.

The other powerful technique used in this short film is perspective. Objects are shown from far away or super close up, disguising their true nature until the camera zooms in/out and the user is able to look around. This creates an element of surprise and discovery that tells a powerful story without using a single word.

Evolution of Verse Closeup - VR Storytelling

This baby is first shown in a tight frame that makes its head look like a planet floating in space.

Key VR Storytelling Lesson: Subtly Guide Viewers Through Your Story

Using external cues such as arrows, keylines, or icons to show viewers where to look can be heavy-handed and distracting. Seamlessly integrating audio and visual cues into your story is a much more powerful way to guide your viewers. These built-in cues can also smooth transitions between scenes and reveals—challenging techniques to get right when you can’t control where the viewer is looking.

For VR storytellers, finding the right balance between viewer autonomy and narrative guidance is one of the things that will distinguish exceptional content from decent content. The rules are still being defined, but as with any user interface, the more invisible the mechanics are, the better the experience will be.

The Guardian, 6×9: Solitary VR: News Feature

It’s no surprise that news syndicates have been early adopters of VR. Journalists have been striving to place readers in the shoes of specific people in specific places with specific stories to tell since the dawn of publishing. Telling stories in virtual reality is an incredibly powerful way to immerse people in the unfamiliar situations and settings.

One of the most gripping VR news features created to date is The Guardian’s 6×9: Solitary VR experience. In just a few minutes, viewers are able to feel what it’s like to be an inmate in solitary confinement. Reading about a 6 x 9 foot room is one thing; being virtually stuck in a room this size is another thing altogether.

The video is brought to life with commentary from real inmates who spent days to months in solitary. Hearing their descriptions of their time alone, paired with input from psychologists and the reporter covering the story, illuminates the gruesome reality of imprisonment and its lasting effects.

An interesting technique The Guardian uses throughout the video is to project snippets of quotes on the walls of the cell to complement voiceovers. This not only draws attention to important parts of the narration, but also shows where in the room the viewer should be looking when people are talking about a specific topic.

Key VR Storytelling Lesson: Invite Viewers to Experience a Story Through New Eyes

Whether you’re telling a fictional story from multiple perspectives or sharing real memories from people who’ve been through the same experience, allowing viewers to see through the eyes of someone else is an amazingly powerful storytelling technique. Writers have long sought to do this with multiple narrators and shifts in perspective; filmmakers have attempted the same thing with strategically-placed cameras. VR allows for a new kind of immersive story, one where the viewer can empathize with their narrator’s plight by experiencing it firsthand.

When crafting your stories for VR, think carefully about who you want the viewer to “play” in the narrative. Are they the protagonist? The antagonist? A secondary character? A bunch of different characters? Your answers to these questions will shape how you architect the story around the user and what they experience firsthand.

StoryUp, Mobility in Zambia: Documentary

VR media studio StoryUp believes “story is a verb that can provide hope, affect change and influence mindfulness.” Their experiences to date have focused on helping groups as varied as homeless veterans to flood victims to stroke survivors. The goal of these virtual experiences is to create empathy and drive organizational support by letting ordinary people get up close and personal with those in need.

StoryUp’s short documentary, Mobility in Zambia, is a moving example of immersive VR storytelling. The film investigates the plight of low-income people in Zambia suffering from health issues that severely limit their mobility. The narrative focuses on the stories of two individuals, Chilufya and Thomas.

The footage of rural Africa is extremely harsh but also stunningly beautiful. This dichotomy in scenery is echoed by the narrative. Watching Chilufya and Thomas drag themselves around in the dirt right in front of your eyes is heartbreaking. Later in the film, bearing witness to their joy when receiving all-terrain wheelchairs is inspiring. Viewers are emotionally driven to create more of these joyful moments by supporting the cause they’ve experienced virtually.

Key VR Storytelling Lesson: Using Setting to Support Your Narrative

Filmmakers have long relied on setting to reinforce mood, emotion, and story arc. In virtual reality, your setting is now expanded beyond a rectangular frame to encompass a 360-degree view. Storytellers now have even more creative freedom when it comes to developing settings—which, in turn, requires more strategic planning and experimentation to get things right.

When considering the setting for your stories in VR, it’s important to map out all the components surrounding the viewer—scenery, objects, buildings, etc. You can then explore how each component plays into the narrative and what emotional response you’re trying to evoke with the setting as a whole.

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