VR is terrible for traditional storytelling

“But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Last weekend I visited the San Francisco Film Festival’s “VR Day,” and spent some time binging on short pieces made for the Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard, and Oculus Rift; and amid all this virtual diversity, lo, the proverbial scales did fall from my eyes.

Yes, VR is amazing — I caught myself uttering “oh, wow” under my breath multiple times — but at the same time, don’t kid yourself, we are still in the “Steamboat Willie” / hand-cranked-cameras stage of the art. The technology is terrific but still profoundly restrictive, and as Lucas Matney observes, it raises a whole lot of unanswered questions.

How will we tell stories in VR? What will be the relationship between those stories and their observers? The more one “moves” in VR, the more compelling it is … but the greater the risk of motion sickness. (I felt faint stirrings from a mere drone’s-eye view, and my gut survived the Bitcoin Jet.)

More importantly, though, stationary-observer VR — call it “DomeVR,” since your point-of-view is essentially frozen in place within a dome — may be a richer, more immersive experience than a 2D screen, but when it comes to traditional narratives, it is vastly inferior to, say, movies.

Narrative storytelling is something I’ve thought, and know, a lot about; I’ve had a clutch of novels (traditionally) published, scripted a graphic novel for Vertigo Comics, had various screenplays bounce around Hollywood, have helped to shoot and edit TV episodes, etc. All those kinds of stories follow similar rules — rules which are blithely, rudely shattered by VR.

A movie viewer, or a book reader, is in the same position as the unfortunate Billy Pilgrim in the Vonnegut quote with which I opened this piece: trapped in a linear narrative, with every sensation restricted and controlled by someone else. That quote goes on:

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped–went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”

That’s a movie for you, or a book; time and space appear to you only as and when the storyteller allows.

Not so VR. Even in stationary DomeVR, you can twist and turn and spin and look at a full 360 degrees of immersive environment. The narrative effect of this is that you are never quite as in sync with the story that being told; there is no clear demarcation between “story space” and elsewhere, as there is with a TV or movie or game screen. Your mind keeps telling you that everything is story space. But you can only focus on so much of it at a time; and it is all too easy, and tempting, to look away from what matters to the story, in favor of some curious detail, at exactly the wrong moment.

Put another way, in VR, the story does not come to you; you go to it.

There are various tricks one can use to get the VR viewer to go to it in the right way:

and I expect those will soon become a new kind of visual grammar, in the same way that we’re all accustomed to cinematic visual transitions that would have seemed shocking in the age of the Lumière brothers. But even so — if you reduce a VR experience to stationary viewers restricting their vision to a controlled frame, all you’re doing is recreating the 2D screen experience in an especially clumsy, annoying, restrictive way. What’s the point of that?

VR is not for traditional narratives. VR is for whole new kinds of narratives.

It’s easy to say “Games! Games games games!” And VR games will be great, sure. But pure narrative, the raw human urge and need for stories, is what interests me more. If you stripped out the contests, puzzles, scoring, and first-person-centricity from games, if you de-gamified them, how often would their stories and characters still be interesting enough to be captivating all on their own? Not often, he understated.

But I put it to you such VR stories will exist, and what’s more, they will become wildly popular. Consider Sleep No More, the immersive (loose) adaptation of Macbeth, which occupies an entire large building in New York City, and whose action roves among many chambers in that building over the course of several hours. I know people who have attended it more than a dozen times, each time taking a new path, following a new storyline or a single character through the events.

Now imagine that but with something even more sprawling as its basis. Game of Thrones, say, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That, I think, is an indicator of what the great VR narrative art will become; not a story that you watch once, strapped to the storytelling equivalent of Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorian prison, but an experience you immerse yourself in multiple times, grasping new facets, finding and sharing Easter eggs, and seeing new angles every time.

We’re some distance away from that yet, and it’s pretty clear that video games will be the thin edge of the VR wedge. But I predict they will soon be followed by a whole new kind of immersive fiction — one that will make IMAX 3D movies look like black-and-white silent films. I, for one, can’t wait.