VIRTUAL REALITY AND THE TROUBLE WITH TENSION
Designing virtual reality experiences is proving difficult because we are still wrapping our heads around how stories are experienced. There seems to be a lack of narrative tension that keeps audiences hooked but is that an issue with the narrative or the technology?
It’s no secret that we are divided by a two-pronged approach to VR. There is the battle of the filmmaker whose entry point is 360 videos and looks at the world through the MP4, and then there is the unity of the game world and their unreal defiance for anything that doesn’t involve room scale or interactivity. These two worlds are important in developing VR, and I’m of a lover of both worlds, but let’s put that to the side for now and look at it simply from the POV of creating virtual reality experiences and our role in creating it.
We don’t live in an objective reality so why create virtual reality experiences that force one on your audience? We live in a subjective reality where various factors (personal, physical, psychological, expectations, etc.) affect the way in which we perceive the world and the objects in it, therefore, the same should ring true in virtual spaces. My personal opinion is that as soon as an audience feels like we are forcing a narrative down their throat they distance themselves from the full immersion and possibilities that the medium sells us. This happens because on one hand an audience is promised ‘full immersion in another world’ while actually experiencing the world view of the artist or creative. This can be seen in certain film techniques that are being implemented in VR. The use of Voiceover is one of them, and it’s currently used en masse as the go-to narrative technique (it always has been a lazy approach) to build tension or narrative for audiences (Full disclosure: my first VR project was pretty much a VO track). Voiceover works in a film because we can distance ourselves from the reality of the world on a screen and we can believe in that suspension of disbelief. But we don’t live like this in our everyday lives (except for museum tours) and our role as creators is to first and foremost create virtual reality experiences in which our audience can explore and believe in whilst still being engaged in the themes we want to portray. I’m not saying that voiceover doesn’t work, but rather that we try our best not to rely on it to create dramatic tension.
And this is important because as creators we should at best know the answer to why we are creating this experience in the first place. I believe a lot can be learned from the film world and the faculties of screenwriting. The persistence of any screenwriting guru will insist that every story should have one main objective to which the story and the characters in it live by. I think the best VR experiences out there understand their core objective and understand how to build their worlds according to it. In this way, an audience is invited to explore and discover the meaning of each scene through their own subjectivity and if done right they should end up in the vicinity of our main objective.
Every scene is a complex environment that has meaning and purpose and it’s our job to ensure that it contributes to the development of our main objective. This purpose (or objective) is a foundation of any scene in any medium and in any story. We should be asking ourselves “In this scene, what do I want my audience or character to achieve (or experience)?” Once we have a fundamental understanding of this core idea we should ask ourselves “OK, now how do I do everything in my power to convince them of this idea in the simplest form and in a way that reflects the best use of the medium.
The ‘best use of the medium’ is important in any creative choice and the delivery mode for your story. It doesn’t have to be VR but if it is then it should make sense to the power of it. Understanding that power is a major advantage in understanding how to build tension. A recording of a theatre show (with the exception of ‘NTLIVE’) is always mundane and lacking of tension, because of one simple fact. It was made for the intricacies of the theatre and the rules and formulas that it has built on over the centuries and which don’t necessarily translate to the screen.
As consumers, we are convinced that the headset itself creates this immersion. As if it automatically taps into the brain to elicit empathy. Story will always be a great entry point into creating what we want virtual reality to be. It’s an exciting time and all the experimenting out there is helping to start building that language. To an extent we can only use reiterations of forms that currently exist in theatre, films, and the gaming world but at least we can always ask and challenge ourselves on how to build that tension inside a virtual reality story.
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