“How expanding I hope to clarify the knowledge

“How do
we tell a story for the audience when the audience is
present within it?”


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In this essay I will be researching and considering
the ways Virtual Reality has advanced in the few years it has become mainstream
to being us new and engaging ways to tell stories. I will be considering the
effects that having presence within the Virtual world has on the user and how
the agency increases the value gained from the experience. Interviews will
professionals from within the game and VR industry will be noted to make my
points more valid…? While this technology is still very new and ever expanding
I hope to clarify the knowledge I have gathered and format it in such a way
that it can be understood and inspire thoughts towards the future of VR.


Humans have been telling stories since the dawn
of time. From paintings on the walls of caves to tales told around the fire. It
has since progressed into a recorded format we can experience over and over
again with theatre, books, films and games. Since earlier days stories have
moved on from being lessons and tales of the past to be a thing of leisure,
escaping into worlds we are not able to experience in reality and living a life
through another’s shoes. We have always had a need to share our experiences and
feeling with others as life is about stories, everything we experience has a
story to be told.



Storytelling is an essential part of the human
experience, but is it necessarily needed to create compelling and immersive VR?
Modern VR in its earlier stages was designed with the “Wow” factor in mind, its
creations were all visual to draw people into the world of Virtual Reality and
to experiment with how they can push the parameters of the system. Many of
these VR experiences let the viewer take the back seat, they just had to
observe and be a witness to what the studio wished to show them, the
experiences were still immersive and could invoke a sense of presence as the
viewer detached themselves from the real world to this one. A great example of
this is theBlu which was showcased at
multiple game conventions including EGX 2015 and Gamescon 2015. The 360 experience
had the viewer standing at the bottom of the ocean on the wreck of a ship with
fish swimming all around, the scene was quite realistic to what would be seen
in deep sea nature documentaries. After watching the fish, the viewer would be
surprised to see a massive whale comes across from the left and pause next to
the wreck to inspect the viewer before swimming off and knowing the mast with
his fin. While there was nothing to necessarily interact with and there was no
a sense of traditional narrative it still left an impact on those who had
experienced it and they felt it was truly immersive. Others might argue that VR
without story is “squandering the medium” (JK, 2018), interactivity
allows the experience to feel more akin to real experiences but “Sometimes,
allowing the player to just play around in a world you’ve created can induce a
sense of presence and provide an immersive and fulfilling experience.” (JK, 2018) even without a set
narrative. The opinion of if VR
needs story is varied across aspects of the game and VR industry with the consensus
being that “An experience doesn’t need a story, but a story can also be an
experience. If there is no narrative, then it is just an experience.” (VL, 2018) “While I was testing another VR experiment, I witnessed a couple arguing
in a Paris garden. But I couldn’t care less about the drama, so I turned away
to stroll at the peaceful environment: sunlight reflecting on the grass,
passersby, and foamy clouds. I had spent minutes contemplating my new
surroundings, when I realized this could be the experience. I didn’t need to listen
to the couple?—?I was living their moment. The atmosphere had taken over this
story.sic” (Vecchioli, 2016) However even the
most passive VR provides a level of interaction for the viewer to take part in.
Even when they are unable to touch anything within the experience or affect
what will happen next the viewer is able to interact more with the scene than
traditional cinema allows, they have agency over their choices of where to look
and how to move around the scene.


What is Virtual Reality? The definition of
Virtual Reality comes from the combination of the definitions for virtual and
reality. The definition for Virtual is nearly as described and reality is what
we experience as humans. The term Virtual Reality meaning near reality or close
to reality. A more appropriate definition for modern day VR would be a term
used to describe a
three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. The
earliest format of Virtual Reality was with a Stereoscopic viewer from 1838 in which both left and right eye
views of an image would be depicted and when looked at together would create a three-dimensional
image. 100 years later advancements were made onto the use of stereoscopic
images with the release of View-masters in
1939. View-masters were an upgrade to the earlier stereoscopic viewers and
featured carboard reels containing seven pairs of small coloured photographs on
film. In the 1950’s Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama, a device similar to an arcade theatre cabinet intended
to fully immerse the viewer in a film. It consisted of features that would
stimulate the senses with surround sound, fans, stereoscopic display, scents
and a moving chair. Heilig went on to develop the Telesphere Mask in
1960, the first HMD(head mounted display)for VR that worked like an improved
Stereoscopic viewer. The first precursor for modern day HMD was developed in
1961 by two Philco Corporation engineers (Comeau & Bryan). The equipment
was not intended for use within VR and would be used by the military for immersive
remote viewing of dangerous situations. It was connected to a magnetic motion
tracking system that would relay the movement of a closed circuit camera to two
video screens for each eye. All of these early forms of Virtual Reality would
lead to the HUD equipment we have today.



Many articles with an outsider view on VR have stated that
storytelling in VR, specifically linear storytelling, is problematic. There are
difficulties keeping the viewers focus where intended without locking the
camera and restricting their freedom. Additionally, the visual flow is hard to
maintain when teleporting the viewer or changing the scene without jarring the
viewer or causing a sense of nausea. There are clever ways VR studios can limit
the viewer following an incorrect path and experiencing incongruent movements
through visual language. These techniques still allow the player to have a
sense of agency; a sense that they have a conscious choice over their
movements. Logan Dwight, cofounder and director of the soap collective, stated
during a talk at VRDC16 that “Directing user attention is critical” (Dwight, 2016) and that just
because you have a lot of space and freedom of movement in a 360 environment
doesn’t meant it should be used. The first way he explains that their company
would direct the user’s attention is to limit 360 environments to 180 or even
90 degrees. Some may argue that this would defeat the point of using VR if you
are to limit the surroundings but by having half your surroundings be pitch
black it will keep the focus to the characters or scene they want you to see,
the creators can then shift the scene around the user as if the lights are
being turned on for the next stage. By “Having only one thing viewable at a
time” (JK, 2018) the creator can
direct the players focus, in doing this they can” help start a progression path
and lead the player/viewer to where their attention needs to be.” (JK, 2018). In his talk Dwight
goes on to say that less can bring more to the viewer; “If everything is loud,
nothing is loud” (Dwight, 2016), suggesting the
cluttered nature of the scene can distract from the narrative and focus. Contradictory
to Dwight’s belief/theory, a study done in partnership with Stanford’s d.school Media Experiments found that when given a smaller view and less to
observe participants ended up trying to make sense out of insignificant objects
in the scene “If something doesn’t jive with their
expectations, it takes them out of the experience.” (Newton, 2016)

Another way they can guide the story while making the user
feel in control of what they are looking at is with visual language. Visual
language can be in many forms, primarily used forms can be a shift in lighting,
the characters movement within a scene, environmental movements; for example a
firefly floating past or the rustling through grass. These environmental cues
are subtle enough that the viewer does not lose agency or become jarred from
their sense of presence within the virtual world. Within games and films the
experience of being teleported or cutting to other places is often unnoticed
yet within VR these changes can induce nausea as it is not natural. There are
limited ways that studios have been making these scene shifts in games and
animations, often there will not be cuts and the viewer will have to walk from
one scene to the location of the next. If there is a need to teleport or to
show the next scene as there can be with VR films and music videos, to make the
change easier on the mind key visuals will stay constant from one scene to
another, for example the same character will be visible immediately in the new
scene or the cut will be from one horizon to another. Similarly, to how darkening
an area can aid in keep the focus on one scene, adding light to areas can avert
the gaze of the viewer. This can however be difficult to do as too harsh
lighting with no visible source will rouse the viewer out of the moment and
make them question the source, extinguishing the presence and immersion they
had within the world. Immersion can also be broken if text and sounds are not
diegetic to the world or timeline you are in, and if the user realises it does
not fit the sense of presence is broken, “In VR, text and other symbols are
often diegetic and part of the environment. Additionally, sound is MUCH more
important in VR than in traditional video games.” (MA, 2018)


an extent through the use of visual language the user has a sense of agency to
their decisions within the story. When in VR the boundaries open up from
storytelling within previous mediums as the user is within the world, a part of
that story happening right in front of them, right now. “Telling
stories is different in VR due to the literal “feeling” difference
provided by a typical first person view.  It’s an intangible quality, but
it’s something that’s definitely felt by players.sic” (BC, 2018)

heightens the experience the user takes from VR, the story may not have
revolved around them or included them but they were there within it making the
experience more thrilling and personal. This feeling of extreme immersion and
presence is frequent in most first time VR users, “The first words of most first viewers of virtual
reality when experiencing the media usually are: “It feels like being there”.
Reactions to the images are much more emotional. People get sick with fast
motion videos, and horror stories filmed in 360 are more, well, horrific.
Immersive photos of places and of memories trigger deeper reactions than when
seen in a normal screen.”” Most common first words of first time users of virtual
reality: It feels like
being there!” (Rodriguez, 2016). The personal experience the users
gain from living out that story or experience allow them to have a different
take or viewpoint on what they had seen “in this way, no two individuals experience the exact same story,
because no two individuals look at the exact same things in the exact same
order.” (Newton, 2016)

 First person games can come close to this as
they are seeing the world from their persona but it still stands that that
world is being seen from behind a screen with their character taking the
actions instructed by the player rather than the player themselves. The VR animation
Dispatch by the studio Here Be Dragons really pushes the
boundaries of storytelling in VR. The short follows a dispatcher for one rough
night and their conversations and experiences, but what makes this short so
unique is the style in which it has been created. The visual style is
impressionistic and makes use of line and idea that less is more to create a
thrilling and emotionally impactful experience. As the imagery appears on the
screen and the viewer focuses on the conversation there is a blur between what
is shown as the dispatcher’s thoughts and emotions and the viewers own as they
are experiencing this like they are there trying to help that person too. “For
Robles, to experience what a police dispatcher undergoes nightly, it was
important to remove many of the visual cues and let the audience hear the
experience. “The minimalist reductive style comes down to a single thesis,”
Robles said. “If you’re a dispatcher and you’re speaking to somebody you have
no idea what they look like and the sound is filling in your world view.”” (Shieber,


Ebert famously said:

are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great
movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody
else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different
gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different
time, to have a different belief.” Yet in VR we no longer have to imagine and
sympathise with the characters, you can be there with the characters and feel a
deeper and more understanding empathy. While watching emotional scenes in films viewers will often feel
sympathy for the characters situations, some will be able to empathise with
them if they have experienced similar situations before and their relationship
to the character through the shared experience will make the story more
impactful. VR allows the user to be within the world, within that scene with
those characters. They are experiencing the same situation the character is
right in that moment and can empathise with them, making the story more
personal to the viewer. The feeling of being within the world benefits the
writers and storytellers, they can tell more compelling and emotionally
sensitive stories and receive a much stronger emotional reaction from the
viewer. VR has the potential to generate stronger emotions than empathy and
sympathy yet “too many studios use it for jump scares in horror games” (VL, 2018). This can aid
studios with creating films that might not otherwise work within VR as we have
just experienced the same things as the characters within the story. This works
particularly well with VR documentaries that are written in the present to draw
on the viewers sense of being currently there. The BBC created a short VR story
called We Wait about Syrian refugees
that shows “that VR need not be photoreal
in order to effectively tell a story.” (MA,
2018) The narrative follows a group of refugees on a beach
explaining what they have already gone through and their fears, the diegetic
sounds and voices help to give the environment an air of uncertainty and
uneasiness. The reason the story was so resonating as a VR documentary was
through the use of sound and the emotional tone of the voices to create a heavy
atmosphere that the viewer could feel and through the use of VR empathise with
even if they have not been in that situation themselves. In the future this may
be a good way to expand VR past games to help people understand one another,
but that would have to be looked into in another discussion.


Not much has changed regarding narratives from previous media
forms but more in our perception and the way we experience that narrative. In a
talk by Rob Yescombe and Raúl Rubio, narrative director and creative director
at Tequila Works, stated that “One
of the best things about games, is that you and I can have different
experiences of the same moment.” (Rob Yescombe, 2017) and that is
where their idea for their immersive theatre VR experience, that broadens the
horizons of what has been done in VR, The
invisible hours stems from. The VR experience puts strong emphasis on the
relative nature of reality, how your opinion of a character can change
depending on what you have seen them do, not the moments before that action. They
also noted that in real life you are the centre of your own story yet even if
you take no actions the world continues to move on, yet when games make us the
centre of attention the experience feels unnatural to us. However, unlike real
life, with this experience you are able to go back and follow that character’s
actions before you are to form an opinion of their actions and motives. The VR
experience revolves around a cluedo type scenario in which someone has been
killed and it is up to the player to find out who killed them. The player then
has the option of who they want to follow and for how long, with the ability to
move to other characters at any point. While they may be following one
character several other scenarios and stories are going on at the same time
with the others, creating a Spherical narrative in which you exist within the
world but the world does not revolve around you. This narrative design allows
the viewer to feel as though they are in an open and free roaming setting yet
the narrative is controlled except for the order in which the user chooses to
view it. The subjective nature of this VR experience allows the viewer to have
a more unique and engaging experience and receive more enjoyment from
discussing contrasting experiences with others who have played through it.

Spherical narrative is not unlike live action roleplaying or
improvisational theatre, you are able to move around and interact with the
characters around you and multiple narratives going on at once and in some cases,
are able to affect the outcome of the story, “You can still get the same sense of viscerality
that one might receive from immersive theater.sic” (BC, 2018)


is a wonderful tool we have in our disposal to tell engaging stories and share
thrilling experiences, but it is still such a new medium that there is a lot to
discover. The dedicated research and experimentation going into how to push the
boundaries of storytelling is already showing results in such a short time. It
can take narratives beyond someone else’s story, personalising them to our own
experience of playing through or viewing it in VR from a first person standing.
This allows us to have a deeper connection to the emotions within the scene and
characters and to build a greater understanding of feelings and situations. Still
with VR being in its early years people are already finding ways to create
narrative structures that make the most of the 360-interactive environment and
bring new experiences that others would not have encountered yet. There are so
many possibilities in how VR could advance from here; uses within
rehabilitation and for mental illnesses, to spread awareness of world crisis’
and things that as a population we should care about and as a teaching tool to make
classes more interactive and memorable. Afterall, it’s the most memorable
stories that have the biggest impact on our memories/life(use which?)