What Does VR Mean for Storytelling?

So, recently I’ve been tinkering with Virtual Reality. With that, I’ve been thinking about the sort of experiences we can convey in VR that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium. Essentially, I’m going to look at three ways you can experience VR and what each can do to tell a story in its own unique way.


Headset Only

The most basic version of VR is headset only. This could take the form of a smartphone and a device like Gear VR or Google Cardboard/Daydream, or it could involve the headset for the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. With this set-up, you are essentially a floating head or camera. So any stories that would use this method would rely on accelerometers to judge what you’re looking at. A couple ideas spring to mind.

First, you might recall any number of interrogation scenes where one character is tied to a chair while someone threatens them. It happens to Daniel Craig’s Bond quite a lot. Once in Casino Royale, once in Skyfall, and once in Spectre. In a VR environment, taking away control and only letting the player watch the action unfold is a simple but effective subversion of the hero narrative.

As players, we are used to the power fantasy of being able to shape the world around our decisions. When you take that away, it creates a unique feeling of helplessness as you sit there and think ‘Why can’t I do something?’.

Skilled storytellers could use that feeling to convey powerful nihilistic themes about powerlessness. Perhaps using the powerlessness to create a thematic connection with those left most depowered by society. I can imagine someone like Jordan Peele could do something rather effective with a canvas like VR, just as he used horror in this year’s Get Out.


Headset and Controls

This is, while not the most common, the most typical VR experience in that when people think of and design VR this is the middle-of-the-road set-up that most would consider developing for. Whether it’s PSVR, the Rift or the Vive, all three have some sort of controls that are more commonly bundled in now that we’re in Year 2 of commercial VR. So, what can you do with a headset and hand controls?

This would be the area to explore environments that you wouldn’t normally experience. With clutter littered about to interact with. Some experiences that already exist are the International Space Station simulation, a wizard’s brewing laboratory, and the workplace. The sense of play available in this form, the attitude of ‘What if I take X and Y and mash them together’ makes this set-up ripe for exploratory experiences. Want to be Indiana Jones? Or Spider-Man? These set-ups can be real avenues for character.

Perhaps you’re sitting at a desk and have no idea who you are. You investigate the desk and look for clues. Pick up a plaque with your name on it, browse through some physical files, look at family photos. Details matter in this sort of experience. I’d really enjoy a game that played with the Papers, Please format in VR. Investigating papers for a hint of something awry.

The other interesting one would be that of an open world driving game like Midnight Club or Forza Horizon. The beauty there being, especially if seated, that you can drive the car mostly accurately. The thrill would come from atypical vehicles, driving million-dollar sports cars through suburban streets, flying a plane or helicopter, weaving a motorbike through traffic. All of the thrill of driving dangerously, with none of the risks.


Room-Scale VR

This is the big kahuna. The most expensive and most immersive experience in VR. You have space to work with. This, for my money, can be home to an experience like no other. The detective genre. Rockstar recently announced LA Noire in VR and I can’t wait for that. Investigating a crime scene, manipulating objects for details.

The immersion available would be fantastic and you could feel like a detective right out of CSI, but the beauty of the thing is, we have so many detective stories that this sort of story could take place in any time frame. Modern day, the 1940s, the 1900s, the 1970s. The potential for Film Noir in a whole new light is such an exciting prospect. Who can you really trust, clues could be everywhere. Tense shoot-outs would feel so much more visceral. That sort of story really interests me in this realm.


So, those are some of the experiences that I reckon would be really rewarding in VR. A wealth of experiences that sit neatly within the stories we already tell but the visceral power of being both the camera and the protagonist creates a potential for storytelling, and empathy in said storytelling, that would be hard to experience elsewhere. It’s just a matter of VR being seen as a new avenue for storytelling rather than as a swanky games peripheral. It can do so much more if we let it.


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