This post is part of an ongoing series about writing, storytelling, and critique in VR, in partnership with Galatea, a writing and narrative design management tool for immersive stories.
Storytelling in VR: the elusive holy grail. Everyone is trying to discover the “way to go”— that project or handbook that comes along and instantly enlightens us all on how to tell stories in this wonderful medium they way they’re meant to be told.
What if I told you we already know how to do it? It’s a little complicated and it takes some time to wrap your head around, but it’s already something we encounter and participate in every day: architecture.
After all, isn’t architecture really about embodying narratives? Isn’t architecture about spatial scripts and about getting people to act according to cues and narratives? People are silent in libraries; people stand close together in concerts, and people dance in clubs. It’s off-script to dance in a library. It’s off-script to read at a concert.
I’ll be referencing “Post-Architecture” later, so I’ll establish what it is here: it’s the Metamodern design philosophy that is not about designing space in itself, but about designing people through space. In Post-Architecture, space is the story, and you are the (narrative) design. In other words, it’s a design theory for VR.
Next Nature Habitat VR – A Case Study
Next Nature Habitat VR had its North American premiere at this year’s SXSW, where it fared surprisingly well, set against the backdrop of the bigger VR exhibits present at the festival. The reason for its relative success—according to many of its visitors—was its mode of communication.
This virtual film is a “speculative architecture story” that, “looks at the future of human habitat from a Next Nature perspective.” In it, you are taken through four scenarios for the future of human habitat – each of them focusing on a different combination of: born, made, controlled and autonomous. You go through landscapes that embody and present a certain set of ideas with a specific feel and tone. It’s meant to start a discussion on next nature philosophy as well as encourage experiencers to question their understanding of the relationship between nature and technology. Human, what is your natural habitat?
The Post-Architectural quality of the Next Nature Habitat is how it strives to communicate a story through its very design. It is how the spatial cues of the environments imply a philosophy – in other words, how the space itself is a narrative, whose script you act out: space is the story.
Space has been designed to tell that story—a story that embodies a specific philosophy about the human natural habitat—a story of which you are a character, participant, and agent.
We were driven to create this piece because we see it—and VR as a whole—as a prelude for the coming Metamodern world. A world in which “Virtual Reality” is a redundant phrase, akin to saying “wet water.” All reality will be, in a sense, virtual. A world in which you have power over that reality, because you’ll have power to design your own perception. A world of people designed by Post-Architecture.
Post-Architecture might sound a little esoteric, but as virtual and augmented reality technologies continue to evolve and saturate our “base reality,” it will inevitably become a common practice and way to understand how all spaces are in fact stories waiting to happen. That’s why it’s so important at this point that we look at it and understand it fully. Cultural philosopher and communication scholar Marshall McLuhan explained that, as we create and use our tools, they return the favor and design us in return. So what if we designed our environments knowing full well the effects they’ll have on us? We would be designing ourselves—and that’s the whole point.
The name “Post-Architecture” does not mean that Architecture is over. It means that if you want to design people, then you’ll need to get tools from beyond traditional Architecture: from psychology, behaviorism, philosophy, critical theory, storytelling and sound design, for example, among many, many others. The objective is to manipulate people’s perceptions through understandings of our sensory apparatus (ie. sight, sound, touch), and then make them go through experiences that will interfere with their very behavior, their subjectivity, their personality, their impressions, and their emotions – everything that makes up their “selves” and their understanding of “reality.”
In essence, this would mean that Post-Architectural designs can be so well-crafted to the point of completely reshaping how you look at the world and at yourself—to carry the example from earlier: you find a way to design a library engineered to induce dance, or a club where reading is the expected behavior. Ontology is: “the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.” Post-Architecture is Ontological Engineering – worldview disruption and voluntary re-assemblage. World-Craft.
Look, your mind is like a building – it has components like windows, doors, doorknobs and bricks. And what’s more, just like buildings, it can be built. And it is already built – except by other people and by sheer chance. What the coming century will bring is the possibility to do this to ourselves and each other, with agency. This brings about a great measure of freedom and power – and, as a consequence, of danger. Does this idea sound scary? It should. But like Paul Virilio said:
When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane, you also invent the planecrash; and when you invent electricity, you also invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.
Ontological Design represents a big leap in design thinking, and it’s being provoked by technological progress. It means that because of how advanced our technologies have become, we can now design pretty much all external variables of human perception. We can design our “Reality Tunnels” rather than have them passively constructed by our life experience in base reality. When VR, AR and MR become features of mass-consumer life, we will have entered the world of the Techno Shaman, the Post-Architect. And because of that, we need new design theory—a way of taking core elements of story and storytelling and applying them to space. And then we need to formulate these ideas and bring them into mainstream awareness.
Create or be created, this is the name of the game. Our 21st century world is a place where, paradoxically, people tend to consider themselves the most free, while at the same time being thoroughly determined by factors beyond their control—and often, against their best interests.
This is why we need to really understand the concept of Ontological Design. It can bring us absolute hell, and it can bring us very close to heaven. Who is to protect us from utter dystopia? What will we design ourselves into? Will big corporations use this to completely and utterly enslave us? On the other hand, we can design our lives into the greatest works of art that have ever been created. Everyday life can become like a masterpiece, like the works of Shakespeare or Homer. Can you imagine? Perception can become profoundly meaningful and aesthetic. You can literally become art.
Human, what will you design yourself into?