VR Needs To Branch Out Into Interactive Narrative

Netflix and disruption go together like Oculus and Rift. Never one to rest on its laurels, the company is continually looking for ways to shake things up. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the streaming service is toying with the idea of breaking away from narrative norms by experimenting with ‘interactive storytelling’.

The idea of interactive storytelling, although dismissed by some cynics as a clunky moving-image version of childhood choose-your-own-adventure books, is something that feels almost tailor made for VR. Which is perhaps why Netflix also recently came out saying it’s preparing to embrace virtual reality as part of its “learn and adapt” strategy.

Although interactive storytelling may be an unruly step too far for the masses wedded to traditional forms and formats, VR is creating such new ways to consume and experience content that it’s in pole position to embrace a radically experimental concept like branching narratives.

By offering 360-degrees worth of viewing options, VR users are already comfortable with entry-level narrative freedom. After years of consuming a director’s fixed vision, users seem to be enjoying the refreshing autonomy that goes with VR. So let’s deepen this newfound freedom by adding narrative options to VR’s already-existing multitude of perspective options. Going from perspective-based interactivity to narrative-based interactivity is a massive step up that’s bound to get users even more hooked whilst hailing VR’s points of difference.

But it is – of course – not just the users who are adapting to new storytelling mindsets. VR content creators are also having to acclimatize. We are learning to sacrifice the surety and control that comes from linear narratives. It’s why we’re investing an awful lot of time and energy into developing new visual and spatial audio cues that guide users through an experience. With all this breakout thinking, something as disruptive as interactive narratives feels like it could be the next logical evolution in VR.

For me, though, as a socio-political VR storyteller, the really exciting thing about branching narratives is its potential to push the empathy factor to the max. I hate using the term ‘empathy factor’ because it already feels like a VR cliché. But it’s a cliché because it’s very real: VR lends a user the physical and psychological perspective of another person like no other medium in the world. And this is arguably its most powerful USP. But imagine how much more powerful that USP becomes when you throw branching narratives into the mix.

Branching narratives, especially if used in socio-political VR, could have a dramatic impact on empathy. Not only would we be helping the user see the world through someone else’s eyes, we’d also be asking them to make crucial decisions on the protagonist’s behalf. If you thought giving a user someone else’s perspective was powerful, just wait until we ask them to take charge of this person’s life by taking responsibility for their choices. Suddenly, it becomes the type of experience that leaves an indelible, unforgettable imprint on the user.

The VR community is well known for being jam-packed with trailblazers who are hungry to break established rules. So although the concepts of interactive storytelling and branching narratives may feel abhorrent to traditionalists, their power to ramp up user freedom and narrative experimentation is something that’s just aching to be used by VR’s signature challenge-hungry pioneers. So forget what the doom mongers say about interactive narratives. For VR creatives, it’s a newer and even bigger opportunity to completely rewrite the storytelling rules.

About the Scout

James Hedley

James Hedley is an award winning VR/360° director with UK 360º content creation specialist, Surround Vision. With over six years experience working in documentary, drama and commercial VR production, he has developed and shot projects all over the world in conjunction with clients like Sky, BBC, Channel 4 and the UN. His seminal award-winning VR documentary 'Simon' premiered at the London Film Festival in 2016 and was showcased at the Cannes International Film Festival. It was also selected to feature in the Kaleidoscope VR Festival world tour.

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