This is the first piece in an ongoing series about writing, storytelling, and critique in VR, in partnership with Galatea, a writing and narrative design management tool for immersive stories.
We’re nearly a half-decade into this new Immersive Renaissance—somewhere in the neighborhood of half a decade depending on who you talk to—and we’ve learned a boatload of lessons about producing virtual reality experiences. We make people sick a lot less these days, we’ve realized we can totally use jump cuts, and we’re finally making our way off the pesky HMD leash. But amid all the technical brouhaha, we verified something we’ve long known: without strong story content, novelty tends to wear off pretty quickly. If this is to be the heralded medium of the future, we need to build story realities that audiences want to stay inside for longer than a few minutes.
I’m a writer by trade…like, the old-school kind; I got a Master’s in poetry. I’ve spent the past decade as a workshop member and leader, college professor, thesis advisor, mentor, and editor. Prior to landing in VR, I worked as a copywriter on film trailers, TV spots, and promotional media.
All of which is to establish that I really love story—and especially the jigsaw puzzle process of translating ideas into words. Story is the most human thing in existence. It’s how we assemble the random data of daily life into memories, how we communicate lessons, how we bond. Empires rise and fall on the backs of stories. And writing is the first step in transforming the raw information thumping around in our heads into those stories. No matter where we push our technology, story will be the link that binds us to it, and we will always need a method to take these ideas in our minds and turn them into stories.
*Steps off soapbox*
The great thing about writing is that all you need to bring to the table is your mind. You don’t need to be an established artist or have stacks of money. This first post is intended to give the uninitiated a jumpstart; if you count yourself in that number, this is your state-of-the-industry catch-up on the basic ideas of VR writing and storytelling. Of course, if you haven’t tried VR, I recommend that as an obvious first step. Whether you drive over to Best Buy to test out Oculus Rift or shell out lunch money for a Google Cardboard, it’ll fast-track you to understanding the magic of immersive storytelling, as well as the current landscape.
Anyway, the basics…
In last year’s “Storytelling in Virtual Reality: The Basics,” I outlined a few of the basic terms I think are key to an understanding of VR storytelling. I’m listing a few here:
The ability to “do something” in the experience — to interact or react rather than simply perceive. Because our actions have consequences, agency drives story in a totally different way in VR than in a passive medium (film, literature).
Field-of-View (FOV): The range of vision available to audiences. Just because there is a total of 360° degrees doesn’t mean a writer will necessarily want participants to use all of it.
Perspective & Point-of-View (POV): These are two different ideas, but make the most sense when defined in relation to each other. POV is the vantage point from which a story is told. In VR, a 1st-person POV means the player sees through the eyes of a character, while a 3rd-person POV means the viewer is disembodied, perceiving the story without being directly implicated. Perspective, meanwhile, is the character we perceive the story through; the same scene will have as many possible 1st-person POVs as there are characters.
The sense of “being there” in a VR experience, rather than perceiving something from a remove.
Of course, these are only a handful among many. For deeper research, Vimeo offers a digestible glossary of notable technical terminology for 360° filmmaking.
But Okay, How Exactly is VR Changing Things?
The simplest way I can explain it is to reference an idea I proposed in, “Sure, VR Is A Storytelling Revolution… But How?” Essentially, the argument is that VR marks the advent of the “Builder-Participator” storytelling paradigm, a graduation from the Teller-Listener paradigm. (It’s not as academic as it sounds, I swear):
Teller-Listener Storytelling Paradigm: The style of storytelling in which the teller projects the story, the listener receives it. This has been the dominant mode since we started telling stories around a fire.
Builder-Participator Storytelling Paradigm: The style of storytelling in which story environments are built and audiences create a story by participating with and in it. In other words, writers, directors, and producers (the “builders”) can’t force participants to partake in stories in specific ways—they can only invite participation.
In “How to Greet a Rebel: Unlocking the Storyteller in VR,” Jessica Brillhart, Principal Filmmaker for VR at Google, frames this in no uncertain terms:
The game’s creator isn’t the storyteller. The storyteller is the person playing the game. All a creator can hope to achieve is constructing the best kind of experiential world for that person, so when she comes out of it, her memories craft a story both profound and powerful. Added bonus on the creator-front if she is emotionally and spiritually on point with what the creator had hoped.
“The Storyteller’s Guide to the Virtual Reality Audience,” by Katy Newton and Karin Soukup, is one of the most helpful guides for understanding the nuances of the relationship between creators and audiences.
360° Cinema Is Virtual Reality, but Only One Type.
As I mentioned above, it’s likely that your first experience of VR has been (or will be) a 360° film. With native integration on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and Twitter, the sheer number is ballooning by the day. While there’s a whole lot more to the VR landscape, this is also a good place to start because user interactivity is limited to gaze.
The following resources offer some examples of how writers and creators are tackling the new obstacles presented by this new genre.
Screenwriting for Virtual Reality
Enter the New World of Narrative VR Production, from Script to Post
5 ways virtual reality is flipping the script on screenwriting
Writing for VR — What is Really Involved?
Addressing the unique problems presented in trying to write for 360° environments is an important introductory discussion. It gets us on the way to imagining what it means to be in an environment rather than simply perceiving it through a window. One such element is simultaneous action—how should a writer compose a scene with 4 different conversations happening at the same time?
From there, we’re going to need to tackle the more pressing issue of interactivity. How do we write stories where players want to do and say whatever they want? How do we write and plan out conditional elements and branching storylines? What can we learn from several decades of video game writing and narrative design? (But more on all that next time).
Sharing is Caring
There’s only one certainty when it comes to VR writing and storytelling right now: we’re all beginners. As Sebastian Sylwan says (according to Alex McDowell):
If anyone can tell you where this is going, they’re full of shit.
Which means that the best thing beginners can do is share ideas with each other. I’ve spent the past year talking to some of the best minds in VR, AR, film, and video game storytelling, and I can comfortably say that there are plenty of great ideas out there. We just need to start mashing them together and experimenting. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be highlighting the lessons we’ve learned from nearly a half-decade of experimentation—drawing conclusions from what’s worked and what’s failed, looking at the how’s and why’s, and what this means for writing the stories of our immersive future.
Feel free to comment additional ideas and resources. If you have a pitch about the relationship between story and immersive media, please send them directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.