by Thomas Kuster, CMI Executive Director

Experience an immersive story in which you are both author and main character! That might be a promise of narrative in virtual reality.

Confession: what follows is almost entirely derivative; very little of me is there [my comments are in brackets], since I’m just reporting to you what I learned yesterday in a stimulating webinar hosted by Clyde Taber of the Visual Story Network, and taught by John Bucher (pronounced “booker”), lecturer on VR and author of Storytelling for Virtual Reality: Methods and Principles for Crafting Immersive Narratives.

John began by highlighting the importance of story telling, which he stressed is basic to the ultimate success of any technology – from books through film and television, and including virtual reality. Accordingly, he proceeded to lay out five principles for telling stories in VR.

1. Experiment! We don’t know yet what this new storytelling language is and how it works. It has to be more than just making movies in VR [me: though it may start out that way – I blogged about that back in March in VR3], because the processes and conventions will be different. For example, in film the viewer’s attention can be directed to what is important by the frame – we show what is important to look at by pointing the camera at it. But in VR there is no frame; the viewer can look anywhere. So how do we direct attention to key story elements? John suggested this will lead to new techniques using audio, lighting, color, and the like. But we don’t know yet, we have to try things to see. [me: this is both discouraging and exciting – discouraging because I had expected to learn some answers but so far there are few, and exciting because it leaves us all a lot to do.]

2. Include the core components of story. These have not disappeared – they include characters, goals, and conflict. The approach to characters will change because in VR the viewer herself easily becomes a character, perhaps even the protagonist. Goals and conflict are necessary because the viewer must be given something to do – merely wandering around a VR landscape may be interesting for a while but then grows boring.

3. Plan resolution.When will the story be “over”? We don’t want the viewer simply to exit when bored; there has to be some way of knowing that the experience is complete. That raises the question of how long the VR experience should be. Because of head-set comfort issues, few people will want to endure two-hour feature-length experiences. Right now consensus rests on planning about 7-8 minutes maximum.

4. Use passive engagement.This point seems to address the challenge of lack of framing noted in point 1 above. All elements of the virtual environment must be called upon to help tell the story – color, lighting, sound, all the elements that contribute subconsciously and emotionally to the experience. [me: This reminded me of when I taught basic production years ago using Herbert Zettl’s excellent textbook Sight, Sound, Motion – Applied Media Aesthetics, which gave students a solid foundation in all elements of 2-D video and film production. Knowing all that Zettl has to teach will make anyone a very smart film-maker; those elements might be even more important in VR.]

5. Embrace form over formula.Here John warns against finding something that works and using it over and over again. Lots of configurations are possible and we should be open to exploring all of them. His analogy: every house has floors, walls, ceilings, and doors, and yet consider how many different kinds of houses there are. That brings us back to point one: try things!

John finished by going a bit off-topic, sketching a few ethical principles that should apply to VR storytelling, stressing that we Christians should consider it our job to be clarifying ethical standards for the industry. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Let me recommend the entire hour-long webinar, which was recorded and is available for viewing. For me, one of the most interesting parts of these webinars comes near the end, where we hear each of the participants describe briefly what they do. It’s amazing to hear in what parts of the world these people are working with technology to convey the Christian message.

A question that remains in my mind: since the essence of the Christian evangelism imperative is to tell the story of what God has done for us in Christ, and since the strength of VR seems not so much to tell stories as to invite the viewer to create her own story as a participant, how then does VR storytelling interface with the evangelism imperative? When I asked John that question, his intriguing answer took us back to Genesis chapter 2. I’ll let you find and evaluate that for yourself.