The difference between a story (what happens) and a narrative (the representation of what happens) is a crucial distinction for virtual reality -- a medium where 'narrators' have designed not just the words of a novel or the dialogue of a stage actor, or even the interactive environment of an RPG game, but the entirety of what you see, touch, hear, feel, and choose. Just in case your 'narratee' looks anywhere, you must ensure you've narrated everywhere.
If you saw even a glimpse of VR headlines in 2016, you probably noticed that people from all corners of the ecosystem are clamoring for more content, longer content, replayable content. Is it really the running time that's the problem? Or is it that we aren't raising the bar for the complexity of stories we want to tell?
For those who couldn't make this session, here is a recap of what our panelists brought.
Our VR/AR Evangelist, Sarah Stumbo, pointed out that the self-help quote "conflict does not exist without your participation" -- while a wise piece of advice for avoiding drama in your personal relationships -- is really a brilliant way for VR devs to be reminded that because conflict is an essential ingredient for story, participation is an essential ingredient for a VR experience. How else can we level up how a user participates? Is it just moving objects and witnessing events, or can it be something more? When a user has a sense of agency, you give them the power to make choices and control their own destiny. Without agency, they may as well be sitting in a seat watching a flat screen. Without conflict, they'll look around and say, "Am I doing this right?" while holding up their controllers. Conflict + agency = interactive storytelling. So give your audience a sense of purpose, a way to control their destiny. VR offers a new way to participate, and such a beautiful opportunity shouldn't be wasted.
Next, our Principal Designer at Unity Labs, Timoni West, brought to us a fuller understanding of the power of intentional sound design. Sound, which gives us everything from music to dialogue to effects, is another element that becomes even more crucial in VR, where you have ambisonic sound. To move the story forward, sound can be placed in a particular spot to get the user to look towards or away from the action -- a 'cue' to give your user the best chance of aligning their view area with the area containing information. To put it differently: sound is your new editing room.
Silvia Rasheva, a Producer on Unity's demo team that gave us "The Blacksmith" (2015) and "Adam" (2016), unpacked the immense opportunity that environmental storytelling offers VR creators. From mood, world-building, character clues, and mise en scene, the environment a user begins in becomes the first touch of narrative: where am I, why am I here, what do I know so far? Over time, environmental storytelling has built up its arsenal. We used to tell stories sitting around a campfire, then through the written word and then on stage. With film, and then the interactivity of games, we found ourselves with almost too many ways to leverage environments. And now with VR, we have even more. What new tools have arrived with this medium? For one thing, the environment is to-scale for the first time (a tree is as big as a tree!). We also have the fact that the environment is now 360 degrees, and things like haptics (such as boots that make your feet feel like you're walking on snow). Ultimately, Silvia said, you must remember to still treat your environment as a stage: place things to serve the story, and serve the user's attention. In a VR experience, maybe you'll have 14 stages, as a user walks toward the ultimate destination/climax. But don't be afraid to unlearn some of the things film has taught us to do in order to be successful -- like the need to control absolutely everything.
Lastly, Isabelle Riva gave us a wake-up call: forget everything about technology constraints or enhancements. What are you uniquely able to say, as a creator? What story do you have to tell? As Head of Made with Unity, Isabelle and her team oversee the discovery, support, and celebration of the best content created with Unity. We all have different creative processes, but wherever and whenever your story comes from, know that the crisper you are on your vision, the less pain there will be in development. You won't have to rework your VR experience if you know exactly what outcome you are driving toward. So have conviction. As Frank Capra said, "there are no rules in filmmaking, only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness."
The other star of the presentation yesterday? All the amazing content from VR creators that exemplified some of these techniques. From Asteroids (Baobab Studios), to The Price of Freedom (Construct Studio), to Life of Us (Within), we are so inspired by the incredible talent pushing these narrative boundaries in VR already.
To those who caught our VRDC panel, thank you so much for your enthusiasm and energy. For those who couldn't, keep an eye out for some great talks around narrative at Vision Summit in May! This upcoming year will prove to be another exciting, innovative one for virtual reality storytelling. We can't wait to see what you create.