Soon after India’s independence, a then little-known cartoonist called R.K.Laxman started a newspaper comic called “You Said It,” in which a mute observer noticed the goings-on around the country with a sharp eye. He is always present in the story, but almost never interacts with it, representing the “mute millions” of the country, as his creator once put it. This is kind of what I feel like as a user of virtual reality (VR), looking at its potential as a storytelling tool. We are almost always mute observers to stories as they happen in most media. Indeed, our muteness is what allows the stories to happen. VR as a medium is likely to add to a rich seam of existing storytelling media, but currently poses its own set of challenges and limitations that put a damper on the hype surrounding it.
Google searching “VR and storytelling” throws up about 674,000 searches. There are companies like Vrse and Alchemy currently working on narratives, and VR headsets like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift are creating a lot of buzz in both the consumer and enterprise sectors. Let’s consider some existing storytelling mediums. The earliest would probably be oral storytelling, which relies on a kind of VR by creating images in your mind. If your mother ever told you a story to put you to sleep as a child, your questions almost always broke the flow of the story, adding clarifications, but not modifying the narrative. Further, you were always outside the story looking in.
This continued with other media. Most storybooks rarely interact with the reader in any meaningful way other than of its choosing. Even books with divergent narrative trees have the alternate narratives already preset. Same is the case with theater, television, video games, or spoken-voice, which only occasionally break the fourth wall to interact with the reader, but only in tightly controlled ways. When there is an improvised aspect to stories, like the improv comedy skits conducted at Unexpected Productions in downtown Seattle, the show is based on an implicit contract between the performers and the audience, giving only the illusion of choice to the watchers.
This brings me to my experiences in VR. I have tried a couple of video games and narrative pieces, both on proper sets like the HTC Vive and my homely little Google Cardboard.
In cinema, your perspective can be changed multiple times. A filmmaker can seamlessly switch from first to third-person perspective to aid storytelling and to move the story along. For instance, in a film, you can move from rapid cuts looking at Iron Man’s face to a completely different scene that occurs five hours later.
But in VR, you are present in the scene, so moving you to another place seems awkward from a storytelling perspective as your presence within the scene makes temporal jumps seem immersion breaking. Moreover, unlike cinema, theater, and other forms of narrative, the narrator can hold your attention knowing that you are outside the action. But in VR you can look around but have limited mobility. The result is chronic immersion breaking. In order to test this, I tried watching a VR documentary called “The Click Effect” about dolphins’ click communication through the Vrse app with Cardboard. From the get-go, I was distracted from the narration as I was busy looking around, and often missed the dolphins as they swam behind me. I also missed the opening credits, as they seemed to be scattered everywhere in the blue expanse of the water.
Far from immersion producing, my freedom of looking about in VR was distracting me from the story being told through voice and video. This is because in a movie or book, if you look away from the action, you are effectively away from the action. But in VR, if you look away from the action, you are still part of the scene. Given the fact that you still have some agency, you are stuck in an awkward limbo-land between being present in the story but being unable to interact with it. Too much interaction, and it becomes like a video game. Too little, and you’re stuck looking at things like a mute fly-on-the-wall, helplessly looking around at things irrelevant to the story itself. The Common Man would be frustrated.
At no point am I saying that VR as a medium is bunk. I have in the past extolled VR’s ability to generate empathy, especially with people unlike ourselves. Full immersion VR will undoubtedly transform our very relationship with reality. but it’s not there yet. Right now, we are little more than a camera on a stick in a room. Certain experiences would be amazing in VR, like experiencing the terror of sleep paralysis, or being inside a plane while it’s crashing. But its limitations as a narrative form are increasingly clear. I’m looking forward to seeing how storytellers transcend its current limitations.
Reach columnist Arunabh Satpathy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @sarunabh