If you’ve been noticing a trend toward [interactive storytelling within the VR space it’s because it’s been listing that way for a long time. Putting you at the centre of whatever it is you want to be doing has always been VR's raison d'etre but this trend in moving beyond gaming and into other forms of video entertainment. Sean Fleming looks at how this is just the beginning, and how in the future, those episodes of Game of Thrones you binge-watched last night might not make sense to anyone but you...
“...Reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays....” - Aldous Huxley
You're probably tired of hearing about how VR is going to usher us into a whole new era of storytelling. In fairness, it is easy to get excited about VR in this, or any, context. VR, as discussed frequently here on MONTAG, is freakin’ amazing.
So all hail VR, the medium of the future: hoist it aloft and parade it through the streets and we, the users, shall cheer, throw confetti, and revel in religious ecstasy.
Because what is beginning now with VR are the first signs of the oppressive shackles of OLD storytelling falling in bunches around our feet.
It's all about you
At ComicCon last year, MTV hosted an unusual preview of Teen Wolf that featured interactive VR storytelling and put the subject at the centre of the trailer.
Putting on the VR headset allows characters to address you directly, and looking at different areas of the trailer triggered different plot directions. Even in this simple example, it’s pretty incredible as a technical feat, and as a future storytelling tool it feels transformative.
Being addressed as a character wasn’t what interested me as much as my actions influencing the scene itself.
The ability for your own choices to make a difference to what you experience is wildly powerful: it’s what could elevate VR above simple 360° movies, naff 3D films, or painfully average Artaud theatre productions of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis.
Changes in tech influence how entertainment is produced and then consumed (remember 3D TV... anyone?). Australian development house Start VR is a studio that’s pushing VR as a sort of post-cinematic medium.
Their 360-film VR-Noir is an initial demonstration of the crossover potential of film and gaming, and how it could fundamentally change how consume film. In VR-Noir, events of the film are driven by you, the viewer.
Perhaps “viewer” is a misnomer in this instance, as you are simultaneously both viewer and instigator – as you ask questions and take control of surveillance equipment. Sure, VR-Noir is a little patchy – it's not going to win any Olivier Awards anytime soon – but as an exploration of how we can consume media in the future, it is as compelling an example as you’ll find.
MansLaughter is another variant where VR experiences, storytelling, and theatre are combined as an interactive thriller in a VR space. And where your experience in Teen Wolf depends on where you look, Manslaughter demands repeat viewing.
Watching films again – to catch the stuff you missed the first time around, or to discover nuance, or digging deeper into a character – is about to get a lot more time consuming and enjoyable with the advent of multiple narratives.
DIY Director's Cut
And it's not just visual storytelling that’s getting the bespoke treatment. We tend to regard music as a static piece of art that's to be heard over and over - but of course, until the invention of recording and playback devices, a song evolved and changed each time it was performed.
Trip-hop superstars Massive Attack attempted to bridge this gap when they released new music bundled inside their “reactive music” app Fantom in 2016. The app didn’t deliver these new songs in a “final mix:” instead it mixed and reformed songs on the fly, based on external variables such as the listener’s location, movement, time of day, heartbeat and the integral moving image camera.
Fantom was a quietly remarkable paradigm shift: a major artist releasing songs that would be heard for the first time in a unique way to each listener. No big reveal at the MTV VMAs, no exclusive radio plays.
In Fantom, every play is an exclusive, for each listener.
This is not so dissimilar to the app that tailors music to your heartbeat. Both apps are born from a desire to make music reactive to us, and not the other way around.
I wrote previously about the rise in wearable tech and lifelogging and if you were to combine the interactive nature of VR storytelling with the reactive bio-influence of user data then we end up somewhere very interesting indeed.
Because what happens when you’re not just actively influencing the narrative? What happens when your vitals and psyche starts making a difference - the stuff you can’t control?
Here’s where your subconscious starts dictating the action.
In the future, movies could play you like a fiddle. Horror movies ramping the tension as your heartbeat starts to resemble a coked-out middle aged marketing manager? Or cortisol detection algorithms to reduce stress by pushing the narrative into relaxation phase?
If you’ve seen the episode of Black Mirror where an unwitting character signs up to test a brain implant AR video game experience, you’ll appreciate how allowing virtual monsters born from your deepest fears into your life may not be the wisest idea. Spoiler alert: it all ends in tears.
When entertainment does become an individual experience – one truly tailored to you – how will that affect people like me who like to talk about film? What happens to the fabled watercooler chatter when everyone's experience is different? You’d have to retell the story as it appeared to you.
Perhaps a new type of post-viewing bond will form: one from experiencing something familiar, but different. Some people bond over bad movies. It's a trashy approach to movie-watching, specifically intended to spark conversation and an experience beyond the movie.
So what if you could watch a film again, but this time, the version influenced by the inner workings of the mind of your best friend Barry – the one who’s obsessed with World War II memorabilia?
Maybe discussion and understanding will blossom when we have truly interesting things to say: it's easy to explain plot points that are totally in tune with the way our brains work.
Wait, there’s a thought: what if your predilections were so effectively reflected in a personalised movie that something was generated that you’d be reluctant to share with anybody else? The post-screening conversations might reveal a little more of you than you’d like: “What, you mean it was only me who had three hours of racist jokes?”
Perhaps a desire to subdue any fetishes or thoughts you’d like to keep private might become a priority as a whole new form of insecurity is born.
You might have loved the “gimp scene” in Pulp Fiction but you might not be so keen on sharing it if this plotline had been zapped directly from your cerebral cortex.
Perhaps the most interesting films will be borne from the least interesting people.
OK, it’s all a little hard to swallow. Storytelling that reflects what we’re feeling on the fly is surely a long way away. But just remember: we now find it odd to watch film without sound, or have a live piano player scoring the film we watch: but this was once bleeding edge visual entertainment way back when.
Future audiences may look at the way we currently watch stuff and laugh at the quaint nature of it all, as they don their VR headsets and become Jason fucking Bourne, running down a staircase as the camera swings around as if operated by a drunken clown. The Lumière brothers would be proud.
VR is already a powerful agent of change in the world of movies - and it’s clear to see how it could be applied to any kind of storytelling.
The question that you now should ask yourself is: do you want your stories to guide you, or vice-versa?