Virtual Reality was always going to win points regarding engagement and experience. There is nothing quite like it right now, and it’s the first time something like a game or video has achieved full immersion. However, there is still ways to go with VR in some regards. First of all, it’s getting users to keep the headsets on for longer than 15 minutes. Another is having content engaging enough to encourage long sessions. Part of that is finding a way to tell effective stories that interest the viewer. How can you do that in VR?
What are effective stories
To answer how VR can tell effective stories, we need to look at what that looks like. Thankfully, there are plenty of examples of excellent stories. Take for example the first Star Wars. Not episode one, but the original film that came in 1977. That is very much an effective story. By contrast, the prequel trilogy, while full of great special effects (at the time), did not capture the imagination in the storytelling department.
There is an essential rubric when it comes to telling stories. A full breakdown can be found on this great website but can be boiled down to this. Attract the audience, keep them hooked, and wrap up conclusively. The last part is a bit more challenging, especially in an interactive medium, but the first two are critical. In fiction, it’s about having a plot you can believe in with characters you want to spend time with. In a documentary, it’s presenting the case in an affecting manner, leveraging on the audience’s emotional response. It’s why Netflix’s Making a Murderer received so much acclaim, and why many fact-based entertainment properties turn to a dramatic re-enactment. Very few people would want just to learn the cold facts.
The VR conundrum
Telling a good and effective story in VR is tricky for a very simple reason: you can’t direct the audience’s attention. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your story is, if you let a user look around, they most likely will because humans are innately curious and like exploring the world around them. So unless you have a subject matter that follows them around, there is a good chance that a lot of the action will be missed.
So how do you address this? Well if we look at existing examples, you can see a varied set of responses to the conundrum. One example is putting the user in the centre of the action. That way, users will have to look around to see what’s going on. Funnily enough, a good example of this done well is a Conan interview with the cast of Game of Thrones. With a mobile phone or VR headset, you can look around as the cast sit in a circle and answer questions. A similar technique was used at the premiere of X-men Apocalypse.
There is another option, which I heard explained by Singaporean production company Beach House Pictures. In their experimentation with VR content, they discovered that using a visible narrator, or tour guide, helped keep attention focused on the essential element of the production. Unfortunately, there aren’t any ready examples out there of this tactic being used, but if it is successful, then we should see it rolling out in the next few months.
Can you tell stories in VR
At the start of 2016, there was an article on Medium called Why VR “Storytelling” does not work. The author works in VR, so was speaking with an element of experience. Over the course of 2016 however, plenty of excellent story-driven VR content has been released. Invasion, an animated story, has been compared to Pixar regarding its narrative for example. That is not to say that we are ready right now to tell full stories in VR, but we should be very very close. At least, that is the hope.