Virtual Reality Has a Storytelling Problem and Theater Will Save It

by Upload • May 8th, 2016

We know virtual reality is finally here. We know it is the next step in great entertainment shifts following radio, motion pictures, television and the Internet. We know VR will be great for gaming. We know VR will change how we tell stories. But what we don’t know is how the stories we tell are going to change.

Linear narrative storytelling is a thread that has been sewn into each major entertainment hardware innovation. Except video games. But video games are played on hardware – TV, computers, phones – which can also easily play linear narrative video content. We don’t need to solve the storytelling problem in video games because we can use the same screens to watch Netflix or YouTube. A video game that can make you laugh or cry is a great goal, but it isn’t necessary. VR is an enormous leap forward in entertainment hardware, so it’s important for content creators to find a way into that medium. There is a lot of pressure to make the linear narrative work in VR.

Here’s the problem: Hollywood wants to take advantage of VR so that when you are in the Batcave you can actually feel like you are in the Batcave. But while you were busy trying to hotwire the Batmobile, you missed some important plot information that Alfred whispered to Bruce. If the film director can’t direct your attention to what is important and artful in the story, they can’t do their job.

While the excitement is building for new mainstream VR equipment like Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, industry leaders are already warning that storytelling will be a challenge. Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull has talked about the underlying difficulty of the compelling narrative story. Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey predicts it’s going to be decades until virtual reality storytelling is nearly as refined as film. One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go director Mark Romanek is experimenting with VR and admits that in the end we may discover it is an ineffective medium for narrative.

Every story has a hero, the protagonist, who must confront a challenge. We use these stories to find deep truths about the human condition. It goes back to early human history (stay with me) where storytelling was used to pass a tribe’s culture to the next generation, provide an excuse for failure or explain natural occurrences. Telling stories is in our DNA. It is one of the defining traits of being human.

The ancient storyteller was a clear focal point for taking in a linear narrative. Meanwhile, in ancient Greece, a new innovation called theater (or theatre if you are foreign or maybe a tad overdramatic) came along that would allow an audience to have a more immersive story experience. Now a viewer could be even further swept away by the emotions of seeing actors playing roles. Instead of being told, they could see. Audiences of up to 14,000 would sit around the stage. How could a viewer of these comedies and tragedies concentrate on the story when they are looking at multiple people on the stage, not to mention thousands of audience members on the other side?

STAGECRAFT enters from stage right.

Lighting, sound effects, blocking (actor movements on stage), dialogue. These are a few of the many ways a theatrical creative team assures the audience is concentrating on the right part of the story. Sure, if you want to stare at the attractive chorus member in the back during Phantom of the Opera you certainly can. But the director has used lighting, sound and the reactions of actors onstage to give you the hint that a giant chandelier (Spoiler alert: even though you’ve had since 1986 to see it) is about to fall on your head. The director, Hal Prince in this instance, didn’t need to light up a sign that said “look up” and he didn’t need to cut closeup on the chandelier. The audience can’t help but look where they are supposed to.

Maybe we can tell a compelling and emotional story without relying on linear narrative. Film director Gil Kenan is currently at work on a science-fiction VR movie. His approach is to let the viewer choose different spaces to witness scenes, which results in layers of storytelling that require multiple viewings to get all the details. His self-labelled Tolstoy approach could be five-minute stories within a larger narrative and scope.

This approach is not new to theater. Interactive and immersive theater has been experimenting with the storytelling form in ways that cinema rarely can. Choosing your own ending, interacting directly with characters or taking the POV of the protagonist are not new to theater audiences.

In my past career as a theater producer and manager, I was fortunate to work with a company called Punchdrunk on Tunnel 228, a show co-produced by The Old Vic theatre (Kevin Spacey was artistic director) and set in the abandoned arches underneath London’s Waterloo Station.

Punchdrunk were on the rise as a young and hip theatre company who found a way to break free of linear storytelling, letting the audience wonder through the story at their own pace. Now Punchdrunk is best known for creating Sleep No More which has been running in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood since 2011 and has brought experimental theater into the mainstream. Much like Kenan’s Tolstoy approach, Sleep No More tells the larger narrative of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, but it does so in subtle and sometimes esoteric ways.

I’ve seen Sleep No More three times and still recommend it to many close friends or out-of-town visitors. Anyone planning to develop stories in this Tolstoy approach should check it out. But as wonderful as the experience of Sleep No More is for its aesthetic beauty, perfectionist detail and innovative artistry, it didn’t make me laugh or cry or learn or question. You could argue that there were two hero journeys in this show, Macbeth’s and my own, but neither gave me the sharp emotions that come from a story. I was dazzled by the sets and dancing and music, but I didn’t care what happened to the actor playing Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth didn’t cause a single hair to raise from the back of my neck. Immersive theater can be a perfect guide for the larger narrative style, but it probably won’t give you much of a hero to cheer for.

Maybe the founders of Pixar Animation and Oculus are right that we shouldn’t expect VR to be a place for refined, compelling narratives. Maybe Saschka Unseld, creative director of Oculus Story Studio, is right to say VR isn’t better or worse than film, just a separate thing. Maybe we should use immersive theater and shows like Sleep No More as guides for telling small stories in a larger narrative, but not worry ourselves with creating the VR version of an Oscar-worthy experience?

Not so fast. There are a few voices out there who have noticed the similarities VR has to theater. Hollywood star Joseph Gordon-Levitt says that when you are watching the protagonist in a VR experience it is probably closer to theater than movies. The director of Fast & Furious and the upcoming Star Trek sequel says VR feels more like theater than filmmaking. The Lead Environment Artist at Oculus Story Studio questions how VR is any different than theater.

The jury is out on whether or not a VR story could win Leo his second Oscar. But with so much money at stake and such influential figures claiming VR is closer to theater than cinema, it’s time Hollywood and Silicon Valley invited Broadway to the room where it happens.

Post contributed by Jason Ferguson. He is an Associate Creative Director at R/GA and also a writer and theatre producer. He writes about the intersection of technology and the performing arts. 

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  • Thoreau

    The game is the frame, just as the stage in a theater. You – as the protagonist – could therefore be lead by the director using his or hers thunder and lightning (i.e. special effects), supplemented by a spoken (or whispered) narrative o.s. appearing in strategic places or even manifested on screen as a visual helper/character – adjusted to the storyline.
    Of course things could sometimes be (more) complicated when implementing the actual writing into action. Nevertheless, I tend to stay close to the simple things in life – also dramaturgically speaking 🙂

  • When Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks about the viewer being the protagonist, I am reminded of “Lady in the Lake,” a 1947 movie I saw on TV recently. It is shot from the protagonist’s point of view, a technique almost never used in film because it works so badly. The viewer in “Lady in the Lake” has no control over the action, which makes the experience frustrating. Bad enough to shout, “Don’t go in there,” at the screen when you are not the one going in there. Worse when you are. Watching a linear story in VR, on the other hand, is like being a small child at the theater. You may spend all your time watching the usher and miss the story entirely. Finding a design that leaves the viewer in control, but keeps the viewer on the track(s) of the story, is the challenge.