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Oculus @ Sundance: Shattering Narrative Conventions
Oculus Blog
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Posted by Colum Slevin
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January 19, 2018
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According to American scholar Jonathan Gottschall, “Humans are storytelling animals.” Narrative is the tool we use to make sense of the world and our place within it. It’s our stories that connect us to other people—we build communities around them. And while it’s still a nascent medium, the same holds true for VR.

We’re thrilled to debut five projects that span the full range of artistic expression at Sundance this week, though we’re even more excited by the progress these pieces represent—and the work ahead in the years to come.

When I joined Oculus in 2015, people often asked whether or not it was possible to tell a story in VR. Since then, the compelling artistry of animated films like Dear Angelica, ASTEROIDS!, and MELITA, documentaries like The People’s House, and narrative-driven games like Lone Echo have answered that question with a resounding “yes.” And we’re now faced with a new set of far more exciting questions: What rules will people break as the creator community develops a shared vocabulary for VR storytelling? How will people use technology in interesting ways to produce narrative entertainment in a new medium? What will the role of the audience be? And how will our understanding of what constitutes a story shift as a result?

My favorite thing about these questions is that they're completely open-ended. As creators, we have a unique opportunity to build the future of entertainment and redefine the art of storytelling through the lens of VR. I’ve got roughly three decades of narrative experience under my belt, spanning game development, episodic television, and film, and I’ve never been more excited for the continued evolution of the field.

Here are five key tools we’re seeing developers use to create experiences in 2018 and beyond:

Shifting Perspectives
Just a year or two ago, conventional wisdom held that you should never move the camera in VR. Today, we see content creators shattering that edict as they boldly experiment with perspective. From the choreographic cuts of Through You to the continually shifting point-of-view in Masters of the Sun, we’ve seen VR break free of the traditional confines of cinematic storytelling in favor of rapid movement, more immersion, and a greater sense of immediacy.

You can step inside the shoes of an AI in MELITA or experience technological obsolescence first-hand as a 1980s toy robot in Miyubi. And thanks to the interactive nature of VR, you’re able to help shape the story through your choices—navigating the parallel position of audience and creative collaborator.

Interactive Characters
We’ve seen some promising early experiments, like Fall in Love’s voice-activated content, followed by more sophisticated endeavors like Jack and Liv’s dynamic relationship in Lone Echo. Debuting at Sundance, Wolves in the Walls breathes new life into Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s illustrated children’s book by having the story’s protagonist, Lucy, react to your behavior. You can physically reach out to hand her an object, and the way she tracks your gaze and responds to cues from you enhances the feeling of shared presence in the story.

By virtue of VR’s embodied nature, the medium cries out for believable character interactions, and developers are tackling the challenge in inventive new ways. The creation of character interactions in VR that feel authentic will be paramount to their success.

Social Spaces
Just as the single-player games and experiences discussed above let us explore meaningful interactions with non-player characters, multiplayer projects open up that possibility space to be shared with our friends, our family, and even people we’ve never met. Disney•Pixar’s Coco VR is an excellent example of the medium’s unique ability to blend the creation of real-world memories with our experience of the impossible. Whether an experience moves you to laughter or tears, that emotional impact is heightened—and far more memorable—when shared with someone else.

When the social layer of VR overlaps with interactive narrative, your hybrid role as audience and author takes on a new dimension with the shared co-presence between you and a co-conspirator. Not only do you complete the creator’s story through the participatory act of your own media consumption, you and your partner write an entirely new narrative through your experience together.

Blurred Boundaries
Narrative is the foundation of how we interact with the world, and VR is changing the game. As a hybrid art form, VR experiences borrow readily from the worlds of film, theater, and gaming—blurring the lines between forms of entertainment that are historically understood as discrete disciplines. The result is a depth and breadth of content no longer constrained by the limitations of linear storytelling, win-loss states, or a restrictive understanding of mechanics.

The more a compelling piece of artistic content embraces interactivity, the more we’re asked whether it‘s a game or an experience. We don’t feel the need to choose, and we empower content creators to embrace ambiguity as well. When faced with the question of “or,” the most interesting and productive answer is usually “and.”

Transportive Experiences
Over the past year, we’ve taken people to the International Space Station, inside the White House with Barack and Michelle Obama, through the memories of a blade runner, aboard the wreck of the Titanic, behind-the-scenes with The National, and onstage with ODESZA. VR lets us come face-to-face with dinosaurs, experience the intangible world cyber warfare, translate empathy into action, and even travel to the Land of the Dead.

We can’t wait to see where VR takes us next.

Stranger than Fiction
VR is more than the technological manifestation we enjoy today—it’s any reality that deviates from the objective, including our own lived experiences. Fiction is, at its core, virtual reality, even when we think it’s autobiographical.

Our memories are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives—they're constructed from a combination of actual occurrences and the connections between them that we imagine or infer. From cave paintings and stories told around the campfire to novels, films, and beyond, narratives let us create new worlds.

VR and AR provide us with a new set of technological and artistic tools to tell these stories and build our world(s) in exciting new ways. We look forward to exploring new worlds with all of you.

— Colum