The format of a story is changing. This is not new. But this could be the most exciting time in our history as storytelling creatures because so much about the tools of storytellers is changing. It is fascinating to see creators and audiences crashing into the many new forms of immersive technology that is becoming accessible to them.
It is also the obvious next step as our world becomes ever more virtual. This irresistible trend has accelerated with great speed over the course of the pandemic, which has focused our attention - for good and bad - to work online, play online, watch online, talk online, exercise online and learn online more than ever before.
For creators, this means huge new potential audiences that are suddenly exploring new ways to fill their time, and not just games will benefit from that new hunger - films, journalism, sports, poetry, art and even theatre are all being reinvented inside the matrix.
And interestingly, this shift coincides with an impressive set of creation tools that are free, and offer not just powerful functionality but active creator communities, helping each other, growing and hacking things together in tandem - tools like Blender, Figma, Lens Studio, and Unreal Engine to name a few have opened a lot of new doors by making it more and more easy to create, and completely reimagining the process of doing so - often putting the power of what used to be a studio full of professionals, into the hands of indie creators working alone at home.
What this has done - most importantly - is offer creators and artists the ability to use new and unexpected ways to reinvent themselves and the stories they tell. What might be traditional stories now fit into completely new formats, and what was a tool made for one purpose can be hijacked for an unintended purpose very easily - so creators are free to experiment with how their stories are experienced by their audience. This is what seems most interesting of all about the work emerging from the matrix at the moment.
Dream Diary, by digital artist Everest Pipkin, is an ambient 3D space created in ROBLOX where visitors can enter through different doors behind which lie beautiful recreations of Pipkin’s subconscious dreamworlds. Some of the dreams, such as It’s Time, guide visitors through a narrative or conversation with a character while most of them merely provide a backdrop of unexpected and unfamiliar terrains within which you can wander and explore freely.
And as you rummage around the insides of someone else's nocturnal mind, some of the landscapes spark memories of childhood vacations while the characters begin to feel oddly familiar at times, and suddenly my own subconscious fears and fantasies, experiences and memories flood into this one to create moments that feel profoundly personal and intimate. As you embody the lucid dreamer of these worlds, you feel something like a visiting protagonist plotted somewhere between a viewer and a participant. In this way, perhaps virtual storytelling tangles the traditional definitions and distinctions between viewer, visitor and participant instead asking us to self define our roles and experiences within these narratives.
There is a sense of exploration and curiosity laced through these digital worlds as people continuously look for the boundaries and glitches in the code like digital urban explorers. Players are not only passively consuming these immersive worlds, but always finding ways to break apart and push against the expected uses and functionality of these spaces.
Ali Eslami’s project, False Mirror, is an evolving and ongoing VR world that asks if humans could ever really live in VR space while speculating on what kind of world this would be. Rooms stacked on rooms, each one is a new imagination into the absurd and surreal architectures and artefacts of a metaversal-esque existence from dream chambers, to time tunnels, to futuristic playrooms. Rather than being a goal or outcome orientated experience it is a space that asks visitors to hang out and simply ‘be’, attempting to learn more about what it means to be human in virtual reality and answer questions about the future by creating it.
These poetic spaces can carve out moments for introspection and reflection, encouraging us to project our own narratives to them.
Staged entirely inside VRChat, Welcome to Respite is an immersive VR theatre experience that invites performers to put on VR headsets and don avatars to perform in ticketed productions while toying with scale in ways physical theatre cannot. The audience are thrust back in time into the avatar of a child, Alex, shrunken in size as they interact with professional actors playing the roles of Alex’s parents. By a simple but powerful shift in perspective, an audience's habitual experience of moving through the world is altered.
By inhabiting these unusual and unexpected scenarios that thrust us far outside our habitual day to day, we might find ourselves reacting in ways that totally surprise us, tap into emotions we haven't felt for years or ever and in process discover things that deepen our connection to ourselves and each other.
Actors can choose to interact however they wish; some Alex’s are more reserved and shy, while some take the opportunity to live out all their mischievous childhood deviance. While there is an anchoring narrative, the actors are largely adapting to Alex's performance, creating an improvised and one-of-its-kind experience that is unfurling in real-time. There is an unpredictability to this experience as the storylines fluidly adapt around the reactions of the participants, unlike a film for instance that you would expect to unfold in the same way each time it was played.
The barrier to entry in VR space, verses for instance an intimate in-person improv show, is much lower. Different levels and modes of participation can be designed into the experience so that an audience can still have agency over a storyline whilst having the freedom to opt in or out of the intimidating pressures to perform.
The barrier to entry for creators is equally lower because of much of VRChat’s lowfi visual style. The bar for quality isn’t high, and thats the point - the focus is really on substance and community. Its a feature not a bug, perpetuated by an accepting and supportive tight-knit community keen for experiments, and a dislike of professional snobbery.
A much more considerable virtual theatrical production is The Under Presents, an immersive theatre experience by Tender Claws, combining both a single-user narrative as well as a live-theatre performance of incredible breath. Reminiscent of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, with live actors fully controlling one or several characters in real time, in a sprawling, hilarious and hugely entertaining experience, The Tempest is a live show within ‘The Under’ that brings an audience into a reimagining of Shakespeare's classic play. Visitors can opt to enter with an invisible avatar, or be present in generic ‘observer’ bodies. In either case, they are free to wander at will as the story unfolds.
Where once an audience was squinting from the back row of an auditorium, these participants are watching and interacting with The Tempest’s characters from within the performance itself. VR theatre shrinks the scale of the experience to an up close and intimate one whilst making it more widely available; the stage is simultaneously shrinking and expanding. No longer separated by a screen, imagine watching your favourite actor perform a few inches in front of you in a story that you have the power to influence. Does it do something to soften the hierarchy between actor/audience?
Instead of passively watching from our sofas, actors and audience alike can be thrust into the same fantastical worlds, untethered from the usual limitations of the corporeal form and physical realm. Teleporting between worlds, traveling between scales and time, morphing instantly between forms and costumes, the parameters that once limited world-builders and storytellers have been significantly lifted.
Realtime Cinematic Tools
It’s a huge moment for the possibility and imagination of creators. Noguchi’s Bell, for example, is an original short film created and shot entirely in Media Molecule’s Dreams (on the PS5) by Cyber Sheep Film.
Creating films entirely inside game engines (realtime cinematic engines, we should probably call them in this context) is giving not just developers, but filmmakers, animators, and cinematographers a new freedom to instantly drop in new elements, plan out elaborate virtual camera moves, effortlessly rearrange scenes, change the time of day, film from various angles/scales, and export a sequence at any resolution required.
Virtual Production is something we at ANRK are deeply involved with and invested in, through our Camp Century project in particular, but that is a story for another day.
It will be obvious to anyone with post-production experience, that a creative ideation process that doesn’t require rerendering an entire scene when changes are made, without having to render whatsoever until the point-of-completion makes the entire process much more free and allows for a huge amount of improvisational experimentation. This will put the traditional content world on its head, as we have already seen the use of Unreal Engine on the set of The Mandalorian.
Each advance of the features these tools offer stretches our ability to change the world around us in new directions, whether it be creating digital clothing, a new avatar for ourselves, new forms of art, new environments, or new digital pets and virtual humans.
The increasing popularity of VR theatre and play as a form of leisure and relaxation perhaps points towards an interesting shift between work and leisure as we move into an automated future world of work. Where we might usually leisure more passively in front of the TV or to a mindless scroll, either exhausted by work or preparing to return to it, VR entertainment requires a lot more involvement, effort and essentially work from participants. In a world where a huge percentage of the population will be rendered unemployed/able by advancements in automation, will we increasingly crave more dynamic and fulfilling forms of leisure to give meaning to our time, no longer filled with full time employment?
For many, creation is already intrinsic to their experience of spending time in virtual worlds. Games like ROBLOX and Dreams (among many others) that come preinstalled with 3D builder tools, encourage a new reflexive nature between player and developer, consumer and creator. This is really different from traditional modes of entertainment where a small group produces content that is then distributed one way to the masses who consume it. These new forms of virtual storytelling present a much less hierarchical structure that democratises entertainment by giving players agency to intervene.
In an article about the role of virtual realities in the future of work, Yuval Noah Harari writes that “virtual realities are likely to be key to providing meaning to the useless class of the post-work world” and that “people in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.” And perhaps it is exactly this shift towards complex and deeper virtual worlds that we are beginning to observe in these experiments with immersive stories.
But it’s still a very new space, full of opportunities for creators to experiment with these spaces, before clear rules and boundaries are established. They allow creators to explore their ever-expanding boundaries.
There’s still room to improve, that is for sure. It is a space that is still held back by the cost of access to equipment and the time it takes to acquire new knowledge and skills. As Catherine Allen, from Limina Immersive says here: “There is a growing divide between people who have the time, skills and finances to use the latest creative technologies … and those who are being left behind.“
Catherine goes on “… there is the familiar problem that arises when one type of person dominates the creation, production and consumption of a new technology - everything is designed for their use, excluding other groups, and creating new barriers for entry.”
But the hope is that as audiences become more comfortable and familiar inside these virtual spaces, more and more creators find a corner of this new world where their stories find that audience, and that the barriers to participating lower further for everyone, but especially the under-represented. Gradually, there will be enough eyeballs for perspectives from all types of voices to be seen. To get there, we can all (as creators and consumers) encourage and support diverse, subversive, and challenging work that does more than mimic existing narrative mechanisms.
In the same way that a piece of art lends itself to having many interpretations, new meaning inflicted upon it again and again each time it’s viewed, how can we create stories in a virtual space, that peel back a little further every time you experience them? Or poetic spaces that invite us to bring our own narrative into them?
These new forms of stories -- and virtual life at large -- represent new ways of imagining the world around us, brings us new ways to see ourselves, and create an opportunity for us to process and critique our interaction with each other and with technology. They allow for new forms of identity, and new kinds of relationships between us all, and of course, new ways for us to tell each other our story and share, texturing our understanding of what it means to be virtually connected.
We’d love to hear from you about any projects you’ve seen that similarly use digital or immersive tools in an unexpected way, or reimagine well-known creative processes.
Stay safe everyone.
By Anrick & Michelle