There is something in our DNA that loves a good story. It goes back to our earliest recorded times. In fact, storytelling is how we record history.
Picture, if you will, a cave-dwelling clan of early Cro-Magnon times. They had few tools. Those they created were mostly for hunting, holding and fire starting.
So one day, the hunters come dragging in a freshly killed creature. The arrival brings great joy for now there will be food to survive the winter.
That night there is a great feast. Since alcohol was invented more than 4000 years ago, the celebration was probably enhanced accordingly.
As the fire and celebrants start to settle down, someone asks the chief hunter to tell the story of the hunt. And so it is told, with grunts and gestures and perhaps a sketch etched into the dirt floor.
Then, satisfied and warm, they each settle in to sleep: except for one, who is perhaps too small or young to hunt. This one’s mind is filled with the excitement of the hunt that she or he did not see. As the others sleep, this one crushes some soft rocks and mixes in a little blood and some berries for color.
Then she paints a few crude pictures on the wall, where they will remain long after the clan has gone, long after a great deal happens. Until one day, in modern times, someone stumbles upon the drawing and we learn from a simple story that others once lived there.
Over the years, stories such as these have been told in similar ways in different places. It is how we understand the similarities and differences of the world’s earliest diverse cultures.
As technology evolved, the way we told our stories did as well. As people moved from caves to huts into villages and castles and eventually into places like where you live today, the stories have remained virtually the same. They are tales of battles and love, of love and losing, surviving and prevailing.
What has evolved is the way we tell those stories. The tools that started with rock, blood and berries have become opera and webinars, plays and iMax, puppets and content marketing, YouTube and Snapchat.
With all the storytelling innovations that have come along, none seems quite so thrilling and compelling as the stories that are now incorporating Virtual Reality.
Now, we come remarkably close to experiencing what our ancestors felt during the hunt and in the cave. We can feel the damp and cold in the darkness, as well as the warmth and comfort of the fire.
Now, we can look over the shoulder of the first storyteller and see it from the perspective of the first story teller.
VR storytelling has just begun, but already there is an abundance of examples in movies, plays and entertainment. VR storytelling is already finding its way into marketing, particularly those geared toward Millennials and Minecrafters.
Even the oldest and most basic rules of narrative are being stretched and increasingly broken.
Painting in Midair
For about 2400 years, Aristotle has been the godfather of storytelling rules. In the Poetica, he declared that all stories—be they comic or tragic—must have a beginning, a middle and an end. This has been a consistent structure for so long, that it seems blatantly obvious to those who tell and those who watch, read or hear them.
The catch is that in real life our stories rarely unfold that way.
Very often, we don’t know when a personal epic has actually started, and we may be surprised to discover who the principal players are. Except in life-terminating cases, we often don’t quite know when a chapter–never mind the entire story–has ended. Life is just too chaotic to adhere to Aristotle.
In VR, stories unfold with greater context, making them more realistic. New technology is enabling something new, something that many people prefer to traditional stories. At least that’s what our experience has been, and that is what we keep hearing from others.
This brings us to a term that also goes back to roughly the same time as Aristotle: Solipsism. This is the belief that each of us is the center of our own universe, and what we see and understand of it is revealed to us as it flickers upon the ceiling, as the poet TS Eliot put it. Stories as we come to know them, will unfold based on where we are and where we choose to look. Then it surrounds us, as characters come in and go, and we are immersed.
Let’s look at cinema.
Shari Frilot is curator of the experimental New Frontiers section of the Sundance Film Festival, which she dedicated to VR in 2016. Her three finalists each received rave reviews, the favorite being Dear Angelica, produced by Oculus Story Studio. The movie’s protagonist is Jessica and the 360-degree video reveals memories of her recently deceased mother.
Adi Robertson wrote in The Verge, that after putting on a headset, “All I can see is one word: ‘Hello.’ From the front, it looks like ordinary cursive, but using the Rift’s tracking camera, I can walk to the side and see the letters collapse into a tangle of meaningless black loops.”
“A few moments later, the world’s white background begins to fill with three-dimensional illustrations. They fade in, line-by-line, a cloud-streaked sky being navigated by a sleek flying dragon, carrying two small figures on its back.”
“It’s like a painting that floats in midair.”
Pretty strong review considering that Robertson was only watching the pre-roll credits. “It’s just a storyboard—or concept art,” she wrote, “Yet, already it is extraordinary.”
In a later scene, the reviewer reads over Jessica’s shoulder as the character composes a letter to her recently deceased mother. Robertson’s focus wanders off as she admires the room’s furniture and as the character keeps writing, oblivious of the voyeur- in-headset.
Scheduled for full release in Fall 2016, general audiences will immerse themselves in the finished film, at their own pace, wandering off into whatever directions and sequences they choose. Two people who attend and view together may leave with decidedly different perspectives on what they experienced or what the central point is.
Certainly, some people will not enjoy such a different experience. For some, wearing headsets in a movie house will feel too strange.
But, evidence is already piling up that a great many people love VR storytelling. Some have called it life changing. In fact, a lot of what we cover in this book is loved by many and loathed by some. The dividing line is very often defined by age.
Those who are under 35 seem to immediately embrace this new approach, while a significant portion of older people remain loyal to the old ways. The swing age will continue to rise, however. Those who are 30 today and are fans of VR storytelling will still love the new medium when they are 40 or 50—just like Boomers continue to love 60s rock now that they are in their 70s.
A decade from now, we think the Academy Awards will give Oscars to a few selections of VR films. Twenty years from today non-VR films may be about as popular as black and white classics are today, as the surviving masterpieces of times when storytelling technologies were simpler, but continued to possess unique qualities.