Stranger than fiction: how will we tell stories in VR?

Image of people sat around a campfire

Storytelling is the oldest form of learning design. It’s when we moved from simply passing on behaviours and techniques and found a way to communicate meaning, concepts and heritage.

Storytelling is facts + emotion. That’s what makes it so amazing for learning. Stories don’t just engage the left side of our brain, the side that deals with facts and logic. They spark the right side too, which deals with emotions and creativity. That’s to say that stories don’t just make us think; they make us feel.

From Aesop’s fables to Netflix, the medium through which we tell those stories might have changed, but many other aspects remain the same. For example, stories have always been powered by authentic characters that makes us care about the narrative. We root for them, we rally against them, we live vicariously through them and learn from their experiences.

Another consistent feature of storytelling is their structure. They all have a beginning, middle and end. When we’re introduced to our characters, they’re existing in an established way of life until very quickly something happens that changes their world forever. They then need to navigate conflict and adversity until they finally find their resolve; their new utopia. This transformative structure is another feature that makes them ideal for learning.

We’re naturally resistant to change. In evolutionary terms it can be a dangerous thing, so our brains are hardwired resist changing our behaviour unless the rewards are obvious and instant. Being able to witness this hero’s journey, to feel the benefits of transformation first-hand, can be all we need to be convinced that the effort is worth the reward.

That’s why stories have been passed down over the last ten-thousand years and are still being used to teach, entertain and delight us. But what of their future?

Storytelling in virtual reality has amazing potential to bring stories to life and affect us much more deeply than they ever have before. There’s a huge body of evidence to show that well-designed virtual reality can make us more empathetic. They make us feel and care more about the things we experience, not just in the moment, but in the long-term.

But to unlock this power we need to build new conventions, create a new language for storytelling in VR. These are three key questions I think we need to consider anew to tell effective stories in virtual reality.

Who am I?
Her eyes fill with tears as she moves closer to the man she loves, knowing she may never see him again. “Goodbye Rick.” She knows he feels the same, but it still stings when he tells her to go.

What we need to consider is this final iconic scene of Casablanca becomes distinctly more creepy and less moving if you’re stood next to the characters as a conspicuous voyeur in the narrative. So comes our first important question, if you’re placing me within the action, who am I?

As the storyteller we need to give the viewer a role to play to give them legitimacy within the scene.
Mel Slater, researcher at the University of Barcelona, points towards the phenomenon of embodiment to explain how we might do that. Embodiment is the process of tricking our brains into accepting that we have become our VR avatar allowing us to emotionally adopt that role.

The potential for this is really incredible, imagine experiencing To Kill a Mockingbird in the skin of Atticus Finch. Or Tom Robinson. Whoever we are in a VR narrative one thing’s for sure, we’re no longer a reader or a viewer, we’re a participant.

Where am I?
Where we’re in the scene will also greatly affect our experience of a narrative. Whether you’re a fly on the wall, a supporting member of the cast, or even a roaming camera, you’ll experience a different story depending on where you’re allowed to be.

In Storytelling for Virtual Reality, John Butcher talks about the potential for the participant to become their own editor. He takes the example of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. We’re used to this story being told, switching between the seeming hero, the hare, and the underdog, the tortoise.

But imagine if you could journey through the narrative in your own way, choosing to follow primarily the tortoise or the hare. The content of the narrative would remain the same, but the depending on who you’d followed, your experience of those characters and how you felt about them would be completely different.

Where are you?
Even if you give over some editorial control, to maintain that all important story structure, at certain points we need to regain our participant’s focus.

To do that, we don’t so much need to look forward but back. Stage plays performed in the round are very affective at guiding our attention. Puffs of smoke, directional sound, flashes of light and proximity to the performers are not new techniques for attracting our attention but they’ll find a new home in VR. They allow us as storytellers to maintain that balance between explorative and unstructured.

Stories are not going anywhere. So, if VR is here to stay, we need get these three ingredients right to adapt to this new medium to an old form. If we can then we’ll almost certainly live happily ever after.

THE END