Notes on Storytelling. VR as the medium closest to Literature and Imagination

We are largely still unaware about how storytelling works in Virtual Reality. I want to look at it from a different perspective and compare VR with literature and imagination.

I really have this belief that virtual reality as a medium is closer to literature, imagination and our dreams than it is to film. There is this aspect about VR that the weirdest phantasy places kind of work. Stuff that make up dreams come alive in VR and suddenly make sense. Whereas in film, they would often not work. VR allows to abandon coherent storylines and vaguely define states and situations. It allows for the dubious that doesn’t want to be defined, for the strange imagination to become real.

Let’s take for example Wolfs in the Walls, the adoption of the story by Neil Gaiman for virtual reality. There is this weird idea that there are wolfs in the wall and that the characters as well can also go into the wall. Really difficult to understand what this means, because it is far too vague – like is there a space somewhere in the walls? How? This idea works very well in literature because these ideas rely on the imagination of the reader. This idea came Neil Gaiman because his daughter had a nightmare that there are wolfs in the walls. To the rational mind this does not make sense at all. To our irrational dreaming mind it does. In literature the writer directly talks to the irrational dreaming mind, so these ideas can be used to tell a story and build up a world.

Imagination takes us directly to other Dimensions, other realities. You would need to design these realities to translate a story from one mind to the other if you do not use the tool of literature which uses the direct tool of imagination. In VR you do have that possibility of creating strange realities.

Walking into the walls makes suddenly sense and you can create it by the use of immersive design. You do not need to tell something, let the actor do something, point the camera on something. You create the atmosphere of a strange reality by surreal immersive design. An immersive space speaks for itself because it brings the Eikonaut into a different state of mind. The state of the dreaming mind. This changed state of mind is essential.

Another thing – in literature a stream of consciousness is also perfectly possible. An author can bring you directly into the mind of a character by letting you know what the character thinks and feels. This is something that also comes very natural in VR because you can mold sound in three dimensions. At one point the sound comes from your head – at other points they come from the environment, sound becomes an immersive characteristic. In film we only know stream of consciousness in experimental film. In general, using a voice over or letting the characters “think” is generally considered bad screen writing because everything should be revealed through the actions/non-actions, words or lack thereof by the actors. Everything about the story is revealed through the actor and actress. A tiny movement of the hand, the blink of an eye. How camera is shifted to give note of a detail in the scene. Every detail that you see becomes important. Or as Godard said – Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.

In VR it is not so much about the truth of the story, about the captured scene but more about the truth of the world(design). Just as it is in our reality. What we perceive, what we feel, what we think is truth to us. So creating VR is not so much about guiding the user through the truth of a story but about the truth of one certain reality and one certain perception of reality. In VR you cannot cut the Eikonaut out of the experience, she or he becomes an integral part of it. A film can stand for itself, an VR experience cannot. What we perceive is our reality and reality is relative. By your choice of world design you create a reality or a state of mind for the Eikonaut to inhibit for a while. Because your state of mind is your reality.

Guiding the view of the Eikonaut becomes less important in some instances. And where they look at becomes irrelevant, because you bring them into a state of mind, a state of perception. The details in the scene are not important in particular, but their collective existence is. If every Eikonaut brings with them a different memory of what exactly they saw that does not mean they experienced a different VR work, because they all shared to inhibit the same reality, a same truth, a same story. A story that is not defined by its linearity but by its holistic coherence of all its aspects.

In VR you have a totally different set of storytelling tools. Immersion, interaction and presence change the rules and make the Eikonaut part of the story, even if it is without interaction, hir point of perspective will always be different.  Perception and emotional state becomes a tool for creating an experience.

Another example is „Notes on blindness“. It is about the diary of a man that became blind. He describes his every day experiences in the diary and how he perceives the world. In the VR experience we learn that it is only that which makes sound that can be perceived when you only have your ears and therefore can be seen by the blind man. So everything that makes sound appears visually in front of the Eikonaut. When wind blows through the environment suddenly things become visible because they start to move and make sounds. When the wind passes away and silence sets in again, the visuals scene disappears again. Like this we learn how it is to be the blind man and how he experiences the world. The experience does not have to rely on a particular story but is the reality of the man itself that the Eikonaut shares for the length of the experience. Changing the Eikonauts state of mind and perception is the driving tool for storytelling.

Reality becomes plastic and changeable in VR, just as in our imagination reality becomes a playground. VR is the bridge between literature and film as the medium to answer everything that remained unanswered to this point. Because all these media have their limits. With this new one we have a few less.