VR: Changing The Game of Modern Storytelling

The trend and dynamics of content consumption have undergone immense change with the new wave of digital entertainment. Viewers are demanding content that is moving and engaging in terms of experience. This has pushed content creators and storytellers to explore storytelling in virtual reality (VR). As storytellers who are venturing into VR, one feels that with this new element of shooting films beyond 180 degrees is unnerving.

In the conventional and earliest form of storytelling, paintings dominated the form of visual expression. Paintings dictated the content produced be fixed on rectangular frames. Soon motion pictures came into being to tell stories. It had a higher capacity to capture what could be perceived as a reality. However, the frames were more static and limiting.

The rectangular frames formed the basic rules of composition of stories which focussed the movement of the viewer’s eye on a specific part of the canvas or the screen. This restriction on frames was used by storytellers as a tool of separation. The composition in the frame would be separated from the outer world, thus limiting the audience interaction with the story and giving full autonomy to the storyteller.

The autonomy of rectangular frames in the mode of storytelling broke when video games crossed motion pictures as a popular mode of storytelling. It gave the audience the power to change and create their own content. With new developments, video games have allowed the audience to change the outcome of the story while being on a linear path. Road Rash, a popular video game in the early 2000s, was a clear example where the audience could select players, the level of obstacles and even the landscape to win in the game.

With VR, the medium of storytelling broke the paradigm of frames and led the users to engage with the time and space of the narrative. This made the audience live in the moment. The VR interactive theatre adaption of Macbeth, “Sleep no More” allowed audiences to engage with the characters and their environment.

Moving into virtual reality, filmmakers realized that the movement of stories is boundless. It is not restricted by the rectangular frame which was always in their control. The viewers of the content have free rein over their gaze. Although it may lead to missing crucial plot elements by the audience, virtual reality pushes film-makers to bring forth subtle cues in the plot-line.

No doubt, VR is revolutionizing the art of storytelling, but one cannot deny the challenges that come with it, especially in terms of movement and the impact it creates on the audience. In VR, sound and the movement of the camera drive the story. Filmmakers do not have the freedom to select elements of their environment they find interesting to tell their story.

Movements in VR films can make or break the audience’s engagement with the content. If the movements are rough and unprecedented, the audience tends to feel nauseous. However, if crafted well, each movement can create magic in the narrative, making the audience hooked onto their seats. Sound mixing also acts as an instinctive guide for the audience to react to the moment taking place in the film.

If we look at the VR horror game film, “11:57” by Henrik Leichsenring, its effects will make anyone shiver. The virtual reality documentary, “Millions March NYC” by Spike Jonze and “Delhi Farmers March”, by Kahaani Wale, makes the viewers live the scene with the protestors and experience their anger and motive.

From a storyteller’s viewpoint, one could say that VR is a medium of creating narratives that give the audience a chance to feel the characters in their raw form. It is a new scope in storytelling which changes the audience from passive bystanders to empathetic engagers.

VR has given storytellers a scope to create a shared reality. In 2018, a research study at Stanford screened a 7 minute VR film on homelessness. 85% of participants signed the petition in support of affordable housing, in comparison 66% who saw the video. This proved a direct correlation between VR content and impactful action amongst the audience.

Storytelling through VR can help the audience relate to social issues. If the audience is watching a VR content on women’s safety at night, they would be living in the moment with the woman who is feeling unsafe. VR creates the experience which influences the choices of the audience subtly as they get to dictate the version of the narrative and reflect on their decision-making process. They will feel empathy towards the cause and want to venture into alternative routes to solve a problem.

Virtual reality pushes the boundaries of storytelling and is a niche space that creates compelling experiences for the audience. As VR moves from the mainstream cinematic approach of static interaction, it creates a paradigm where people can connect to situations and events more potently, making it an exciting space for storytellers.

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