Human beings are unique because we tell stories. From gathering around the fire, to mythology, fables and fairy tales; and more recently books, films, television – we have constantly engaged with each other through stories in order to connect emotionally.
With the world on the cusp of a whole new era of technology: AI, AR, VR to name but a few – what will the future of storytelling look like? More specifically, how can we tell stories through VR in a way that is effective and fully immerses audiences in an experience?
VR is one of the first mediums that bridges the gap between the pages of a book and your imagination. Between TV and the sofa. It drops you directly into a new world, completely breaking the fourth wall. There are other mediums that successfully engage their audiences in this way too, though without the use of technology. Immersive theatre is one of the best examples, and something that has seen increased popularity over the last few years with the rise in experience-led culture.
Immersive theatre was pioneered by Punchdrunk in 2000 as an evolution of promenade theatre in which the audience is not a passive bystander but is actively engaged in the world of the experience. Secret Cinema based in London is one of the most popular examples, where audiences are invited to step into the world of popular films such as Back To The Future, Bladerunner and Romeo and Juliet. Through the use of music, sets, characters and storylines, Secret Cinema creates a ‘choose your own adventure’ type scenario for audiences, giving them the responsibility of shaping their own experience within the confines of that world. The audience can do anything from adventuring with a film’s protagonist through to kicking back at a bar and having a beer.
Although at a glance it might seem as though VR is most comparable to film or video games, it borrows from these other mediums too. It’s similar to immersive theatre in its world building, and its use of sound is most closely linked to that used across radio plays. This amalgamation of different mediums is what makes telling stories through VR so exciting: there’s no set methodology or best practice. It’s something entirely different, ready for us to shape and tell a whole new set of stories.
At the moment, VR is becoming an increasingly popular medium for brands, and is also engaging avid gamers. However, if it’s going to stick and become an integrated part of our storytelling mediums moving forward, then there are some key considerations that need to be made for effective and engaging storytelling. As with all platforms – these aren’t steadfast rules, but an opportunity to experiment and develop new ways of storytelling.
An important distinction to make when storytelling for VR is whether or not your audience is active or passive. If active, they’re able to influence the outcome of the story and interact with their surroundings. Alternatively, they can be passive in the experience – able to look around their environment but without changing the story.
The use of sound is incredibly important when storytelling for VR and vital for immersing the viewer into each scene. It can help to build the atmosphere beyond what your audience is seeing and is also useful for helping to direct attention. You can use it to make sure that you’re evoking the right mood or emotion, building tension or helping the story to peak. Sound can help to add depth to a world and bring those layers to life.
When you’re storytelling for VR, one exciting consideration is that you’re writing for a 360 experience. The world you’re building isn’t a flat screen and you need to consider that your audience might be looking to the side or behind them. What elements can you use to help build that world?
Consistency and rule-making
World-building is a key consideration when storytelling for VR – how do you draw your audience in and make them believe in what they’re experiencing? Set your rules and work with them – if you’re going to break them then you also need to justify those decisions. Letting things slip through the net can dispel the system of belief and trust you’ve built with your audience.
With good stories and well-crafted worlds, there’s an opportunity for VR to become an incredibly engaging storytelling platform. It can take audiences anywhere in the world – or indeed, to an entirely new world. It can take people back in time and teach them something new, leave them floating in outer space with the entire universe surrounding them, or even riding on a mystical dragon in a mythical land. It’s a chance to put someone in the mind of a character they might never have considered before. It feels as though we’re only just scratching the surface of what can be achieved with well-written and crafted storytelling, and we’re super excited to see what happens next.
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