When looking at the way transmedia narratives use the multi-platform, it is clear that the goal is to enhance the audience experience and create a more immersive world. With the possible rise of VR, are we looking at the start of owning our very own personal holodecks? Well, I went to Berlinale to find out.
But the question I want to look at is how does VR work in conjunction with creating a narrative?
At Berlinale 2019, one of the hotly debated topics at the European Film Market was the use of Virtual Reality and its role on the multi-platform. Some herald it as a new and exciting means of worldbuilding, whilst others see it as nothing more than a gimmick.
With a technology that’s becoming increasingly accessible, the questions are becoming more about the business models and narrative structures.
After all, when looking at transmedia storytelling using new platforms to better engage the consumer, it’s vital to look at all upcoming innovations in storytelling. The question though is, is VR one of them?
At this year’s VR Now Summit, it was made clear that the tech has yet to reach a critical mass. The prediction is that it’ll be another three years before we see this tech really start to catch on. But for now, it’s still highly experimental.
According to PwC – “The Consumer VR market will be worth 5 billion by 2020.” (EFM 2019)
So we can expect further developments.
Last year there was a real hope for VR from the side of producers. With digital disruption having taken away major revenue from the home video market, companies now need to think about updating their business strategies to capitalise off of the new tech innovations.
Some believe that VR could be that solution – a new source of generating revenue with the latest tech innovation.
That said, given the struggle with generating revenue amidst digital disruption, there was a hint of desperation that companies needed VR to be the thing to save the industry – that was certainly the impression I got at the EFM talk in 2018.
But putting the business aside, I believe that if done right VR could offer one of the most unique platforms to tell a story on. But only after this current stage of “Wild West” experimentation.
MY VR EXPERIENCE:
When most people think of VR I think they conjure up images of the holodeck in Star Trek – an interactive virtual world where they can interact and communicate with characters, objects, and environments – all artificially generated.
I think it’s fair to say that we’re still a long way away from accomplishing that. Instead the European Film Market had a VR cinema section where you could watch short films in a 360-degree video format. Some films were very good, maximising their technological usage to tell a coherent story. But quite a lot really didn’t need to be in VR at all.
I was most impressed by Livestream from Yuki < 3 (Purusha Films). This drama thriller showed a virtual live-streaming world in the not-too-distant future. You are the titular Yuki who uses the online world as an escape from her all-too-mundane life, with the VR letting you live in a virtual first-person narration.
But at 12-minutes in a swivel chair, it’s pushing the boundaries for how long you can stay in VR.
The genre-driven stuff worked best in VR. Dreams of Blue had you live as an AI slowly developing consciousness, and Jane Goodall’s Wild Immersion – Africa was a great non-narrative 360 video where animals could get inches away from some of Africa’s largest animals.
But there were more than a few that didn’t need to be in VR. Elegy by Marc Guidoni put you in the place of a lost soul in the lift of a luxury hotel – but the story is only told from one angle, and there’s nothing gained by turning around and exploring your environment. Similarly The Tide by Taekyung Yoo had a nice animation style, and Rocketman360 by Milo Simulov was a perfectly serviceable story about a young couple, but both failed to make the fullest use of their 360 environments – it would have been cheaper and more accessible to have simply produced it as a short film.
From a production standpoint, factoring in the extra costs and the accessibility of the technology, it is a real investment in creating a product.
Whether it’s a video game or a film, there are far more effective ways to produce a story if you’re looking at making a return.
If it doesn’t need to be in VR – don’t do it in VR.
One of the biggest drawbacks of VR is just how much time you can spend wearing a boxy device and headphones on your head. With the films I watched, I managed about a maximum of 45 minutes at a time – but that was really a struggle, and I wanted to make the most of my Berlinale experience. The most you can stomach is about 12 mins before you feel the effects.
I do not think the average consumer would want to spend that much time watching VR films and swivelling around on a chair for that long – especially when there’s more immediate less nausea-inducing entertainment on their mobile phones.
It is a barrier that the industry has yet to tackle, but it was apparent at the summit that what we’re seeing with things the Oculus Rift, PSVR, and Into VR is that these are really to be treated as prototypes for what we will be able to buy in roughly three years.
But for narratives? There is only so much you can convey in a maximum of 12 minutes, especially when it comes to world-building and character development.
LOCATION-BASED ENTERTAINMENT – BACK TO THE 80S
The question is where the money is in VR – or whether there even is money to be made in VR.
The answer was … mixed.
First, you need to see how VR is used in the everyday world.
There are two areas where VR is used, Home and Mobile, and Location Based Entertainment (LBE). It is the latter that has been making the most effective use of this experimental use of VR.
Companies have used LBE effectively for profitability through a business model from the 1980s – the arcade.
Prior to video game consoles being entirely ubiquitous, the arcade system was an innovative way to keep consumers coming back for more. As we have yet to crack the VR business model, 80s gamification has re-emerged as a way to generate profit.
The difference is, of course, competition from other platforms. Why would you want to drive out to a VR arcade or cinema when it’s cheaper and easier to simply use a mobile or games console?
Often success comes from locations where there are already people present, the airport at JFK has a VR lounge that charges $2.00 a minute – there are already people there looking for a way to kill time,
VR is dependent on other factors to its success and cannot yet survive as an independent source of revenue. The most successful experiences are either quick arcade games in already highly-populated areas (e.g. airports or shopping malls), or dependent on established worlds and stories.
There’s less production risk involved with going into a world that already has an established background, instead of trying to come up with one to enjoy for 12 mins – think Ready Player One and how that made use of its IP.
LBE: FRANCHISES AND GAMIFICATION
The general consensus around LBE was that it served as an effective marketing tool. Properties like Star Wars and Jurassic World have been using the technology as more of a tool to better engage with the consumer.
Again, think back to arcade games that used out-licensed properties. They had a brand and people would go and pay to play the games. One quarter would buy so many minutes and you pay for time.
Now, we’re seeing experiences. Star Wars: Secret of the Empire was a VR ‘full sensory immersion’. The website gives players “A mission” where they must “Travel to the molten planet of Mustafar … recover Imperial intelligence … grab your blaster, solve puzzles, and fight a giant lava monster.”
Essentially, it’s a video game – but a highly-immersive video game.
Most importantly, the emotional investment doesn’t come from the narrative, it comes from the experience. You’re travelling with friends on a team to meet a goal.
The technology may be more advanced than the arcades of the 80s but reaching the goal and getting a high score is essentially the same as today.
Whether it’s 8-bit Donkey Kong arcade graphics and Jumpman Mario needing to rescue Pauline, or you and your team fighting a giant lava monster on an alien planet in super-immersive 4D VR, the narrative structure is essentially the same.
Look at Jurassic World: VR Expedition experience for an example of this practice today. You and your team are guided through Jurassic World on a mission to take down dinosaurs with a zapper gun and get the high score.
This was one of the most successful VR tie-ins, opening at over 100 locations in the US and Canada in June 2018.
The narrative is still the same as an 80s high-score formula, but with a franchise supporting it and able to bear the brunt of marketing and development costs.
I can’t imagine this VR experience would have been as successful without the already-popular IP.
It’s far less risky to create a VR experience when you already have iconic revenue-generating IP after all.
There is also “Sandbox VR“: Immersion without narrative. But again, it is a group experience akin to a high-tech escape room. It’s certainly more immersive, and there is more freedom granted.
The website goes into more details saying how ‘some are games, others are adventures … you are transported into new worlds’. There is a greater element of freedom, and it is the closest we have to a holodeck as of 2019.
Although I personally have yet to try it.
THE TRANSMEDIA NARRATIVE?
In terms of narrative however, VR tie-ins aren’t essential in the slightest (at least as of 2019). The only thing they really contribute to is a level of engagement for the consumer. But there is limited story potential given the current costs and tech.
These experiences do nothing to add further plot details, and it isn’t essential that you play either Star Wars or Jurassic World. The lava monster in Star Wars doesn’t add to our understanding of the universe in any meaningful way, nor does any plot point or narrative revelation contribute to the characterisation.
The same can be said for Jurassic World. The VR served as a solid promotion piece for the film, but nothing was added. The goal is to get a high score – not to world-build. The island is the same as in the previous movies, but now you’re on it!
They’re point-and-shoot arcade games with a bigger budget and immersive graphics.
Not to say that’s a good or bad thing, it’s simply the reality of LBE today.
The technology is there to create an immersive interactive world, but due to the inaccessibility for most fans, it makes sense to not put essential plot details hidden in this medium.
I mean, imagine if Darth Vader’s reveal as Luke’s father happened in a spin-off arcade game? It’s the same reason we don’t see this happening in VR today.
THE MILLENNIAL EXPERIENCE ECONOMY
The word Experience has been used a lot when describing these VR tie-ins. It’s no longer a product, it’s an adventure for you and your friends.
It’s well documented that Millennials are craving experiences more than products, with 74% of Americans looking to do just that.
This has impacted everything from transport, to occupations, and naturally entertainment. There is a desire for the new, and pop-up events or group activities like escape rooms or festivals are on the rise.
Now, this isn’t to say that we’re all rushing to our nearest pop-up arcade instead of playing a game at home – I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation. But there could be merit in using LBE VR as a means of getting people engaged.
After all, Star Wars and Jurassic Park managed it and theme parks are incorporating new technologies into their franchises all the time. So marketing it as an experience doesn’t seem too far fetched for the current generation of millennial thrill-seekers.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY: THE NARRATIVE STRUGGLE
With all that being said, there are undoubtedly going to be things that will improve over time with VR.
I imagine that the boxy headsets will eventually shrink in size, the nausea will be addressed, and it will become increasingly accessible to the consumer.
We saw the same thing with home video game consoles – there was a “Wild West” era of experimentation, before the NES brought home gaming into an affordable consumer commodity, with story potential, in 1985.
But VR presents a different challenge – the narrative. This was a topic that EFM guest speaker Bob Cooney addressed during his talk – and the challenges with the Hero’s Journey.
Video games present a different narrative structure – often it involves reaching a goal, getting a high score, or completing a story mode. But the fascination with VR stems from giving the player a sense of freedom in a fantastical world.
Again, it comes back to the fixation of the holodeck. Video games are linear in story, with only the occasional exceptions of different endings – Mass Effect comes to mind. The player is invested by their own goal-setting, and getting the high score, or beating the game how they want.
Film has a different type of investment – story. The audience is an observer. They watch the stories of others unfold on screen. There is no element of freedom or struggle for the person watching.
But there are struggles for the characters to endure and overcome – it’s why we care!
A well-documented look at how a story functions by noted anthropologist Joseph Campbell. Writing in The Hero with a Thousand Faces he looked at the fundamental structure of a story throughout all cultures – but how to get the VR user into the hero’s journey?
Now, ‘The Hero’s Story” is nothing new. It exists throughout all great stories in all genres: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Superman, Lord of the Rings, Journey to the West, and so on. But it’s interesting to note that it can exist in a video game format as well.
For a popular example, take a main-series Pokémon RPG games for example. The hero starts their journey, is mentored, faces obstacles, challenges, and ultimately strives to achieve their goal before returning to their hometown a changed character. It harmonises The Hero’s Journey with the goal-orientation of a video game – and with YOU the player exploring a world.
With VR it is certainly possible to create a video game narrative – it’s already been done in easier to produce formats. But when looking at using a platform to contribute to the audience’s investment in a story world, we have yet to find a way to become truly immersed in VR.
Even with the films I saw, it still felt slightly gimmicky – like 3D. Sure, some were clever, but I was still engaging with it in the same way I would with a film.
We have yet to see how to put ourselves in the Hero’s Journey. How do we create obstacles to overcome that transform us throughout our story? How do we create that holodeck experience we crave?
I think the “Transformation” element is key here. In the Hero’s Journey, this is where the character truly steps up to become the hero of their story. It’s Peter Parker embracing his responsibility as Spider-Man, it’s Luke transforming from a farm boy into a space pilot, it’s Jake Sully fighting alongside the Na’vi.
But what about you?
TRANSFORMATION! METAMORPHOSIS! A NEW YOU!
Especially as we’re looking at an increasingly experience-driven economy, we are already seeing transformation being used in other forms of marketing – namely, brand marketing.
Think about something like Air Jordans giving you the power to jump higher, Red Bull giving you “Wiiings”, or driving an Aston Martin like James Bond, or recently Gillette promising ‘The best a man can be” – these campaigns all promise a type of transformation, so is it not possible to use these tactics in personal story development?
This is where the medium differs. It’s one thing to observe a 360 film or play a super-advanced video game, but it’s another thing entirely to create the illusion of choice, freedom, and struggle that truly impacts the VR user.
I think cracking that Hero’s Journey code is going to be the secret in transcending VR from a gimmick, to a truly immersive form of storytelling and world-engagement.
After all, isn’t that everything the holodeck promised?