Alex and my latest project is a virtual reality poem, working title “My Brother’s Keeper.” The story revolves around two brothers, and their relationship, with the viewer in the role of the younger brother. It begins at the funeral of the older brother, who was killed in combat somewhere far away. The narrative explores themes of self-understanding, heroism, memory, and time.
It is an attempt to create an emotionally transporting fictional experience in VR, along with creating a VR-native narrative structure, neither of which Alex and I have seen much of in VR yet.
We both have an interest in using virtual reality for things outside of gaming, and we’ve done a lot of experiments with things like 360 video/ VR fusion, mechanics, and even VR journalism. But everything we’d done had, in some way (besides Alex’s genre-shattering SpaceFrog game), been a commentary on the medium and what it could do, not a transporting art experience that took the medium as a given. Some beautiful art is a commentary on a medium, but in most movies, books, paintings, or photographs we’d seen that really affected us, the medium had faded away...it transported us deeply into another world or idea. It is ironic that this doesn’t often happen in VR, given that total immersion would seem to be an easy opportunity to accomplish this.
Alex and I both write a lot of poetry and short stories (Alex has also written an excellent YA novel), and we are great lovers of literature. So we decided to start with the medium of poetry. Poetry affords a particular kind of freedom of thought and flexibility of composition that we were interested in leveraging. We spent a long time talking about the narrative and the world around it. Both of us grew up in families with two other brothers so we drew a lot from our childhood memories (although neither of our experiences were anything like what appear in this experience). We had also been having a lot of discussions about heroism and American identity, so we knew this would come through as well.
We also wanted a form of narrative that would leverage the potential of VR. When a new medium emerges, the first attempts to use it are almost always just replications of a previous medium. Early uses of film were just “moving pictures,” and they looked like that--steady, repetitive shots of a single viewpoint. Early cars were “horseless carriages,” and looked the part. VR has done basically the same thing, porting linear narratives into the medium, so we have “VR movies” and “VR video games.” Creating something native to VR at a conceptual level meant developing a non linear narrative...specifically, a three dimensional narrative.
We constructed the narrative with three axes: symbolic, chronological, and emotional. This formed a cube with many intersections. Since we already knew the key events in the brothers’ lives and emotions we were trying to evoke, we discussed at length recurring symbols we could use to represent these ideas. This gave us many different intersections of the three axies that we used as guides when writing the prose poems that would populate the space.
In our initial plans there were 6 time periods, 4 key symbols, and two core emotional tones, which would make 48 individual intersections. Ultimately we didn’t actually procedurally create a poem or short prose piece for each of those intersections, but they served as guides, and we have been mapping them along this as we create them using a table like this:
We have tried to be careful about length for the poems, since they will need to be read in VR:
The protagonist, embodying the younger brother, will navigate through space via walking and teleportation (although we are searching for a new navigation tool...teleportation is kind of the lesser of evils in terms of navigating a space at this point). No one will navigate chronologically through the spaces...they will navigate back and forth through time, triggered by the different symbols. The connective tissue is not chronology, however...it is the connection of the symbols and content. Sometimes when people reappear in a scene, the narratives will have changed. This replicates the way that we actually navigate identity and memory...relationally and iteratively.
The idea is that the person, along with getting to know and exploring the house in which the narrative takes place, will also “wander around” within the narrative, building an increasingly clear picture of what is happening the longer that they spend in there. The idea itself is three dimensional, and along with wandering around in the three dimensional space, the protagonist is wandering around a three dimensional idea...a sculptural concept.
“Sticking the landing” on the idea will involve doing some of the banal details really well. How the text appears to people, and what size, will make or break the experience for people. Also, how and when people end the experience will be important...we want to give people “permission to exit” and avoid an “infinite scroll” kind of fatigue-based ending. The navigation between scenes will be important too. We want these mechanics to be invisible and so simple that someone using VR for the first time could flawlessly navigate them. And as any designer knows, making a simple mechanic invisible and seamless is much harder than making something creative and obvious.
The cutting edge of virtual reality is not the latest technology or haptics, it is the new emotional experiences that we can create for people that were not before possible. We can create incredible immersive experiences with simple a paintbrush, a canvas, and paint. The point of strapping a screen to our face and connecting it to a 2000 dollar supercomputer must only to be to achieve something that goes beyond this, that transports us in a way that way simply not possible before. If we can’t achieve this, then the project of virtual reality itself is pointless, and we would be better off sticking to painting and movies. Prognosticators are right that technology will continue to advance, but not at the speed of Moore’s Law or the speed of light. Technology will fly forward at the speed of art.