What Hollywood Doesn’t Grok About Story in VR

*This piece was originally published on Linked In December 15, 2015

branches_of_a_treeAll due respect to Ed Catmull, the co-founder of one of my favorite movie studios, but he’s missing the point in this gloomy Guardian piece in which he warns moviemakers that VR isn’t “storytelling.” He’s wrong, but he’s not alone in his thinking; many Hollywood folk we (and VR devs we know and work with) talk to about VR don’t yet grasp its storytelling potentialities.

Of course VR storytelling won’t look like what Pixar (or any Hollywood studio) understands to be storytelling; it never will, so long as studios consider the problem squarely through the lens of their familiar cinematic model. Movie studios understand (sometimes) linear storytelling, and story in VR will not be linear or anything close to it. It will be multidimensional, with many branching and interconnected pathways, complexly informed, in many cases, by an AI built into the story and the characters – and with the ability to experience a story – or StoryWorld – passively, actively, or interactively.

There’s been some groundbreaking work being done in branching narrative and AI dev by smart people like Emily Short, and the architecture underlying the models of some of the games out of Telltale and Bethesda are probably the closest thing right now to modeling the next gen (or next iteration, if you will) of story in VR settings. Yes, VR storytelling will resemble gaming more than cinema (at least, the structure of the more recent evolution of story-focused games) – but that doesn’t make it “not storytelling.”

We have to imaginate and architect a new model here, rethink and evolve how stories are architected, how VR settings and structure and AI capabilities affect character interaction and being able to follow backstories and multiple non-protagonist pathways (or even to shift protagonists or POVs entirely), how they’re art directed (which HAS to be thought of and designed within immersive virtual platforms to be properly imaginated and innovated, how the UX is constructed.

VR storytellers will also need to evolve a deep understanding of how people will want to interact in virtual spaces with the environment itself, with the story being told, with the characters within the story, and perhaps even with other human players. Yes, VR stories will most likely fall more along the evolutionary timeline of video games –> interactive storygames than cinema (at least in the first few iterations, as developers are migrating to the emerging VR dev space primarily from the gaming sector). But within a decade or so (an eternity in the tech world) the tech will most likely evolve to allow for fully immersive cinema with human actors seamlessly data-meshed into stories.

By the time that tech gets here, developers, designers, storytellers and artists will themselves grok a great deal more about consumer expectations for immersion, interactivity and story in VR settings, and we’ll have collaboratively developed the tools and accumulated knowledge base about UX and construction within VR spaces to be able to begin to more fully merge gaming and big cinema as story forms.

Understanding how to architect story within VR is a massive undertaking and it’s going to require thinking and coloring outside the lines and comfort levels a lot of Hollywood studios have if they are going to enter this space in any sort  of meaningful way. VR devs I’m talking to are SO right when they express their frustration talking to Hollywood folk about VR and say Hollywood doesn’t get VR yet. They don’t. And if they don’t start grokking that they will have to learn to think about story in a different way to play meaningfully in this space, more nimble start-ups built on agile game dev models and fast prototyping will define VR storytelling in the consumer mindspace long before the big studios even wrap their heads around the massive shift in thinking needed to tell their stories around the campfires of this brave new virtual world.

Pixar Co-Founder says VR “not storytelling”