Interaction in virtual reality films: wouldn’t that be a VR game? Why even is interaction an issue? I gave the topic some thought and browsed through some of my clever books. Beware, things get a bit theoretical here. So, let’s go: where does VR film end and the VR game begin?
Principally, many different types of interaction exist. Even inherently passive films – be they VR or not – move the viewer to exhibit emotions in some way. That being the goal in any case. This, too, is strictly speaking a form of interaction, as Caitlin Burns of the New York Film Academy explains in this interview. This article however solely explores truly active interactions, meaning any time the viewer gets to do more than just watch. Nevertheless, this article – as tends to be the case with anything involving humans – revolves around emotions:
Life as Motivator
Eric Darnell, chief creative officer at Baobab Studios, one of the most renowned companies creating VR animated content, outlines his thoughts on this in great detail in this worthwhile interview with Variety, covering the VR film Asteroids!.
“Imagine a little girl crying on a park bench. If you saw this in a film, you’d feel bad for her but you wouldn’t get out of your theater seat to console her. In a game, you’d talk to her to be a hero, get to the next level. In real life, you’d talk to her because you want to help. I believe that VR has the potential to have the empathy of films, the agency of games, and the motivation of life.”
As such, VR unites the best aspects of film, games, and the most lifelike arena: real life. The statement however highlights the following in particular:
For Eric Darnell, the main difference between an interactive VR film and a VR computer game lies in the user’s motivation to act in a certain way. This shoots directly for the viewer’s emotions: VR film aims to push the user to act as they would in real life (or completely contrary to that) – driven by emotion and intuition. As opposed to trying to secure a victory or fulfill a quest – a staple for games.
The transition however remains vague and undefined. One of my first articles (German) illustrates just how difficult the classification of VR experiences can be.
In order to better understand the differences between interactive VR films and VR games, we must escape the world of VR and turn our attention to classic, “flat” media.
Interaction Versus Dramaturgy
In my introduction to VR & film (German), I already wrote about the dilemma VR films – alas, interactive films in general – find themselves in. A predicament I believe will become increasingly prominent with new developments in technology – both regarding the production of VR films as well as their playback on various devices:
The more viewers believe in a world, and the more realistic it seems, the greater the need for interaction will become. Not only that: the need for “agency” will increase, too – meaning an increased demand for the ability to perform actions that produce palpable or visible results.
Why call it a predicament? Put simply: more interactivity introduces more possibilities for a story to arrive at a different outcome. Suspense cannot be created as easily when the viewer occupies themselves with a toaster in the corner, while ignoring the blatantly more pertinent monster approaching from the far side of the room. Or, put differently:
“Good stories are self-contained. In classic storytelling, a story establishes its fundamental conflict within a few minutes (…). This [conflict] then dictates any further actions and leads to a final resolution. (…) A Cinderella story revolves around a girl finding her prince charming – and finally getting together with him against all odds. (…) This would be conceivable for a game as well – but what happens when the player is afforded complete freedom? Should Cinderella decide to become a tax officer, start mining for gold or suddenly turn into a zombie – the story would be left in a shambles.”
Dennis Eick, Digitales Erzählen – Die Dramaturgie der Neuen Medien, UVK (2014), p. 115 (translated)
Consequently, interactivity and dramaturgy pull at the opposite ends of the same rope. Both desirable, yet entirely antagonistic towards each other – keeping game designers on their toes, spurred by this conflict, to devise various solutions since many years. To keep Cinderella from turning into a zombie by her own volition, the player’s freedom must invariably be restricted – which take on different forms and go to varying lengths.
Narrative Styles in Film and Games
To keep things interesting: objectives
A simple, yet effective means of achieving this is to give players objectives or goals. These should of course be as desirable as possible and originate naturally from the story. Just like in life: I absolutely have to see films at my hometown’s huge festival, the Berlinale. My goal is to get a hold of as many festival tickets as possible. To achieve this, I dive head-first into the great battle of the tickets – queue for hours on end, defy the cold, skillfully avoid the groups of tourists blocking Potsdamer Platz, drag my sleep-deprived self out of bed… In this situation, it would not at all be productive to skip the box office for a visit to the museum instead. To prevent me from even pondering this, my life’s game designer could simply close all museums during the Berlinale. While my freedom would be restricted, my attention would gain focus.
Film, too, utilizes goals as integral apparatuses of dramaturgy – with the sole difference of never being called “quests.” These goals might oftentimes feature more inconspicuously than in games – though indeed entire film genres build upon the accomplishment of a specific goal. Just think about crime films (find the killer), superhero movies (save the world; and the pretty woman while you’re at it), and of course schmaltzy love stories (find the love of your life; marry them; be happy). Precisely these genres are thus easily transported into games, VR or not – not unlike what game company Telltale has been successfully undertaking over the last years with their interactive, episode-based adventure stories. Might games by Telltale even be viewed as very (very) advanced interactive films?
The Right Mixture: Proportions in Film and Games
One could invoke the ratio of interactive to non-interactive scenes in order to distinguish film from games. The basic structure tends to look quite similar: the individual scenes stringing together in order like the links of a pearl necklace; with passive and active scenes alternating between each other. Dennis Eick’s clever book calls this the “Pearl Necklace Model.”
However, the proportion of active scenes fluctuates according to the degree of freedom the player (or spectator) is granted. The nature of the scenes varies, too. Story-driven games as well as interactive films rarely show fight scenes; if they do, they are kept brief in order to make space for dialogs, riddles, and tasks. An action game centered on fighting and winning is laden with fight scenes that define the largest part of the overall story. They might be interrupted by a handful of cutscenes (film-like, passive sequences that summarize the story or give background information) at most.
Proportions do not only play a role when speaking of fight scenes. Film dramaturg Frank Raki rightly points out that games often exhibit classic act-based structures – much like in film. Likewise, games feature a beginning and an end. The difference lies in the weighting, especially concerning the start:
“A critical difference lies in games’ tendencies to try to keep the first act pretty short. The goal is to enter the actual conflict, the action, as quickly as possible – oftentimes, a fully formed character is eschewed in favor of a simple player role.”
Dennis Eick, Digitales Erzählen – Die Dramaturgie der Neuen Medien, UVK (2014), p. 113 (translated)
Why We Need More Interactive VR Film
A short introductory sequence will not suffice, as soon as an entire character, along with a multifaceted personality and complete social context, needs to replace the simple player role. This is exactly where interactive film in virtual reality can unfold its potential and offer a unique selling proposition. In film, main protagonists feature distinct characteristics, can look back upon the past, wish for things, fear others, are conflicted; can dream and hope. Once a VR film is able to make the user feel like they inhabit the character’s skin, Eric Darnell’s statement will come true: the user would act out of desire and empathy, driven by the experienced situation.
Games as Textbooks for VR
Since interactive film and games lack any clear differentiators beyond a handful of hunches, there must in turn exist all the more similarities between them. Indeed, every VR experience benefits from savoir-faire attained from decades-long experiences with videogames:
„Games are to VR a little bit what theater was to movies. In some ways, VR is like the next evolution of games and we can begin to pull the basics of VR language from them: indirect control, environmental, and interactive design, etc. (…) Games are a great jumping-off point from which we can start figuring out the basics of VR and evolving from there.”
Robyn Tong Gray in Celine Tricart, Virtual Reality Filmmaking – Techniques & Best Practices for VR Filmmakers, Routledge (2018), p. 87
Where Can Interactive Film Go?
Robyn Gray, co-founder of Otherworld Interactive, hints at established structures in the gaming world with this statement. I can think of some examples, though of course there are many more:
(1) First and foremost, there is the first-person perspective in which the user gains a body or avatar; no longer having to float through the VR game – or film – as a ghost. However, this remains quite difficult to implement in VR at the moment.
(2) In the abovementioned quote, Robyn Gray also speaks about environmental storytelling. This concept is strongly linked to games, in which the story is imparted through the player’s surroundings. For example: little snippets of narration such as newspaper clippings may be integrated into the decoration of a room – only to be discovered by the observant player. Important clues to the story (What happened? Who am I?), as well as the game’s progress (What will happen?) often feature in the immediate game surroundings. This reduces the amount of cutscenes, which seems ultimately quite understandable, coming from film.
(3) The inventory, on the other hand, is entirely foreign to film. Many games equip the player with an inventory filled with tools needed to solve riddles – or weapons. Some items are available right from the start, while others must be collected or bought. It is not yet completely clear how best to introduce the inventory of a “flat” videogame into VR; though not for lack of trying: the heavily narrative-driven game The Gallery: Episode 1 attempts to solve this by giving the player a bag that can be accessed with a hearty lunge behind their back. The zombie shooter Arizona Sunshine sees the player pressing collected ammo to their belt – though it tends to feel like hitting yourself in the stomach over and over…
(4) Apart from the abovementioned “Pearl Necklace Model,” games also employ the so-called “Story Machine” (Dennis Eick, Digitales Erzählen, p. 110). This might – one day – gain traction as a new type of storytelling for volumetric film. These are open worlds in which the players act individually and “find” their own story; where different decisions lead to unique situations and yet more different decisions.
(5) Inevitably, this leads to branching storylines – many possible paths branching out at various decision points and leading to different outcomes, a well-known technique that has been fascinating storytellers in all arts. In 2016, German broadcaster ARD let its viewers vote on the ending of its film Terror via an app – although this did not extend beyond an interaction with just two options.
It remains to be seen how the gaming world will find itself in VR films in the future. I believe we will see more and more of its influence. You can read up on a couple of experiences I have written on here: interactive films in VR (German only – for now!) and interactive 360-degree films (English).
Celine Tricart, author of the book Virtual Reality Filmmaking already refers to virtual reality as “the missing link between gaming and cinema/theater” (p. 87). I can imagine that Eric Darnell would happily agree.
Translated by Jan Mc Greal