Tips for Effective Storytelling: How to Narrate a Good Tale in a VR App
Everybody loves a good story. It can transport you into an alternate reality. Thanks to virtual reality (VR), now it’s possible for the app developer to transport you into that alternate reality.
Storytelling in a VR app is an emerging medium. It’s also a very different storytelling medium in that traditional oral, written and filmed storytelling is mostly a passive experience. True, if you’re listening to or reading a story, there’s some imaginative engagement on your part, but you’re still essentially consuming content provided by the storyteller. It’s an even more passive experience in video, where you’re watching a storing unfold.
In a VR app, though, you can actually enter the action of the story, perhaps even influence the story’s outcome. Instead of what Jesse Damiani terms the teller-listener paradigm, you have a builder-participator paradigm.
Here’s what the app developer—the storyteller—needs to consider to tell an effective story in a VR app.
360 Degree Perspective
It’s not unusual to relay a narrative from the perspective of different characters. In the VR experience, users can choose the perspective they want to see. Or, change perspectives whenever they wish. And, perhaps, participate in the story from the perspective they choose.
Characters are in a room. What do they see? With VR headsets, viewers can point and turn to see what’s going on from any angle, as if they are actually in the room. Consider point of view. Will you allow your audience to view the room through the eyes of the main character only, only specific characters, all the characters, and/or from a neutral third-party observant view?
As Erica Anderson of Google News points out, VR provides the ability to tell a story about a political crisis from a particular side of the conflict or play a game from the perspective of two teams or see outer space from the inside of an astronaut’s helmet rather than from a spaceship window.
From the perspective of the storyteller, that means considering the viewpoints of all the characters and how you want them to “play” within the narrative. This determines the larger architecture of the story and what users can experience. The key here is that instead of a linear narrative where the author regulates what viewers are told, viewers control what they want to be told.
Writing a story from multiple perspectives involves more work, so it may be a good idea to either limit the characters or limit which character perspectives users can select.
Space Is the Place
The story in a VR app is the place. Because the story is more about experiencing it, as opposed to telling it, the setting is more important than plot. Composing a VR app story is primarily building the environment and then considering how users can act within that space. As Jesse Damiani points out, “If you’re making a tabletop AR game, its size could mean the difference between users playing it from the comfort of their beds or needing to run around a kitchen table. Understanding your target audience’s desires and habits empowers you to use narrative potential effectively—and thereby produce content that appeals to them.”
Once you’ve designed a space for your story, the next step is to populate it with “things” that advance the story.
Points of Interest
These “things” are called points of interest (POIs). They are things that draw attention, or that you force attention to be drawn to. In a library setting, for example, an open book on a table could be a POI a viewer could (or could not) select to read the displayed page. Or, you might have the book fall from the table, attracting the viewer’s attention and calling for some action to advance the narrative. If, for example, reading a clue in the book is integral to advancing the narrative, you might opt for it to fall off the shelf. On the other hand, if it’s just a branching narrative that isn’t essential to your story’s plot, then leave it out there for viewers to see and if they pick it up, fine, if not, that’s fine too.
“Placing bets on POIs helps to form consequential editing decisions,” notes Jessica Brillhart, “like which world I want to go to next and how best to transition from one world to another.”
If you’re giving your viewers choices, then you need to map out where those choices lead. Make sure there are no dead ends. Or, if a branch does lead to a dead-end, make sure viewers can find their way back on another track. Also, take into account how these branching experiences intersect.
Brave New World
Keep in mind that VR apps are still very much a work in progress. Everyone is familiar with screenplays (though maybe not everyone knows how to write a good screenplay). The rules for writing a VR app and the standards for what is considered a good VR app are still evolving. So, by all means, feel free to experiment.