Once upon a time I worked a summer as a character in a haunted house attraction. I have to admit it was fun scaring kids out of their sneakers but there were lines you just didn’t cross. If you did the entire experience would be ruined, or you might be sued. Perhaps this is a cautionary tale for Virtual Reality.
VR is where art and philosophy combine for me as a storyteller. VR is not just about cinematic technique where we can use styles, effects, and music to evoke emotion. As the storyworld creator, I am not just asking the viewer to take a journey with me. I am asking them to join me in the story. From the moment I first experienced VR I had a visceral and emotional reaction. Anyone who has tried it knows what I mean.
I believe VR storytelling comes with a new responsibility that is inherent in immersive narrative. The audience is no longer at arms length and separated “physically” from the content. They are in my story and it is my job to take care of them while they are on the journey. As we move from technology into the artistry of the medium, there are tools, new discoveries and best practices being established daily for VR production including the use of sound and light and color as devices for moving an “interactor” forward through a narrative. But before I get too enamored of the technology, I want to make sure I don’t sacrifice my love for the audience.
I have always tried to write viscerally, to place myself in the shoes of the reader or the viewer. Writing for VR narrative demands increased awareness of the physical and emotional reaction people will have inside the storyworld. Will I evoke or exploit? A good friend is a writer/ director of horror films and he is literally like a salivating werewolf right now. He’s scaring me already and I am not even inside his story. As VR storytellers, I believe there is a sensibility warranted here. We speak of VR creating empathy. I think as a writer I must have “experiential empathy” and be aware like with the character I played in that haunted house attraction that there are lines not to be crossed. I am not sure what those lines will be in VR but I do know that in what I create and in the story I tell, I want to be the one to responsibly establish them. I want to make sure the storyworld is the absolute best physio-emotional experience it can be, but I also want to grant the audience the respect it deserves.