Is VR the future of storytelling?

When I was studying Cinema Studies in Australia (a long time ago), I was given a piece of advice that I have always remembered: “Show me, don’t tell me”. Good screenwriting requires a careful mise-en-scène and an exceptional visual story that speaks for itself. As my career progressed and I delved deeper into the world of virtual reality, I discovered that, in terms of storytelling, cinema and VR aren’t so different.

Just like when we watch a film, when we enter a VR reconstruction we want to forget for a moment where we are. To suspend our disbelief, take in the environment, explore where the streets might lead us, and discover what surrounds us. While the scene is already set, the storyline is ultimately defined by our own experience and interpretation.

A little while ago, Lithodomos VR was asked to present at the ITB tourism convention in Berlin on the topic of Virtual Reality for Destinations, and specifically to speak on “the art of storytelling”. In preparation for this, my internet search quickly showed that storytelling in VR is the subject of hot debate, and for me, it was an interesting challenge to reconcile our particular use of on-site VR with the topic.

But this isn’t the first time that humans have faced such a challenge. We, of course, have the Greeks to thank for the theatre, a pretty long enduring tradition, and I began to wonder how this type of storytelling transitioned to film at the turn of the 20th century.

Art Historian Erwin Panofsky was writing around this time when theorists first set out to determine the fundamental differences between theatre and cinema. He wrote that we must first define the “basic nature of the medium”. What is the difference between the two? Fundamentally, cinema and cinematography made a strong break from theatre’s “frontality” and spectatorship. The movie camera also opened up a world of seemingly limitless locations, and the close-up made theatre’s crowd-pleasing, over-exaggerated gestures and vocal techniques redundant.1  

Years later, in 1993, photorealistic CGI effects (and Steven Spielberg) spectacularly brought dinosaurs back to life in Jurassic Park. More recently, this technology allowed us to glimpse a gritty digital dystopia in 2017’s sequel to Blade Runner when it played in 3D at Imax cinemas. As futuristic as these two powerful vehicles of storytelling seem, if we really ask ourselves what the “basic nature of the medium” is in each case, there are immediate similarities – they both require us to participate in a distant, passive manner. Despite the 3D glasses, the transition to the other side of the screen was yet to be made.

What VR as a medium does is remove the seats in the cinema, break down the screen by wrapping it around us, and trick us with stereoscopic vision that places us firmly in the centre of the action. But I know that I have felt a bit disappointed by some VR stories, feeling as though I am a mere camera on a tripod, a fly on the wall. This is why a conceptual shift still needs to take place, where we, the protagonist, are no longer the passive observer, but instead the lead actor.

Having said that, I don’t believe we should necessarily “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Clearly, the basic tenets of storytelling must remain – characters, plots and emotive soundtracks we can identify with – because in our genre of history, just like comedy and tragedy, they work.

We make a distinction between fiction and fact, entertainment and documentary, and Lithodomos VR content falls firmly within the documentary storytelling domain. There has been a tendency in this area of work to embellish historical fact in order to make it more entertaining – to cross the line between certainty and fantasy. However, I think most of us feel slightly annoyed when we watch a documentary that is presented as fact, only to find out that many parts are pure invention.

When we consume visual content that is intended to educate, illuminate, and to explain the past, we demand scientific accuracy and a responsible approach to presenting the facts. Facts can be highly entertaining and engaging, and the presentation of visual information through VR is an extremely powerful way to deliver such information. Studies abound about heightened information retention when using VR in the field of education.

In our particular case, Lithodomos VR provides a powerful tool for storytelling. Professional guides at ancient sites the world over have their own stories to tell. Take the Colosseum in Rome, for example. Imagine you are a guide and your group is looking at you with expectation. They want to have fun, but they also want to learn. So, as the guide, what do you talk about? Nero’s golden house and the draining of the swamp to make way for the Colosseum? Or Caligula shooting ostriches with a crescent-shaped bow so they would run about decapitated as if they were still alive? There are so many stories attached to this one place, and the VR space is an anchored viewpoint that becomes a springboard for any one of these stories to be told.

VR is an exciting new storytelling medium, representing the next big leap in a long history of narrative tools. It is a truly powerful way to deliver visual information. Right now, it’s all new, exciting and shiny – some might even consider it a gimmick. However, if we look forward in time, I believe the old genres will reassert themselves, those of entertainment and documentary. And as we continue to combine the tried and tested elements of storytelling with cutting-edge technology and a penchant for truth, we will continue to create stories that allow everyone to vividly relive the most powerful stories of all… those of human history.

1 Sontag 1992, 362