Telling stories in virtual reality requires a new storytelling language. Veterans of legendary animation studio Pixar discovered that hard truth when they first founded what has become Oculus Story Studio. Their current recipe for virtual reality storytelling borrows liberally from Hollywood’s tried-and-true cinematic techniques, video game interactivity, and even live theater experiences.
Oculus Story Studio represents the creative storytelling arm of Oculus VR, the virtual reality company that was bought by Facebook last year. Story Studio’s hybrid approach to storytelling shows in how it has attracted talent from both leading film and video game companies. The group already debuted its first VR short film, called Lost, at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. More recently, Oculus VR and the Story Studio founders brought Lost and their storytelling philosophy to the Tribeca Film Festival held in New York City last week
“The best books don’t necessarily make the best movies, the best movies don’t necessarily make the best games, and the same is true for VR,” said Nate Mitchell, co-founder and vice president of product at Oculus VR, during a speech at the Tribeca Film Festival event. “One of the things we’re really homed in on, is that the best way to achieve the magic in VR is to design experiences that are made from the ground up for the medium.”
Story Studio’s storytelling lineage traces back to both the computer-generated wizardry of Pixar and the interactivity of video games. That means immersing VR users in a virtual world—say, a lush, moonlit forest rendered in real-time—where they can walk around a bit and gaze upon objects such as fern plants from any direction. But unlike games viewed on a 2-D screen, virtual reality experiences can create strong sense of “presence” that tricks the brain into believing it’s actually there in the virtual world.
Virtual reality may serve as the “missing link” that can merge the experiences of watching films and playing video games, said Edward Saatchi, producer at Oculus Story Studio. He put special emphasis on the idea of “interactive discovery” that could provide moments that make VR users feel like they’ve stumbled across a hidden corner of a living world. Such interactive moments can help reinforce the sense of “presence” and being in the world.
“We think that the future is a mix of narrative games, immersive theater, and cinema,” Saatchi explained. “The new grammar will incorporate elements from all of those.”
Saatchi cited video game inspirations such as Gone Home, an indie game released in 2013 that focused on players discovering the fate of a fictional character after coming home to an empty family house. All of that game’s action is carefully constrained to mostly examining different objects and rooms. But he also pointed to Sleep No More, a live theatrical performance that transports Shakespeare’s famous play “Macbeth” to the 1930s and invites people to wander amongst the actors in a multi-story hotel setting.
Saatchi described Sleep No More as a “one of the more formative experiences” for his vision of storytelling. I knew what he meant. When I experienced the presentation several years ago, I was hugely impressed by the level of detail that the Punchdrunk theater company had put into making their story set feel real. At one point, I marveled at how I could wander into a side room—supposedly the office of a detective—and begin riffling through file folders containing information about past cases.
The short VR film Lost doesn’t quite realize that vision of a wide-open world just yet because of its intentionally restrained storytelling scope. Instead, the Story Studio founders explained, they used Lost as a tool for figuring out some basic VR storytelling techniques, such as how to get first-time VR users acclimated to virtual reality experience without distracting them from the story unfolding before their eyes.
“Being present just felt so amazing that it’s just really distracting,” said Saschka Unseld, creative director at Oculus Story Studio, during a Tribeca Film Festival presentation. “And if you have an audience that is just totally distracted, that is not a good audience to tell a story to. You might have the best story in the world, but no one is listening.”
Unseld came to Story Studio after having directed the Pixar animated short film The Blue Umbrella. He and his Story Studio colleagues figured out a special ritual that introduces VR users to the world of Lost before kicking off the main story. For example, the first thing you see when you put on the Oculus VR “Crescent Bay” headset is a tiny firefly that appears in the darkness. That firefly flits back and forth and makes you accustomed to the fact that you can look around inside the virtual world.
The scene eventually brightens to show that you’re standing in the middle of a moonlit forest. Unseld decided to give Lost viewers some time to look around and explore a bit to get used to the feeling of presence in virtual reality. Eventually, a familiar cinema ritual appears in the form of title credits and faint music; a way of telling the VR user to begin paying attention to the main story that is about to unfold. If that wasn’t enough, a bird flies right past the user’s head with a loud thrum of flapping wings and helps grab their attention.
Story Studio has already unveiled a planned slate of several short VR films beyond Lost. Those VR films include Bullfighter, an experience that may not be for the faint of heart, Kabloom, an experience designed around comedy and empathy, and Dear Angelica, an experience designed to put VR users inside an illustration.
The entire story arc of Lost takes just four minutes in all. Story Studio is intentionally keeping the VR experiences short as it tries to figure out the storytelling tricks of the trade. Such a short length may also help minimize problems with VR experiences that can make people feel emotionally overwhelmed or sometimes physically ill.
But brevity doesn’t necessarily limit the complexity of storytelling for Story Studio. Saatchi pointed to the success of Telltale Games, a video game developer that has released episodic adventure titles based on fictional universes such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. That might provide just the right bite-sized VR experiences while allowing people to revisit the characters and experiences again and again with new content.
Current VR headset and software technology still presents limits to future VR storytelling ambitions, said Max Planck. supervising technical director at Oculus Story Studio. For example, a VR experience that must render its computer-generated scenes in real-time, like video games, won’t necessarily deliver the high-level visuals of a Pixar feature film. On the hardware side, the cable that delivers visual data and power to the latest Oculus VR headset can still get in the way of VR users walking around, preventing them from feeling completely immersed in a virtual world.
Still, Story Studio is happy to sacrifice some image quality if it can eventually access a hardware and software package that makes VR technology much more portable. Portability, in turn, would potentially make VR experiences more widely available to a broader audience—especially if Story Studio experiences could work with something like a smartphone and a cheap VR headset such as Google Cardboard.
“If I just have to shrink those limitations even more to fit it on a mobile phone, but [the result is that] it’s that much easier to share it with people, that’s the killer experience,” Planck said.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.