At Arm’s Length
For as long as we’ve told ourselves stories, we’ve wanted to crawl inside their worlds and enter their fantastical spaces. Our world is drab compared to theirs; our experiences in stories would be so much more exciting if we could just exist within them, even if only for a visit. Many creative forms have been invented to try to bring the audience closer to the story world, from stereoscopic 3D in films to immersive theater and theme parks in live-action settings. Games often target this immersion-driven approach to storytelling by placing you in a world with the agency to control it. We’re always striving to feel fully transported by our stories, but the continued production of new technology to achieve this implies we haven’t quite gotten there yet.
When consumer-level VR first came about, it seemed like it would be the best of all these forms combined. It would have the transportive power of immersive environments along with the player agency that games afford. It would place you directly inside the world of the story, allowing you to look around and explore at will. It would bring us closer to the Holodeck than we’ve ever been before. We could finally escape to these fictional worlds we’ve always dreamed of inhabiting.
Sure, all these predictions were right, but why haven’t I seen a single VR cinematic experience that actually made me feel like I was in its story world?
As I thought about this question, my mind turned back to Prof. Janet Murray’s book Hamlet on the Holodeck, written in the late 90s as interactive narrative was taking huge strides forward. The fourth chapter of her book, on the property of immersion in storytelling experiences, establishes a framework for thinking about the audience’s place within a participatory narrative experience. As she puts it, “Narrative is a threshold experience.” When we experience a story, we meet it at a halfway point between our world and its story world, what Murray calls an “enchanted threshold.” Certain narrative forms establish constructs that represent this threshold, such as theater’s fourth wall. Should this border not be respected, it leads to the audience becoming alienated from the story. Though it seems paradoxical, immersion relies on the audience maintaining an appropriate level of connection to their own reality, mediated by the location of this threshold. You need that distance from the story to feel comfortable baring your emotions and experiences to it.
Certain objects, represented in both worlds, can cross that boundary, which helps the audience with the process of actively constructing belief in the story world that is crucial for becoming invested in it. These devices can be used to negotiate the audience’s distance from the story world, where the threshold they project their experience onto exists. In The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, for example, motion controls map my hand motions to the movement of Link’s sword in-game. This makes me feel closer to my avatar, narrowing the distance between the two of us and moving the enchanted threshold closer to the side of the story world. Murray uses the ride vehicle in Universal Studios’ Jurassic Park ride as an example of a liminal object that pushes the boundary further away from the story world–though the story unfolds all around you, you can’t cross the border created by the boat, and neither can the dinosaurs. Having this distance between you and the animatronics helps you convince yourself that they are indeed threats to your safety, as if you were closer to them you would have a harder time ignoring the fact that they are actually robots. Each experience needs to find the optimal location for its enchanted threshold in order to enable the audience to project itself best onto the story.
If we take this theoretical framework and apply it to VR cinema, we can start to see the cracks. At first glance, the medium appears to have done away with the fourth wall construct entirely, as it places you directly inside the story world. But of course, that is not the case. Watching magical balloons fly around the room in Henry, deviating from their path to ensure they don’t come near my head, I was suddenly reminded of the distance between me and and the story world–the location I perceived the threshold to be at snapped back jarringly towards reality. As soon as you have one experience like that, the promise of “fully immersive VR storytelling” that so many experiences try to sell you falls apart. That broken promise makes you unwilling to believe in these stories, and so eventually VR cinema in its current form falls apart for every viewer.
The solution to this problem is for VR storytellers to have better control over where the enchanted boundary exists in their experiences. If we want to craft experiences that offer no audience agency, a valid aesthetic goal in this new medium, then we need to push that boundary back. As we use the design affordances of VR to bring the audience closer to the story than we could have done before, we also need to ensure that they maintain their connection to the real world. To do that, we can use Murray’s liminal devices as a tool.
I believe that above all else, this is why CAVE succeeds as a narrative experience. I noticed that feedback from our test audiences became far more positive once we moved from four-person screenings to twelve and beyond. Using Murray’s framework, we realize that this is because the audience itself becomes a liminal device, as we give them a representation inside the world of our story as they pilot avatars. These avatars move their heads and bodies as their pilot looks around the environment of the cave, which breathes life into them, turning them into a tether to the reality of the people embodying them. By creating this distance from the story world, the audience avatars help us maintain the location of the threshold in a spot where the viewers feel comfortable engaging with it.
CAVE was designed as a statement that VR cinema can become accessible, democratic, mass-scale entertainment through the use of the techniques we’ve developed. What I didn’t realize when I signed onto the project was that it would also become more powerful as a storytelling medium this way. I hope we succeed in catching the industry’s eye at SIGGRAPH later this month, because I want to see what kind of amazing things other storytellers can create with this more potent approach to the medium. They will surely surprise themselves with their creations in the same way I was surprised with ours.