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Recently, I was reading an article about how Virtual Reality had hit the limits of its current phase of development, and was officially in decline. It was a very persuasive article, backed by data that is hard to deny.
But the problem didn’t seem like a new, strange one, part of some brave new world in which there were no clear answers. It seemed, rather, like a recurring problem with new technologies, in which people tend to miss some answers that become very apparent later.
New technologies always come with an initial burst of optimism. The possibilities seem endless. There is an easy temptation to turn it up to 11, to throw the whole bowl of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
That’s fine for Phase One. Or even Phase Two. You may learn things by doing that. But mostly you learn what NOT to do, while you’re stumbling through the brutally practical considerations, like how to bring the price of the hardware down, and how not to make people physically ill. (That’s a big one with VR.)
What the most insightful articles have been saying for a while is that VR is lacking killer content. And that’s where they are absolutely right. But naming the problem is one thing, and creating a solution is quite another. So, what to do next?
VR is as different from games on a screen as those games are from movies. But VR (potentially, anyway) has something in common with traditional console and PC games, with movies, with plays, with novels… You can see where I’m going, right?
VR is potentially a very powerful story form. Its powers of immersion are self-evident. I’ve written before of the story potential of increased immersion technologies like Kinect, and I still believe that potential is there, though it has never come close to being fully exploited. (Developers never matured past the calisthenics stage.) But perhaps the potential of VR will be clearer to developers, since it not only has the involvement of the body, but the entire visual scope of the brain.
Consider one of the fullest experiences of, let’s call it Virtual-Virtual Reality: the movie Avatar. We got to see fictional characters experience a true, living virtual world, a beautifully constructed one with its own rules and culture, and audiences got a glimpse of that world for themselves.
Even this second-hand flat-screen look was enough to give people a widespread experience of depression when the movie ended. They wanted it to be real; they wanted to move into it and stay there. Build a world beautiful enough, and people won’t want to leave. And when I say beautiful, I don’t just mean pretty and blue. I mean a world that’s physically and spiritually flowing with grace and love and balance, like the Garden of Eden. This was not just about beautiful graphics, it was about individual and tribal character, everything that went into the harmony of a Paradise Interrupted.
Forgetting the ham-fisted simplicity of the human military side of the plot, and the bone-headed writing with names like “Unobtainium” (yeah, the term has been around since the 1950s, but it’s still stupid), the writers and artists who built the story world that characters experienced through VR really nailed enough of it, and the reaction of audience members is all the proof we need.
A VR world that people never want to leave? That’s power. That should give VR developers a target to shoot for.
Further evidence: effective story in VR already exists, but it exists in a very targeted, individual way: as therapy for military veterans suffering from PTSD.
The cathartic power of story, expressed in small, combat-related VR worlds, is helping vets re-experience their traumas in ways that can reshape their psyches. Only well-crafted story can do this, using the immersion of VR.
But how does this translate into massive, broad-appeal commercial success for game developers? They have to consciously realize something they’ve probably always known at a gut level.
Story is a universal human experience. Story is the flexible spine that will guide players through an open world. Story’s main activity is to drive interest forward, to make people decide to opt in, to go deeper into the world you've created, to see what will happen next.
I can’t think of a better description of what VR development needs right now.