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Some general thoughts and design guidelines on storytelling techniques in Virtual Reality with static player cameras.

Janina Woods, Blogger

March 23, 2015

12 Min Read

Back in January 2015, I did a talk about storytelling in Virtual Reality at Webster University in Geneva. As this was an internal event, there isn’t any video, but this is the writeup of said talk - with some (a lot of) additional thoughts added on.


Disclaimer: All arguments and observations in this article are based on the assumption of a static player camera. The kind where the player can’t move at all, but the action plays out around him. Techniques for games, where the player can move, may differ.



So, what is Virtual Reality? It’s basically a magic trick, which makes you able to

  • Go where you want to go

  • Go where you can’t go

  • Experience basically everything you want

That’s a pretty vast field of things to do, and a little overwhelming at first. Not only for the player, but also for the designer. But then again, games have always done the same magic tricks, so why would VR be different?


Well, in my eyes, VR is a very personal and emotional journey. It starts even before the player has seen any content, by committing themselves to the VR headset. To cover their eyes, and often their ears, to cut themselves off from the normal reality. It is a gesture of trust and curiosity. It is this trust, which they put into the headset and the developer, who did the job of convincing them into using the headset. And because of that, it is our responsibility to not betray that trust.


VR is strange and new - not to us, who are working with it, but to everyone else around. It is easy to crave more and stranger experiences, but thinking back onto my first days with VR, feeling nauseous for days, it is easy to pace myself. Luckily, I get motion sick easily, which helps to keep the over the top design ideas in check. The worst thing you could do is overwhelm the player and make him feel sick for the first time they use a VR headset. You will ruin them for all further attempts, you will have betrayed the trust, they have put into you.



Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s dive a little into the storytelling techniques. Again, this is all assuming the player camera doesn’t move during the experience/game. My personal name for these kind of movie-like-interactive-game-thingies is ‘experience’. It’s neither a game, nor a movie, or even a play. It’s a little bit of everything, there for the player to experience it. (There’s no name for it yet. Maybe I’ll think of one.)


Always keep in mind: ‘You are the camera’! You experience the story yourself, are suddenly in the middle, not only in front of it like with a movie or a book. This doesn’t mean that the experience has to assume that the player is physically in the story. They can be a lot of things:

  • The protagonist

  • A person (yourself, another character), watching the protagonist

  • A camera, watching the protagonist

  • A camera, watching the whole world with no protagonist at all

  • ...basically anything you can think of

The player always interacts with the world, be it only by moving his head to look at different things, so the role he takes on has to be clear and established, especially for what happens during the experience.


Do the other characters and the environment react to the player? Are they ignoring him? Do they talk to him? Are they waiting for him to perform certain actions? Do they narrate the scene to him? Do they take him along for the ride? All of these questions are important to the script of the experience and the emotional connection, which the player has to it.


Example: The player is the protagonist

The camera is placed at eye height of the player character. He may or may not have a visible body. Other characters react to him, talk to him. He can interact with the scene in various ways, maybe even talk, choosing dialogue options, similar to an RPG. Other characters rely on him to take action, decide things. This is the easiest way to get the player involved emotionally, as they are actively playing a part.


Example: The player is another person

The camera is placed at eye height of the player character. The player might be the main characters sidekick, or a member of his party. He follows the action, but only participates rarely. It is easier to tell a scripted story this way, as the main character will always act in a predictable way, but it takes a lot of control and emotional involvement from the player. This can be regained if other characters (and the main character) interact with the player frequently, talking to him, pointing things out.


Example: The player is a camera, watching the world

Like in a nature documentary, the player is not part of the world at all, watching the story from a detached standpoint. The camera can be placed anywhere, without having to justify the players presence in that particular situation. Several underwater simulations for VR, for example, already portrait a documentary style experience, without suggestion to the player, that he is physically diving at the moment. This is also the usual experience when watching a normal movie, where the camera is never something the actors react to. The player can still feel emotional about the actors, he is watching.


So, what is the best technique? This heavily relies on the content, you want to show. It might be tempting to do everything with the player as protagonist, but in my eyes, most of the experiences should place him in an observer role. No, I don’t think that these experiences are better, and that there shouldn’t be any VR games with the player as protagonists (because there should be, and they’re awesome!), but this outside perspective gives some unique benefits to the experience for first time users. Indulge me for a moment, on this.


First time VR users (here I count everyone from real first timers up to several weeks into using the headset) are extending their trust to the developers. Yes, this again. They trust us to give them an incredible experience, which should be personal, emotional, amazing - and most important of all: Not make them feel sick. At least, that’s what they have heard about VR and made them curious (and wary) to try it out. The third person observer view is the easiest way to achieve this, especially for developers, who are just starting out with VR and haven’t gotten their feet wet with a lot of experience.


It’s really all about pacing. A good story has fast and slow moments, a time for action and a time for relaxing. Movies generally do a great job with these, as the cinematic theories of pacing a story have been researched very, very well. So, when I’m telling a story in VR, how do I set the pace? Of course, there can be scripted sequences, there need to be. We’re still talking about a ‘movie-like-interactive-game-thingy’. So while there are certainly portions of the experience, where there’s scripted sequences, and there are portions where the player has the time to explore the environment on his own, there’s just one rule, which you need to keep in mind at all times:


‘As long as the player knows what’s going on, and where he is, you can do almost anything.’


And this is easiest as long as the player is already cast into the observer role, taking the responsibility of acting correctly in all situations from him. Then he can just lean back and enjoy the ride. There can be places where the pace is faster or slower. There can be places, for example, where the player sets their own pace, by making access to the next scene a player choice, leaving them time to explore. Some optional, interactive elements help make him feel familiar with how more action-based experiences could work, and prepare him for the games to come. I believe it’s our responsibility to make players ease into VR and come to love it, so we can throw them into all kinds of crazy rides during the years to come.


Closing thoughts


I often get asked things about whether you can do ‘X’ in VR - and my answer is mostly: Try it. Try it with a lot of people. You will quickly see if it works out. There are some guidelines around, best practices about the worst and stupid things you can do, but for the most part those haven’t been written yet. Even this article is rather a suggestion than a best practice example, coming from the experience of just trying a shitload of things.



This has been a lot of rambling. I am currently working on an interactive, narrative experience, for which I will produce a prototype during the next Oculus/GearVR VRJam. There will be a lot of more learnings, and if there’s any interest, I will share them with you after the jam. :)

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