Does this look like virtual reality to you? Didn’t think so. This is what narrative looks like.
Facebook announced today that they’re shuttering Oculus Story Studio. Judging by the reactions I’m seeing in my Facebook feed, the VR/AR community is a mixture of shocked and saddened. There’s little of the schadenfreude that accompanied news of Palmer Luckey’s departure. Maybe it’s harder to revel in the misfortune of a rodent who just wants to hug balloons.
I got into VR in the first place because I heard it represented a new medium for storytelling. But the more I hear the word “narrative” in relation to “VR” these days, the more I tend to cringe. Claiming that VR is a new home for narrative art is like saying that the camera is a new home for painting or that cinema is a new home for plays.
Experiencing The Wave for the first time recently made me re-examine my assumptions about what art form is best suited for VR. I am starting to see the emergence of a new art form I’ve been calling the realm, a digitally constructed social space where visitors can interact with one another and gather meaning both from their interactions and from the environment itself.
Here’s the basic problem with narrative art and VR. Narrative is directional and guided. VR is spatial and exploratory. If VR shares genes with any other art form it is sculpture, not cinema. I suspect we started talking about VR as a storytelling medium because some people create it with cameras, like cinema. Others create it using gaming engines, and the 2016 emergence of VR games came along in an era when video games have embraced narrative tools. But the origin of video games isn’t narrative. We never heard anyone in 1985 talking about Donkey Kong as a vehicle for storytelling.
The shuttering of Oculus Story Studio might be interpreted as an admission that VR experiences aren’t movies and the outfits that make them aren’t movie studios. In the Variety story I linked to above, there’s a subtle discrepancy that I found telling. Writer Janko Roettgers reports that according to Oculus VP of Content Jason Rubin, Facebook “pledged top [sic] invest another $250 million in VR content produced by outside partners at its Oculus Connect developer conference last year, and Rubin said Thursday that narrative storytelling is a big part of that commitment.”
Roettgers goes on to quote Rubin: ““We’re going to carve out $50 million from that financial commitment to exclusively fund non-gaming, experiential VR content… This money will go directly to artists to help jumpstart the most innovative and groundbreaking VR ideas.” (emphasis mine)
Non-gaming, experiential VR content is not the same as narrative storytelling and I take this as a good sign that Facebook is starting to come to grips with VR as a sui generis medium. Instead of trying to out-Pixar itself with cutesy-wootsy hedgehog movies developed in-house for millions of dollars, it sounds like the company is refocusing its efforts outward, increasing investment in a growing creative community that hopes to make its artistic mark on this thrilling new medium.
And that’s great news. We need lots and lots of experiments, and we need to make these experiments as cheaply as possible, so that creators can rebound quickly from their necessary failures. I have seen VR experiences crafted by bands of four to five people that are massively more entertaining than what Oculus Story Studio accomplished with millions of dollars and fifty employees. Hell, I’ve been blown away by what Scobot can whip together in a weekend by himself in his garage. I hope this change in direction at Facebook results in more Scobots in more garages.
If Facebook has learned anything, it might be that it can’t approach VR the way that America Online approached the Internet back in the nineties, as an opportunity to establish a walled garden. After all, Facebook is a company with two billion unpaid employees who provide it with content. That approach seems to have worked for them so far. The more Facenook looks beyond its walls, the more it’ll find a vibrant, grass-roots community devoted to inventing this new art form.