A screenshot form Baobob Studios' "Bonfire" VR experience
It’s impossible to talk about virtual reality without at least paying lip service to the merry-go-round of hype and hope that has always seemed to accompany the technology. From its formative days in the 1990s, when a parade of sci-fi movies filled us with the hope and trepidation that VR was definitely the future… to the more recent rebirth of VR as an affordable and accessible technology that we promise everybody will be using in just another couple of years.
But even as VR bubbles up yet again with a legitimately astonishing (and astonishingly user-friendly) product in the Oculus Quest, few people are still talking about VR with the same fervor and sense of inevitability that they once did just a couple of years ago.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that VR is dead. At least not from a creative standpoint. As the technology’s mainstream aspirations continue to be kicked down the road, we’re left with something potentially more interesting in its stead: A platform that has become something of a playground for artists and artistically inclined filmmakers. To put it plainly: Freed from just about any commercial expectations, VR creators are doing some downright amazing things. And, as with previous years, the Tribeca International Film Festival’s immersive offerings (including the festival's VR-packed Virtual Arcade_, stand as arguably the single best distillation of what’s new and what's now in VR—and a showcase for creators who are pushing the limits of what the tech can do when it comes to telling stories.
So what is new and now in VR this year? If the exhibitions at Tribeca are any indication, it's the use of the tech to subvert our expectations about storytelling in ways that make things feel personal and real in surprising ways.
Take The Key (created by Celine Tricart and narrated by Search Party's Alia Shawkat), which won the festival's Grand Jury Prize for Best Virtual Reality Immersive Story. Like some of the more ambitious VR projects from last year’s Tribeca film fest, The Key features elements of immersive theater via the use of a live actor. This human presence provides both a human face for the experience's message (more on that below), as well as a deeper blurring of the lines between the real and virtual worlds. (It also makes it pretty much impossible to fully experience The Key in a home setting.)
Once the VR goggles are on, viewers are immersed in a surreal dream world where mask-faced cartoon humanoids live in constant fear of losing their loved ones—or their own lives. The aesthetic is vaguely Tim Burton-esque, and cartoony enough create a sense of distance from the horror around you.
However, that distance soon disappears when the dream world dissolves into the photo-realistic ruins of a war-torn town. And with it, the narrative's central allegory steps out of the shadows; revealing that the constant fear and fright you've been witnessing (and experiencing) is but the daily experience of countless refugees.
We live in a world rife with war and refugees. But for the rest of us, their experiences tend to be purely abstract. We see alarming headlines and news clips, but can tune them out by changing the channel or closing a browser window. By luring us in with a sci-fi conceit, and then stripping away this layer, going through The Key feels almost as if you are awakened from a dream, only to find a nightmare in the real world.
I don't mean it as a joke when I say that one of the best features of VR goggles is that nobody can see you cry.
Another highlight from Tribeca was Bonfire, produced by Baobab Studios, which has quickly established a reputation for producing high-end VR experiences with computer animation that rivals theatrical releases from Pixar and Dreamworks (it's no coincidence that co-founder Eric Darnell was the guy behind the Madagascar movies).
As Bonfire begins, you (isn’t it great that VR can be written about in the second person?) find yourself marooned on an alien planet with nothing but a robotic servant to keep you company. Soon a strange (and highly adorable) alien approaches, leaving you free to interact with it as you please.
It may not be obvious, but your actions really do matter here. Depending on how you act towards the alien (Do you feed it? Taunt it? Play with it?), the creature treats you differently, and the story forks in ways both subtle and obvious.
The clever use of forking narratives would be interesting on its own, but Bonfire, like The Key, reveals itself to be something far greater than its first impression would suggest. Under the hood, Bonfire was built with advanced AI engine that allows the alien creature to respond to your behavior in ways that feel natural—all while driving the narrative around your actions.
According to its creators, the experience is partly an experiment to see if VR can be used to teach social interactions. VR is often called an “empathy engine” for its ability to make us feel. It's not difficult to think about possible therapeutic or educational uses for experiences such as Bonfire, with VR providing individuals the opportunity to practice and learn social skills in a safe environment.
Bonfire is also a clever deconstruction of the typical narrative format. If you’ve ever read a screenwriting book (or simply seen a lot of movies), you know that most stories involve characters going on a journey and coming out the other side changed in some fundamental way. Scrooge learns to be less of a grinch. Luke learns that the Force was in him the whole time. Neo... uh... also learns that some force was in him the entire time. In a by-the-numbers story, the final act sees the character using their changed perspective or newfound powers in order to make a big decision that saves the day—or at least shows personal growth.
Of course, our engagement with stories is typically passive. We see them on a movie screen or read them off the pages of a book. They are strictly in the third person. What makes Bonfire so interesting is that you (again: the second person!) are the lead character who is forced to learn and adapt, before making a fateful decision which I won't spoil here. Academically speaking, this is fascinating. And from a pure experience level, it’s a joy. You aren’t rooting for some distant hero to do the right thing—you’re pulling that lever yourself.
In many ways, this is what the promise of VR has always been about: Taking the level of agency and action that has long been found in video games, and applying it to straightforward narratives. At its best, VR can feel like a strange hybrid of a game and a movie. It’s not just about mashing buttons or collecting points, but living in and relating to the world around you.
And, as lead characters in our own stories, we can hopefully emerge on the other side as slightly better versions of ourselves. This seems to be the goal of both The Key and Bonfire: To create experiences that allow us to use what we’ve learned in these virtual worlds in order to, hopefully, live better lives in the real one.