Various techsperts have predicted that 2016 will be the year VR becomes real for everyone. And that is certainly true with Sydney about to experience a deluge of VR content and discussions. One of the most promising home grown virtual reality experiences will be VR Noir: A Day Before The Night. This is a fascinating project where the audience, kitted up in VR gear, will move between first and third person perspective playing the lead role of a burnt out detective on a job for a dodgy client in a gripping noir thriller.
The project is an experiment. Can the audience move easily between the first and third person perspective? Can VR move from being a visceral, symbolic or joy ride experience to take on an episodic, narrative, dramatic structure? Local VR company, StartVR, working with author, Mike Jones, have partnered with The Australian Film Television And Radio School (AFTRS) to test the experiment. The event is taking place as part of Vivid, with ticketed sessions allowing audiences to participate with VR Noir, an HTC Vive rooftop experience (that ties in beautifully with the narrative), screenings of VR Noir: Behind The Scenes and Q & A discussion panels with the VR Noir creators.
FilmInk spoke to Mike Jones, the lead author and developer of VR Noir: A Day Before The Night – the first episode of a projected six-part series. My first question was about the best sources for viewing VR content. At this stage, there is no platform agnostic curated or hosted site, a sort of ‘youtube’ of VR content, but with a simple Google Cardboard set up (available for around $15) or a Samsung Gear VR headset (around $160), you can get started.
What are the best sources of VR content?
“You can find content at Jaunt, vrse, and Milk. Sonar is a really powerful example of effective narrative VR. It strikes the balance between what VR does really well is putting you someplace amazing, a spatial immersion in a wonderful place (in all the senses that wonderful may mean), but at the same time understanding good narrative principles of escalation – of keeping shit moving, keeping the stakes going up. In Sonar, you are in a capsule in space coming down on a large asteroid, and then you journey into the depths of the asteroid through a sprawling cave system. It really does the mix between an immersive experience and a dramatic thriller well.”
What about the time of these VR experiences? Is there an optimal length for a narrative VR experience?
“We need to avoid putting artificial shackles on in terms of its length and format. When web series first started, everyone said that they had to be short and they had to be funny. But House Of Cards is a web series by every definition! But with VR, even when it isn’t trying to be intense, the experience is intense. We will sit for feature length films of VR in the near future once we get over being overwhelmed by the intensity and possibly the motion sickness. Perhaps 30 minutes is the saturation point. Or an album as a format as a curated collection, or an anthology of experiences…all of this speaks to the power of episodic storytelling. VR Noir: A Day Before The Night will be six parts of around ten minutes duration making up the equivalent of an hour of TV entertainment. The first episode will take audiences up to the first big reversal point of the story. It is very much a noir detective thriller. We were aware in developing the story – especially for audiences unfamiliar with the format and the mechanics of the medium – to provide them with a detective narrative that they would be very familiar with so that they would not be experiencing two things that are wildly cognitively disjointed. I know where I am. I am a detective and I need to solve a mystery. It’s just like watching an episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and I have to solve the mystery by the end of the story. So the familiarity is in the story, its tropes, and the genre conventions of the noir thriller.”
For many people, it will be their first experience of VR, and especially dramatic VR. How do you structure it? Do you give it a set up slowly, or do you drop into the action straight away?
“Orientating the audience and positioning them in your story is your first crucial question in VR in terms of narrative ideas and point of view and mechanical point of view, which are two different things. Audiences need to work out spatially where they are, but also work out hat their point of view is. For instance, is it first person or third person? VR Noir is in some ways an experiment. This is a story that moves between third and first person. You start in the third person looking from the window of one building into the windows of an apartment. Using the noir tropes of the voiceover narration, you hear the detective speaking introducing the audience to the character that they are about to become. And then we take you into her shoes and insider her office. We start in third person to establish a world, and then you’re placed in a character’s shoes. You take on the first person perspective and become that character playing the role of a female detective. It is a voyeuristic idea that allows you to be immersed in this world. We don’t know whether the move from third to first person will work in VR, and we won’t know until we see people playing it. We tried to create a narrative story-world where thematically that was the key idea. To make sense of this world means that you need to be a voyeur, and then as the detective to play the voyeur, literally.”
How do the virtual reality mechanics come into this and bring the narrative to life?
“Spatially. All around your office, there are objects that tell the audience something about who you are, and that reveal something narratively. When you look at something, it will trigger a voice over. This is a technique borrowed from first person video games. Once the client enters your office and hires you to act as a detective, it becomes a branching story narrative. You make choices of the questions to ask and how to respond to the answers. As the detective, when the client gives you an answer, you can either press her hard for more information, or you can empathise with her. One part of you wants to get to the truth and the other wants to make the client feel calm. This allows the audience to define the character that they are playing and make some empathetic character choices. It’s a branching narrative, so you will get different outcomes depending on how you respond. That then leads you to a second set piece on the rooftop of a building using a zoom microphone and telescope to search for the man that she is investigating. So you have to look around all the buildings with your VR head set on, which is amazing. You need to find the windows that are open with the lights on and then you zoom in by focusing on the image or using the touch pad on the headset. You can see some action in some of the windows and these will be story clues for the larger series. But then you as the detective need to find more information and you need to delve deeper into the story. There is lots of pressure and lots of sound clues. What I was trying to do in all these sets was to find a number of different physical spatial locations with different dynamics around them and increase the pressure on the audience leading to more complex and audacious twists.”
Taking part in the VR Noir experience will give you a unique insight into how Virtual Reality narrative engages audiences in a radically different way to traditional film and television. The VR Noir experience is 10 minutes, with a maximum of four people participating at one time. This event is presented by the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and Start VR on Wednesday June 8 at 7:00pm in the AFTRS foyer. No registration is required for this free event. For more VR happenings at AFTRS, head to Vivid.