How to Write for VR

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Timothy West’s satirical radio play “This gun in my right hand is loaded” is a wonderful demonstration of what happens when writers who are used to one particular medium (in this case the screen) adapt their idea for another (in this case radio) and fail to account for the affordances and limitations of the form.

At one point early on, the protagonist says (adopt posh 1960s BBC radio voice) “Whiskey eh? That’s a strange drink for an attractive, auburn-haired girl of 29”, hilariously exposing one of the singularities of radio, which might be more subtly manoeuvred by a writer with the right expertise. 

Every medium requires a different approach and set of skills in order to really make it sing and virtual reality is no different. But VR is still evolving its form and even its terminology. What one person means by virtual reality may not correspond to what another does, so let’s start by trying to pin down what we mean by VR. 

For many, VR is any computer-simulated environment that you can access via a VR headset. However, purists say that 360 video, though it conforms to this definition, is not ‘true’ VR. If you try to move forward inside a 360 video, the world’s edges move with you. It’s a bit like having a fishbowl on your head (stay with me).You can look at the fish to the left or the right, up and down, or behind you, but if you try to get a closer look and take a step forward, the whole bowl comes with you – a very disorientating feeling when you first experience it.

 VR that uses a gaming engine like Unity or Unreal, whether that world is created using CGI, photogrammetry, volumetric capture or a combination of all three, does not have this ‘depth’ problem and is generally more interactive. You can choose whether to approach certain things or move away from them just as you can in the real world.

Writing for so-called ‘true’ VR is different from writing for 360 video because the former generally entails branching narratives and interactions and is a more complex process. Writing for 360 video tends to involve a straightforward linear narrative, but whether you are writing for one or the other there is something very important to bear in mind with both – the non-traditional point of view of the user. 

Again, terminology is tricksy here. ‘User’ is a gaming term and for less gamesy experiences, many still use the word ‘audience’ (originally from latin meaning listening or hearing). Others talk about ‘participants’ or ‘viewers’ or even ‘viewsers’ – a useful hybrid coined by media theorist Dan Harries.

When writing for VR, it’s important to realise that the viewser’s POV is self-directed, omnidirectional and present. The viewser is not being told where to look and what to concentrate on by the framing of a shot. There are no shots or cuts and they can (and will) look in any direction around them. This needs to be accounted for by the writer.

It’s wonderful that in VR the viewser has such freedom to choose where to focus her attention. Gone are the slow from-the-legs-up lingering shots on women’s bodies, for example. If you want to, you can turn your back on the leading lady and just take in the sky or the floor. But it’s very likely that some of your viewsers will completely miss something important that is unfolding in ‘front’ of them and check out the skirting boards at precisely the wrong time. If something in the story is crucial and should not be missed, it needs to be signposted with sound design or some other sleight of hand, for example with a “Coooey! Over here!”, just before it happens.

By saying that the viewser’s POV is ‘present’, I’m referring to the immersive nature of VR. Writers who are used to writing for film or TV will need to take into consideration the fact that viewsers are not outside of a frame looking in. They are inhabiting the world – not necessarily acting or participating in it (though they may be), but always taking up space in that world and experiencing themselves as part of it, which entails a completely different mindset from traditional writing for frames. There is no hard and fast rule, but the viewser should probably be acknowledged in some way and it should make sense for her to be there. 

Story Studio, Oculus’ explorative VR studio, pinpointed this need to have the viewser’s presence acknowledged with what they called The ‘Swayze’ Effect (after Patrick Swayze’s character’s feeling of dislocation in the film Ghost). Viewsers are not just observers; they are experiencers, embodied in a world and they should be accounted for and considered as such throughout the writing process.

VR is a rapidly evolving art form that is still finding its feet so it’s pretty hard to predict exactly what kind of writing it might entail in a year or even a few months’ time. Until fairly recently, there were no consumer headsets, let alone hand tracking, haptics or wireless rigs. Things are shifting quickly, but we can hazard a guess that VR will become increasingly social and increasingly interactive with writers needing to be able to come up with complex branching narratives, which means a lot of writing!

With the pandemic leading to increased headset sales and with the market for VR growing, now may be the time to try out some VR for yourself, see what works and what doesn’t and to have a go thinking outside the frame. 

Ellie Richold is a Creative Producer working across immersive media and podcasts. She has worked for the BBC since 2006 as a Producer, Researcher and Translator and has written for a variety of publications about women's rights, cycling, motherhood and VR. Her big passions are the environment and tech justice.

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