Characters and Play-Alongs

AARP Member

It’s 2016 and we’re still consuming entertainment populated with characters created in the twentieth century. Like these trusty senior citizens:

Bilbo Baggins: 1937

Superman: 1938

Batman: 1939

Spider-Man: 1962

Luke Skywalker: 1977

(I suppose Luke is more of a Gen-Xer.)

Instead of taking old characters from flat media and dumping them into VR, what if VR storytellers aimed to create all new characters from scratch? After all, every Marvel super hero was at once just a few pencil strokes on a piece of paper.

I taught creative writing for many years and in my character workshops I usually started by asking students to think about what a character’s deal was. It’s one thing to describe a character–what they look like, their various demographic details–but stories start to grow when you say, “The deal with Janet is that she…” Every story is about a problem, and characters make sense only in relation to the choices they make to solve or confront that problem.

If you start imagining what a character’s deal is in VR, you can think about how they relate to the structural elements of the medium. For instance, I discovered the work of Quba Michalski yesterday, and was especially interested in his “The Pull.

As I was playing around with this pleasantly disorienting 360 film, I started to imagine a character in such a setting. If one were to plop a teenager into this room where the laws of gravity no longer apply, what might she try to do? How could this reveal who she is?

You can start with the environment and imagine a character inside of it, rather than starting with a character and creating a world for them to occupy.

We’re going to be able to reveal new things about who characters are because we have more narrative tools at our disposal that allow characters to do things they’ve never done in flat media.

We’re in the very early stages of figuring out how technique maps to meaning. What does it mean to feel in proximity to one’s characters? What more can we get “from” characters given this new dimension of interacting with them?

And here’s the crazy part. As a viewer in VR, you partially become a character, too. In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One there’s a VR game in which the player enters old movies and has to recite the dialogue of one of the characters to play along. I think there could be a whole genre of VR experiences we could call “play-alongs,” which provide subtitles for the viewer to speak. Imagine karaoke in movie form. Instead of belting out Neil Diamond (my own personal go-to, can’t-lose karaoke selection) you read the dialogue of a particular character. Then the other characters would “react” to you. This would return us to a more childlike version of storytelling play.

One of the problems I’ve heard about with interactive VR is that sometimes a viewer will choose not to do what a character tells him or her to do. How do you advance a story when the viewer needs to pick up a plane ticket on a table and refuses? In a play-along, since all the interaction is verbal, you could sidestep this problem because the play-along would proceed regardless of whether or not you spoke the dialogue, and regardless of how well you spoke it. You could just read the dialogue silently and get much the same experience. Your immersion would depend on how much effort you put into nailing your lines.

I’d be curious to hear from people engaged in cinematic VR about this. Who wants to make a play-along?