Last night at the 12th Avenue Arts Center, Daryle Conners, a game designer with a background in film, gave an excellent two-hour talk on storytelling for VR. I took a lot of notes and went home afterward with my head buzzing with ideas.

Conners used the word storyscapes to describe the function of story in VR. Film, novels, and other narrative media allow story to function procedurally according to the passage of time. We observe one event happening after another. The key difference with VR is that it allows for explorable worlds. To me this means that a VR experience is more like a sculpture than a narrative. Some, including Conners, have likened VR to a play.

Spectators wear masks to differentiate themselves from the actors in Sleep No More.

Conners pointed to a particular production called Sleep No More as a model for how VR storytelling might work. Sleep No More is a site-specific theater experience based out of a warehouse in New York in which spectators can wander throughout the space, from room to room, watching multiple components of a story unfold in real time.

I jotted down a number of quotes from Conners’s talk that in themselves provide mini-lessons in storytelling.

“Build a world of possibilities and let go.” Basically, create a space that the audience can explore rather than dictate a series of actions undertaken by characters.

“The degree of fun is dependent on the level of your input.” Here, Conners was talking about video games specifically, underscoring her point that VR experiences share more structural features with games than they do with movies.

“Losing control doesn’t mean losing influence.” This is a big point well worth meditating on. VR storytelling allows for a different degree of co-creation with the audience. You provide the pieces that an audience uses to assemble the story rather than deliver a story to them.

It seems to me that we’re going to figure out a lot about VR storytelling by better understanding the role of the spectator/participant. Rather than start with a story that you want to deliver to the audience, you start with an environment, and through filling in the details of that environment you discover the story. I’m finding myself stumbling over the terms “audience,” “spectator,” and “participant” here. What do we call the person experiencing a VR environment? Maybe we call them, as Conners suggested, the co-creator.

T.S. Eliot referred to the objective correlative. This is when an external environment communicates something of the internal states of the characters who inhabit it. Imagine a gloomy castle in a gothic horror, or a sterile space station in a science fiction film. We absorb emotional states of characters from their environs. This makes sense in relation to VR. VR is like the objective correlative on overdrive.

I’m also thinking about verbs. Stories are all about verbs. We infer meaning by observing what character do. But when you empower your viewer to do things in your virtual environment, you are giving them the power of verbs. This is something that no audience has ever had dominion over. We’ve up til now been passive, observing characters who have complete control of the verbs. Video games were the first art form that allowed a spectator control over the verbs, even when those verbs were simply run, jump, and shoot. This was so antithetical to anything we considered art that many chafed at the suggestion that video games were art at all.

“The Connosieur” by Norman Rockwell.

Maybe empowering spectators with verbs means that the balance of power for the storyteller shifts to adjectives. The way that things appear, their properties. This, traditionally, has been the domain of visual artists. While listening to Conners last night I had a moment where I started thinking about Norman Rockwell. Set aside whatever art-snob opinion you have about his folksy Americana vibe and think about how he encoded stories in his paintings. Consider for a moment “The Connosieur.” In this painting we see a man from the back–balding, dressed in a gray business suit, one hand gloved, holding a hat and an umbrella–standing before a Pollock-esque work of abstract visual art. The story in this painting of a man looking at a painting rises from juxtaposition. It’s a contrast between the id and ego, between order and creativity, and this contrast invites us to infer something about the man’s opinion of this work of art. At first the story seems funny–we chuckle to imagine what this uptight figure must make of this painting. The title seems like an ironic wink to us, the spectators who are observing a painting of a spectator observing a painting. And yet there is a dignity in the man’s posture, and the painting he’s looking at does itself pass for a convincing work of abstract art, which communicates that Rockwell had serious technical skill, which forces us to wonder who it is we’re actually chuckling at, this gentleman whose face we can’t even see, or ourselves. For all we know, the man’s face may have upon it an expression of aesthetic bliss.

Figuring out storytelling in VR requires such a genetic-level reconfiguring of everything we think we know about narrative. Nothing is going to tell us how to tell stories in VR more than the medium itself.

Daryle Conners’s class, which filled up and had a waiting list, led fifty to seventy-five people (by my rough count) to show up on a Tuesday night in a classroom at 12th Avenue Arts. I hope Northwest Film Forum and other organizations give this community more opportunities to learn about VR storytelling, because clearly there is a demand. There are creators in this city hungry to envision and engineer the stories of this new medium.