I yanked the headline for this post from an interesting blog by Nikki van Sprundel, whose Facebook profile identifies her as a “cross-media VR concept developer and VR storytelling consultant” who lives in Amsterdam. The headline caught my eye because it dovetails with some thoughts I’ve been having about cinematic vs. game-based VR.
Ms. van Sprundel calls VR a first-person medium that game designers are finding easier to master than filmmakers. “..game developers already know exactly what to do with a first-person POV, but filmmakers do not,” she says. She shares a touching story about being exposed to first-person video games through her late father, who showed her Myst and Riven.
Would it be weird to tell you that at this moment, 12:05 PM, September 7, 2016, I’m sitting in Ballard’s Bauhaus Coffee, waiting to meet Robyn Miller, co-creator of Myst and Riven? Or would it be weirder to not mention it?
Speaking of weirdness, they’re playing Frank Zappa’s splendidly raunchy “Bobby Brown” in this cafe right now, which includes the immortal lyric, “And now I smell like Vaseline.”
Where was I?
First person VR. Right.
Anyway. Last week I met a guy who works for a big entertainment company that’s venturing into VR content. He said something that stuck with me, “All these LA screenwriters can’t stop thinking about where to direct the audience’s attention.”
That, to me, is one of the main reasons why filmmakers have a harder learning curve than game designers in VR. To create cinematic VR, one must abandon a position so fundamental to filmmaking, that of believing that you know where the audience should look.
Okay, now they’re playing the Butthole Surfers. I’m starting to suspect that there’s a barista here who is purposely trying to get fired. That, or this is the coolest coffee shop in all of Seattle right now.
I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption lately and thinking about first vs. third person in games. In Red Dead, I guide my avatar, John Marston, around a composite version of the Wild West. Mostly I watch him from the back, but I can also swoop the camera around him. He does what I command him to do. Recently he’s been shooting and skinning a lot of wildlife. When I realized that he could make money from selling dead animals, Marston started shooting at everything. There came a point when I thought, “I’m becoming a good hunter,” and this became part of my avatar’s identity. When I send him galloping off on trails I feel like I’m inhabiting two roles simultaneously, that of the storyteller and that of the audience. This hybridization of first and third person fascinates me, and I think VR is going to be the place where this becomes commonplace. Maybe call it first and a half person.
The world of literature operates in a similar manner, thanks to Gustav Flaubert. It was Flaubert who pioneered something called free indirect style in Madame Bovary. This is when third-person narration takes on some of the attributes of first person narration. It’s such a common mode in writing that we don’t even really notice it. James Wood, in How Fiction Works, goes on about free-indirect style at some length, and after I read his book I started seeing it everywhere.
Here’s an example of free indirect style.
He closed the door. Damn, it was cold.
Here’s the same idea, without free indirect style.
He closed the door. It was cold.
See what that “damn” does? It injects a subjective interpretation of the environment into what would otherwise be the ostensibly objective author’s voice.
I think VR can operate the same way. If you’re talking about telling stories and directing attention in VR, then you’re probably still stuck on this first/third dichotomy. But there’s a third path right between first and third person, a way to create art that places the creator and the audience in an entirely different orientation than we’ve ever had in the past. It’s kind of beautiful that those who are most predisposed to understand this are game designers who’ve cut their teeth on an often maligned medium.
Now they’re playing the Stooges, “Search and Destroy.” Coolest coffee shop in Seattle right now, for sure.