How much mystery?

We are currently engaged in a spirited debate in our VR theater group: When you present theater in VR, how much mystery should there be about the true nature of the actual physical space?

Two VR pieces that I find very effective, The Void and Draw Me Close, never actually show you that physical space. In both cases, you put on a VR headset and then walk through a doorway to another space.

Once you have passed through that doorway, you have no idea of the physical dimensions of the space you are now in. This sense of mystery greatly enhances the magical feeling that you have entered another world.

In contrast, most traditional theater makes a point of creating that magic right before your eyes. You know Hamlet is simply standing on a stage, yet you also accept that he is at Elsinore castle.

One member of our group is arguing that we should follow the lead of traditional theater, and that the audience should put on their headsets while standing in the very bare room where the magic will take place. Other members of our group disagree.

That faction argues that VR is fundamentally different from traditional theater, because it completely immerses you in a different sensory world. For this reason, it has the power to make you believe on a gut level that you are somewhere else, despite what your brain tells you.

They worry that explicitly showing that bare room at the start and end of your experience will strip this possibility of its potency, and thereby diminish the experience. I tend to agree with the latter position (in other words, I like the way The Void and Draw Me Close do it). But I could still be persuaded to change my mind, and I’m interested in hearing your opinions.

2 Responses to “How much mystery?”

  1. Stephan Ahonen says:

    I’m assuming you’re talking about “warehouse scale” VR here rather than the room-scale that’s available to consumers and is currently set up in my bedroom?

    My gut feeling is that the physical space should exist only to serve the tactile needs of the virtual world. I know that when I’ve been playing VR for a while, taking my headset off and coming back to reality is a bit of a let down. I’ve spent the last hour or so in space or fighting zombies or punching gladiators or whatever other fantasies can get beamed into my eyeballs, then my headset comes off and I’m back in my plain boring bedroom again. The entire thing that makes VR fun is being transported to another place, you should spend as much effort as possible keeping the players from remembering that they’ve never left the building and are actually walking around with clumsy hardware strapped to them.

    The other gut feeling I have is that different forms of media have different aesthetics primarily because of the fundamental limitations of those media. We walk into a theater and suspend our disbelief about whether the proscenium is actually a portal into 1500s Scotland because the fundamental limitation of the medium of theater is there aren’t many other ways to put on a play. When we have a magical helmet that can beam 1500s Scotland into our eyeballs, and we’ve discovered that we can make this process *even more* immersive by having the participants put the magical helmet on before they walk into the performance space, rather than after, well… I think it’s better to use that knowledge to enhance the immersiveness. Just because previous forms of art lean on the viewer’s suspension of disbelief doesn’t mean we have to keep leaning on that suspension of disbelief under newer artforms that make it less necessary.

    However! Just like any artistic “rule,” I think an experienced artist can bend it in their favor. I think once we have more experience with VR we’ll be able to construct experiences that use the knowledge of the physical space to enhance the experience of the virtual space. The first thing that pops into my head is, imagine a room dressed up as a murder scene, then you strap on the goggles and watch that murder play out, transforming the space from what it was before into the space that you saw with the goggles off. Or maybe an escape room where some of the clues are delivered via your goggles providing a window into the past. You get the idea.

  2. Demian says:

    Maybe we don’t have to agree on the way to do it but embrace the possibilities the medium bring with it and let the storytellers choose their preferred form. The latter position seems the more exciting to me for the place it leaves for imaginations : as you have stated you can really think you have been there in this other space with this characters, and in a sens you have been.

    When the lights come back in the theater you suddenly reemerge yourself in your walking reality, sometimes even forgetting about the past hours events. Maybe when we will blend those two experiences in one continuous flow of action the wall between what we seemingly choose to do and what derived from someone else tales will fade away, shifting our perspective on reality and our self.

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