Scripting a VR Story: Is it film, theatre or something entirely new?
Since the middle of January I have been working with the team at Breaking Fourth Ltd, the writer Gwenhyver Davies, and the support of Arts Council England to devise a new, dramatic VR narrative. Working within the realm of Artificial Intelligence and leaning into the issues of gay conversion therapy (I know… strange combo), we are in the process of building an experience that will strike a chord with S.A.M. (Single Audience Member) and create a story that will have an emotionally resonant impact.
Approaching this task is exciting and somewhat daunting. In being such a new storytelling medium we are essentially working without a map where scripting a VR drama is concerned. Many will tell you that VR is an extension of filmmaking, and I would agree in part with this assessment. VR certainly allows you to craft a far more realistic, immediate experience by virtue of the fact that S.A.M. is in extremely close proximity to the story being told (quite literally). However, VR does not, and never will be a medium where we can force S.A.M. to watch what we want S.A.M. to watch. S.A.M.’s agency and presence in the space makes this all but impossible. We can guide S.A.M. and create important focal points but we cannot, like we can in film, force the audience to watch precisely what we want them to see and how we want them to see it. For me, doing this devalues and makes irrelevant the reason for telling stories in virtual reality. In this sense VR functions more like theatre. The audience is free to decide how they engage with the story and what they pay attention to. Our job is simply to tell the story as effectively as possible using the bodies, the spaces, and the stories that we have to hand. So, take the above and apply that to how we script for VR.
Draft one of Re-orientation (working title) arrived at the end of January. This draft was informed by a great deal of reading and several discussions between Gwen, the team at Breaking Fourth and me. As Gwen is a television and film writer she brings this skill set to the task at hand. The first draft invested a great deal in the placement of S.A.M. in each scene and also made great strides towards weaving a narrative out of some very complicated and divergent concepts. With that said, it was much longer than any of us anticipated and that was a first point discussion when Gwen and I sat down to assess draft one.
From my experience of VR, it seems that the simpler the narrative is the greater the impact. Since we are aiming to create a piece that is truthful and emotionally compelling, we decided that simplifying the story was essential. Next was the issue of what S.A.M. sees. Working with our theme of simplicity, we decided to remove references to S.A.M.’s viewing perspective so that Gwen could focus her efforts on further developing the narrative and the characters. I have a feeling that draft two will arrive looking more like a theatre script. I reckon our draft two discussion will include what aspects of a film script need to be re-instated so that we can move things onto draft three.
Additionally, as our lead characters are both Humanoid AI Units/Robots, a great deal of the conversation Gwen and I had revolved around the nature of artificial intelligence and what the evolution of this technology will be. We discussed what impact this would have on building empathy for the characters that she is creating. Fleshing out our knowledge of AI became an essential aspect of moving forward. To that end we inspired the later part of our chat with the 24th January 2018 edition of Stylist magazine. This issue was guested edited by a series of robots, including Sophia, a robot built by Hanson Robotics (www.hansonrobotics.com).
Each issue of the magazine draws to a close with an interview called ‘Five Minute Philosopher’ and in this edition they interviewed Sophia. The answers she provided gave Gwen and I an interesting jumping off point; we were able to get inside the ‘mind’ of a two-year old AI robot as ‘she’ pondered the existential questions that were posed to her. I don’t yet know how this has influenced the characterisations of our protagonists but it did raise some interesting questions. Sophia’s answers brought to the surface the issues of consciousness, respect for ‘the other’ and how we co-exist with ‘the other’. They also threw up red flags where control, subjugation and being ‘turned off’ were concerned. This all bore striking resemblance to conversations that still happen in relation to the LGBT community both here in the UK and around the world. Maybe our AI/LGBT inspired story isn’t fusing disparate concepts after all.
Draft two arrives next week… can’t wait to see where it takes us.
PS. I just want to mention that there is a great deal of debate over just how sophisticated the robot Sophie actually is. I would suggest having a look at the discussions happening around whether Sophia is truly the future of AI or if she is simply a fancy marketing tool for what Hanson Robotics hopes to be able to achieve someday.