Are humans allowed in VR storytelling?

Our trial runs with narrative virtual reality are missing the most compelling creatures of all

I'm sitting at a table in the center of a small, humbly cheery forest hut. Warm sunlight streams in from the windows, birds chirp sweetly outside. Across the table from me is a wide-eyed little hedgehog, his huge, bobbing spines swept up behind him like the spiky 'do of a bassist in the most non-threatening pop-punk band ever. Either he's gigantic, or I have become very small, because as we sit we are nearly eye to eye with each other. It's his birthday, and he's getting ready to blow out the candle on his cake; or rather, a big, juicy birthday strawberry. He closes his eyes and breathes his wish in a little desperate mutter: "I wish I had a friend!" The candle blows out, and he gazes at it longingly with his big, tragic saucer eyes. Then he looks at me, and somehow his little visage becomes even more tragic.

This is Henry, and this is Henry, Story Studio's latest venture into narrative VR experiences. The new short premiered last week in Los Angeles, and it's the studio's latest attempt at a proof-of-concept for virtual reality stories. It's coming on the heels of their debut short Lost, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. While Lost was a shorter, more impressionistic scene, Henry goes unapologetically for the heartstrings, and does so over a longer runtime of about 12 minutes. And while it's still limited in scale, it continues the incremental exploratory process of the possibilities of VR storytelling — or at least, what Oculus Story Studio thinks those possibilities are.

"It's not better or worse than film, it's a separate thing."

Narrative VR experiences are still very much in their infancy, as anyone who has either thrown or had thrown at them a bunch of money to explore its potential (to make a bunch of money, inevitably) will tell you. "We're kind of at the very beginning of VR; it's a brand new medium," said Saschka Unseld, creative director of Oculus Story Studio during his introduction at the Henry presentation. "It's not better or worse than film, it's a separate thing." A few guidelines are beginning to make themselves clear in these first outings, though, namely that with the absence of cuts, storytellers must find new ways to direct and cue an audience's attention. Some have done this with sound, some have done this by "moving the viewer" on a track to guide them through an experience; essentially a 360-degree one-shot. Justin Lin, whose Google Spotlight Story short Help! premiered at I/O earlier this year, compared it to theater direction, which so far, seems pretty apt.

Lost screenshot (OCULUS)

Lost (Oculus Story Studio)

It's curious, then, that the bulk of these early outings have narratives that are far from what you'd see on off-Broadway. Lost and Help! focus on giant robots and aliens respectively; other experiences use the power of sensory immersion for noble social agendas but don't quite feel like "movies." Oculus is touting Henry as a more character-oriented experience, a more overt exploration into how we might empathize with fictional beings we encounter in VR. But rather than set you down next to a living, breathing human, they've put you in a room with a CGI hedgehog.

My time with Henry was ultimately a little disappointing, and the sound was the first big fumble. My VR experience is still somewhat limited compared to many of my Verge colleagues, but I still have yet to have a satisfying audio setup for any demos I've done. Virtual reality cannot merely be virtual if it is to be truly absorbing; I need over-ear noise-canceling headphones or I'm never truly going to forget that I'm standing in a suite with a technician who is doing everything in his or her power to make sure I don't go careening into a wall.

But sound can be fixed with a piece of equipment. The bigger problem is that throughout the duration of Henry I never felt like I was watching anything but a cartoon. In its opening, particularly, when I was merely sitting in the living room, waiting for my hedgehog buddy to come out of the kitchen, I felt like I was in an opening scene of a Final Fantasy game, where I had to walk into the right square of the grid to prompt some sprites to run in and start talking to me. Except I couldn't really walk in Henry, so I just looked around at the soft edges of my non-threatening environs and waited for the thing to start. And once it did, and once I "met" Henry, I found myself incredibly aware of, distracted, even, by his status as rendered object.

I think animation can be a uniquely transcendent form of filmmaking. Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite filmmakers (filmmakers, not animators) of all time; watching the exuberant, seemingly boundless frames of old Silly Symphony shorts fills me with singular joy. But part of me wonders if it's not the best way to begin our forays into VR narratives. I had a mostly untested theory a few months ago that if VR filmmaking did actually catch on, it would lead to a pronounced resurgence in practical effects, mostly because when you're that immersed in something, the artificial elements are even more noticeable. (Practical effect-driven horror in particular seems like a good, if terrifying genre to explore in 360 degrees.) And Henry, no matter how big and sad its title character's eyes were, didn't do much to sway me from that theory.

Story Studio's default to computer animation can be explained by the Pixar past of two of its principle directors: Unseld previously worked as a layout artist and director (his film The Blue Umbrella is among the most beloved Pixar shorts), and technical director Max Planck worked for the studio for 10 years. What's interesting is how much that ends up affecting how their stories work as pieces of technology, in addition to familiar Lasseterian touches and storytelling beats.

I spoke to Planck after the demo about the future of live-action projects at Story Studio. With VR, he says, "You know you have something on your face. You know you're in virtual reality. I would rather take you to some place you can't experience in the real world." The ability to do depth tracking and real-time rendering is also something that simply can't be accomplished with live action at this point. "We would love if we find a way to get actors and actresses into an experience where you could move around. But so far, being in a game engine, in a real-time experience, is what you can do with modern technology."

For Planck, the depth factor is a huge part of what is going to get a viewer invested in a VR film. "For me, personally, that is what convinced me. That is what got me to quit my job," he says. Planck is also a gamer, and had been interested in the possibilities of more narrative-driven games, which allow for much more of that variable narrative experience. "At the time, this was when the first version of the Rift came out, and it did not allow you to walk and move around," he says. "And then I saw the version where you could, and my mind was blown, and I said, 'This is what I need to do for the rest of my life.'"

In the version of Henry that I saw, you cannot walk around Henry's treehouse. You can lean forward and back, so long as you stay on a small circular carpet (which exists both in the demo room and is recreated underneath you in the short). Even that degree of mobility does lend itself to a more natural viewing experience; you don't feel so much like a bobblehead on a stationary pole. But is that real-time depth rendering worth the sacrifice of live action? I suppose it depends on the viewer, and what they personally expect from and get out of their moviegoing experiences.

And here's, perhaps, where the types of creatives you have pioneering a medium make all the difference in how that medium establishes itself. Oculus is a tech company, Story Studio's team has a computer animation background. Their shorts are products that get upgrades; the Lost that screened at the Tribeca Film Festival was different than the Lost that premiered at Sundance. The idea of immersion is a matter of technical innovation, not of more elusive qualities like good writing or a fleeting, unscripted look on a character's face. And no matter what hedging comments they make in these early stages, Story Studio's VR experiences can't help but poise themselves as a potential upgrade to traditional film.

Because before he told the audience that VR was not meant to replace film, Unseld more or less established his goals as creative director by tellingly describing Story Studio as an attempt to recapture something that had been lost. "As we all grow older, I feel like we lose this childlike sense of awe and wonder that we had when we used to see movies," he said. "We realize they're not just films; they're light thrown on a canvas, and there are actors, and nothing is real, and we become disillusioned with these things. To me, that loss of that sense of wonder and awe that I had was one of the saddest things." I agree with him; as a film lover, that is one of the saddest things I can think of. It's also something I don't experience at all, at least in the films I love. I can get completely caught up in a conversation between David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky in The End of the Tour, despite being fully aware that it's really Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg I'm watching on screen. I can be moved to helpless tears by the dizzyingly abstract emotional climax of Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya, despite being able to actually make out individually hand-painted frames in the animation. Narrative film involves a suspension of disbelief, sure, but at its best it also creates a strong connection between the viewer and the real-life people who brought it to life. It's not about being removed from the world. It's about clarifying and strengthening your connection to the world, through experiences that have been clarified and strengthened by countless writers, directors, actors, and animators.

Could it be we're overthinking this?

That Unseld and Planck think those experiences can be upgraded by the ability to lean forward says a lot about the direction Story Studio is poised to take. And it's not an incorrect direction, necessarily, it's just one that doesn't have a lot in common with any of the other forms of storytelling we've been swept away by in the last thousand years. I'm probably a bad test subject for this particular short, because if there is one kind of film I can't help but see the seams of — aka Unseld's "saddest thing" — it's computer animated films (and I realize I'm in the minority with this, so as always, your mileage may vary). For all its technical superiority, nothing in Henry made my spine tingle the way the Wild — The Experience did, despite a crummier resolution and an even worse sound experience. To find myself sitting in a clearing with actual human being actors Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern was completely weird and disorienting, but more in the way it would be if I was watching them from the front row at the opening night of Wild! The Musical. I found myself reassessing them as human performers in a way traditional film would never let me; it let me examine their characters with a freedom I found myself almost too embarrassed to exercise. If the attendant at CES hadn't been yelling "Can you see them? Can you see them?!" every 30 seconds, I might have actually gotten lost in it.

Could it be we're overthinking this? Wouldn't it be interesting just to set the camera down in the middle of the stage at a production of A Streetcar Named Desire and see how that goes? Why try to emulate the qualities of games and rides (plenty of which can be found in other not-as-fledgling corners of the VR world) if you're trying to continue a tradition of storytelling that for thousands of years has hinged on the appeal of watching people interact with each other? In a film economy where the biggest movies mostly emulate video games and rides, these are all rhetorical questions, of course. But when Richard Linklater's unveils his 5-hour coming-of-age VR experience at SXSW, I'll be first in line.