Not quite a game and not quite a film, marrying games with VR animation

Friday, September 29, 2017

With Peter Jackson’s studio Wignut AR releasing their first augmented reality demo, James Cameron announcing that if he wasn’t making Avatar sequels he’d be working with VR, and Baobab Studios heralded as VR’s Pixar, there is no doubt that VR is making waves on the film scene.

Film makers and storytellers are attracted to VR because this unique art form makes a ginormous hole in what Brecht termed, ‘the fourth wall’, the division between the live action and the audience. VR breaks down the fourth wall like no other art form. By removing the barrier of the screen, VR is the ultimate progression in the quest to make a fictional animated world look and feel as real as possible. Immersive spatial and binaural sound totally submerges the viewer in a virtual world.

Pixar’s animation has become more detailed, more vivid and more realistic over the years. If you compare the animation in Finding Nemo to Inside Out it is clear how far we’ve come. But there is one thing stopping the audience from feeling like they are truly inside the film, and that is the screen. But behind the VR headset, there is no screen. Meanwhile, the VR gaming industry is also rocketing, so what would happen if these two mediums got together and had a baby? An interactive cinematic storytelling experience would be born.

Somewhere between Pixar-style animation and VR games

In games, the mission sometimes overrides the narrative, the player is not a passive spectator and so the finite details of storytelling can be overlooked. In films we watch but in computer games we do. Finding the balance between sitting back and being entertained and having enthralling missions to complete, is crucial when creating interactive storytelling experiences where the player switches between witness and participant.

As UK based VR film studio Breaking Fourth points out, “arbitrarily introducing interactive elements into a passive story just for their own sake can interfere with the sensory stimulation”. But integrating interactive elements into structured, imaginative and compelling narratives, with identifiable characters, makes it possible to fill a gap in the world of gaming.

Granola studios are filling this gap by marrying VR gaming with VR film and nurturing their baby. By creating a VR experience built around the story of Marius, a grumpy old rabbit who is also a librarian. The story of Marius is designed to move the player, to make them empathise with the character, and feel compelled to help Marius with his mission to restore his magical ability to travel into books.

Playing a role not a character

Unlike many computer games, the player is not the protagonist.  Marius is the protagonist and the player is the deuteragonist, which is the secondary main character. The player is given the role of an intern but unlike other games they do not play the part of a psychologically constructed fictional character. For example, in first person games like Far Cry or Tomb Raider, the player is pretending to be Lara Croft, or Jack Carver. In Marius, the player is pretending to be an intern which means they are playing a role that is different from playing a character. The intern does not have a fictional name or a back story and therefore the player is still themselves. Marius is the character, and he has his own constructed identity which the player can identify with, but the player does not have a fictional identity and does not control Marius.

Stepping into virtual fiction

The story of Marius is centred on Marius’s magical ability to travel into books. With a deep breath, closed eyes and a lot of concentration, Marius the rabbit can step inside the fictional world of books. In a similar vein to the power of VR to remove the boundary between the screen and the audience, Marius is able to step into books and remove the barrier between the page and reader. The setting of the library, and the reoccurring theme of Marius’s passion for books, indicates the importance of stories to Granola Studios in their quest to create interactive VR experiences that are unique forms of storytelling.

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