Escaping the Holodeck Storytelling and Convergence in VR and AR
At the 2016 Game Developer's Conference Rob Morgan who co-wrote J.K. Rowling's Platinum-selling Augmented Reality PS3 title 'Wonderbook: Book of Spells' and its sequel 'Book of Potions' shared what he's learnt about the particularities of writing for real world and embodied augmentation.
In a holodeck the only real thing is you and everything only has to feel real in relation to you.
This gets harder the closer you get to the user.
e.g. trying to simulate clothing is unlikely to work because we know intimately how our authentic clothes are supposed to feel.
AUGMENTED REALITY DIFFERS FROM SCREEN MEDIA
Unlike games, where players tend to embrace identity and power fantasies, participants on the holodeck tend to role-play as themselves and stick to their known hierarchies.
The job of a writer, therefore, is not to create somewhere believable, but create somewhere desirable…to help participants create their own willing suspension of disbelief.
Rather than generate an action figure to role-play, Morgan creates the possibility space around the player with lots of space for their own role-play. The player is their own hero and you can’t assume anything about them.
e.g. There is a line in ‘A Book of Spells’ (an AR game co-created with J.K. Rowling) – "Are You A Wizard or Not?"...If a player didn’t open the wonder book for 10 secs, then the non-player character (simulated) narrator would ask…."C’mon are you a wizard or not?" In user testing this proved to be an evocative hook, participants wanted to engage as soon as they heard this.
So, what does this teach us about writing for augmented reality?
- You are not in control - There’s nothing to stop your audience moving off if they’re interested in something else. e.g. 1st time VR players will often test NPCs for realism by doing socially unacceptable things.
-The player’s experience of the real world control is a constant negotiation between what they can do, what they can’t do and what they can get away with….so there is a need to negotiate that with them – which means that writers aren't just storytelling, they're also curating.
-In VR storytelling, far more than in flat screen games, players are interested in the reality of the VR so everything comes under more scrutiny, which means that you have to give them a way to make sense of every limitation and control (from within the narrative, or simulation). e.g. If you want to lock players in a room until they complete a task there needs to be a reason, or explanation for the locked door such as air locks, decontamination chambers….and you need to put the story out there for players to discover.
-In VR the player is radically embodied in the simulation in a way that they’re not in an psychologically immersive flat screen game….so just the same you have to find a new way to talk to them
-How do you do this? You can use the power of implication, by implicating them in situation.
e.g. To encourage players to press a detonate button it might be better to pare back the script – so that rather than allowing them to hide behind a character, the writer instead foregrounds the player's psychology at that moment i.e. don't impose a reason for them to press the evil button, but leave that reasoning up to the player. At various points in The Assembly (another game Morgan created) players are accused of various things, but players decide what’s actually going on.
- If you leave room for their own motivations it stabilises their identity inside the sim. Challenging the user to justify themselves, by accusing them of a certain motivation and forcing them to come up with them own reasoning inspires them to invest part of themselves in what they’re doing.
Which is why he began a site specific mixed reality experience with an audio provocation to the user:
-Try to act normal
-Are they still watching?
-Only you can hear me
-Just act natural
These phrases mix the user's own internal response with the staged reality, and force the user’s identity to stabilise around a few important things…something is going on, something is not as it seems, you have a job to do, you have a secret, something important is happening, just try to act normal, everything else, all the context and world-building can be filled in later.
"….and that’s how we brought our players in, not by putting them in a costume, but by telling them they were already involved, that they had a secret to protect, that it was already too late i.e. before they realised it they were already wearing the Sherlock Holmes outfit because that’s what people do. It turns out control and identity are kind of the same thing."
We have to work alongside the player – every time we try to define who they are and what they want then we’ll force them out of immersion just as quick as if we made them run at 50 miles an hour, when all they really wanted to do was stroll, or made them play Captain Kirk when all they wanted to do was be the bad guy.
Morgan, Robert. 2016. Escaping the Holodeck Storytelling and Convergence in VR and AR. edited by GDC. U.S.: GDC.
The USW Audience of the Future research team is compiling a summary collection of recent research in the field of immersive, and enhanced reality media