The following chapters will focus on storytelling modes, models and devices, as found in both immersive games and more conventional storytelling mediums.
Games propose an extremely intriguing and flexible medium for post-digital storytelling. As most popular media of the past, including books, movies, recorded music and theater tend to take their audience in a linear manner from a to b, games let their players make their own choices and shape the way they will uncover the story within the game. Some games like MMORPG's have no set storyline, they simply propose a dynamic environment based around character building, exchange of assets and a number of given quests, which could potentially be completed in any sequence. The player thus gets to define their own journey and character narrative. Other games, like for instance Half-Life 1, are very linear in their way of subtly guiding the player through a precomposed pipeline, filled with sequences of scripted events that are carefully prepared and composed by the game designers. Half-Life 1 proposes an intriguing storyline, which is constantly motivating the player to advance in the game and discover the outcome for the game world and their character. Games like System Shock 1 and 2, and the original Deus Ex, are famous for establishing a game storytelling genre which is hybrid, where the player is always faced with a main task, but there are several side tasks at hand, and based on the way the player has built the skill of their character, a handful of potential solutions and paths are always available to solve any given challenge and advance in the game. This last genre of games is particularly interesting, as players have proven to use their creativity and special items in the games to complete a task in ways that weren't even considered a possibility by the game designers. This phenomenon of emergent gameplay is letting the games be a creative playground and a field of expression of the playing style of each particular player. An example of emergent gameplay is the untraditional use of wall-mounted grenades in Deus Ex, where players where able to climb unclimbable structures and reach the next game location by mounting grenades on a wall, and jumping from grenade to grenade.
An interesting, positively biased review of Deus Ex, highlighting the game's immersive environment and storytelling format, and based on the high emphasis on player interaction with the world, how the game manages to make the player have a sense of ownership over their own in-game journey.
Speaking of playing games in creative ways, the speedrun-genre has become a playing field for gamers to express their creativity and trained skill within a game, creatively taking advantage of known bugs, faulty programming and backdoors in games to complete it the fastest possible. The genre has become a social hangout for fans and even non-gamers, as is shown in the highly entertaining video below.
VR proposes an advanced level of immersion and interaction with virtual objects in a game, and the latest instalment of Half-Life, Half-Life: Alyx, makes use of constant player interaction with the game world in order to establish a whole new level of physical player immersion. Whereas traditional PC or console games make use of a player's hand movements and audiovisual feedback on a headphones-, hand controller- and screen level, VR games such as Half-Life: Alyx successfully put the player into an entirely new body, and lets them identify with the physicality of their given character in a game world.
This is where the potential of VR environments become increasingly interesting. In the second video above, a gamer is exploring a VR virtual universe with other real-life players wearing a Haptic Suit, allowing him to experience haptic feedback from events in the game. As this proposes an additional layer of immersion in the virtual world, we start to enter a domain where the human body becomes an increasingly transparent interface to the given virtual universe. The term transparent interface is here borrowed from philosopher Thomas Metzinger's book 'The Ego Tunnel', which philosophically questions the implications of immersive mediums such as VR and haptic feedback illusions, such as 'the rubber hand illusion' on our experience of identity and self.
A quote from 'The Ego Tunnel: "No such thing as a self exists. The conscious self is the content of a model created by our brain-an internal image, but one we cannot experience as an image. Everything we experience is "a virtual self in a virtual reality." The book further questions: "[...]If the self is not "real," why and how did it evolve? How does the brain construct it? Do we still have souls, free will, personal autonomy, or moral accountability?"
Metzinger's work with VR, neuroscience and cognitive research, not only shows the potential of Virtual environments and immersive mediums for understanding things about our own inner modeling of reality on a philosophical and metaphysical level, but also reveals the potential of the VR medium to transmit experiences and stories to a player in ways that were unimaginable before. Using VR headsets and potential future immersive media, coupled with for instance plot devices, immersive strategies and storytelling devices already present in immersive video games for the last 25 years, the potential for using VR as a revolutionary artistic storytelling medium becomes apparent.
Artists like Jordan Wolfson, Susanne Kennedy, Alexander Schubert and multiple others have already explored the VR medium as a device for transporting a user through an immersive experience - exposing latent behaviours of the brain and of the user that have previously been artistically unexplored. However, I would argue that there is still a huge body of uncovered ground in terms of world building, storytelling and player agency in the artistic use of VR.
I think there are two main challenges, that on a conceptual and technological level still need to be solved to make use of the VR medium in a way that affords a higher degree of player freedom, individual choice making and player discovery in VR:
1. It is common that players experience motion sickness or nausea if their VR point of view moves too quickly. As most VR users, due to the tracking limitations of the given VR technology, are bound to a restricted irl player space, player movement in VR is inherently unbound from the movement of the physical body. This creates a certain degree of discrepancy between body movement and sensory experience whenever the virtual character moves beyond a certain speed. Thus, most VR experiences have either been centered around exploring a pretty confined space with very clear boundaries, such as in Jordan Wolfson's 'Real Violence' or Alexander Schubert's 'Sleep Laboratory', or let the player, not being bound to a body, slowly drift through an open world or on a predefined path, such as in Susanne Kennedy and Markus Selg's I am (VR), or Alexander Schubert's 'Asterism'.
Half-Life: Alyx tackles this problem by letting the individual player set up their own preferred way of movement, which may be joy-stick controlled (for people who have a high VR movement tolerance) or teleport-based (for people with lower VR-movement tolerance), where the player may teleport to any given location within a defined close radius at any time, eliminating continuous player movement in-game.
I think there are potentials for developing even more sophisticated means of in-VR travel, which for instance could include using bigger tracking spaces, or using creative 'excuses' for immersive in-game travelling, such as with the use of slowly-moving means of transportation like jet packs that could be enabled or disabled by the player, in-game vehicles or simply setting up an option for players to define their own movement speed (as is also possible in Half-Life: Alyx). However, the inherent problem of the medium, which is the discrepancy between virtual body and irl body movement feedback, especially in terms of equilibrioception, remains a hard challenge to solve.
2. In VR we often only embody certain body parts like Point-of-View and arms, leaving out the rest of the body. Full-body-tracking and alignment with a virtual body combined with VR, would enhance the illusion of embodiment of a virtual character, and further afford the sense of complete immersion inside a VR world. This would require the combined use of VR glasses and advances in technologies such as the Xbox Kinect, which provides full-body tracking to players for consumer-friendly prices. The main problem with the Xbox Kinect, is that it can only successfully capture body-tracking data when the player is standing perfectly facing it, meaning that multiple-camera setups would have to be employed in order to facilitate a fully-immersive playing field, where the player may turn to any direction at any given point in time. As discussed previously, multiple Kinect-setups on one computer are not possible within the Kinect's hardware limitations, and although other multiple-camera body tracking systems exist, most of them are still far beyond consumer price ranges.
As technology advances, and users may be exposed to VR headsets at a young age and develop higher VR-motion-sickness tolerance, I think we might see the possibility of vast virtual worlds, discoverable and explorable within fully immersive technologies, become more widespread and available - and the stories told within these worlds may become increasingly complex, entertaining and potentially philosophically rewarding for a new generation, interested in changing the trend of hyper-individualist-centered capitalist entertainment systems. The potential of collective VR experiences, to expose social mechanisms and behaviour latently integrated in the modern human, may allow us to put our own ego-experience under the microscope and further examine ourselves and our behaviour in ways that have previously, even with the extensive use of therapy or other means of introspection and meditation, been unimaginable. I personally find this introspective aspect and potential for inner development within the immersive medium fascinating, and in the spirit of 'Sleep Laboratory', see a lot of further potential in the use of direct interfacing between the irl body and a virtual self - as an artistic strategy for future works and a contemporary form of exploratory, player-driven storytelling.