Why VR needs new narrative techniques
In Before Your Eyes, paintings become alive, and simply looking around is the secret weapon in telling stories. More of it, please!
The narrative VR adventure Before Your Eyes by GoodbyeWorld Games is currently being celebrated for its sensitive implementation of an often repressed topic. On a deathbed, an entire life passes before the eyes of the player. A special feature is the control with eyelids and head movements, without any controller at all.
A simple blink makes new areas appear in the painted scenery. Or it transports gamers to another location to experience the next memory. The eye tracking built into the PSVR 2 makes it possible. The mechanics alone create a very unique, intuitive experience, whether protagonist Benjamin is cramming for music school, lolling in front of the console, or sneaking out of the house.
Eye-tracking awakens artwork
Another detail, however, drew me deeper into the virtual artist drama than I could have imagined. It's about the way blobs of color spread around me. Glancing to the side, the "winking" of a symbol sets off a hypnotic spectacle. A short time later, colorful new areas of the image build up out of black nothingness.
Their billowing edges are a beautiful frame to implement such a retrospective into old memories. The spreading brushstrokes make almost everything more vivid, despite the simple comic style.
A nice example is the view of the stars on the beach with Benjamin's first crush. Here, targeted constellations quickly become formulated thoughts and wishes that no one dared to express until then. The nasty hallucinations of a serious illness are staged in a similarly impressive way. Like a rampant virus, they slowly but steadily spread to more and more corners of the visual field.
The ability to look around freely to find one's way in this new reality is an incredibly powerful narrative instrument! It even makes emotional moments like a romantic beach trip or a funeral seem less cheesy than in many movies or series.
Benjamin's emotional world is often only subtly reflected in his surroundings, rather than in overtly stated dialogue or inner monologues. Perhaps I feel more comfortable with this because I retain more control over the situation. After all, in Before Your Eyes, I set the pace myself as I introduce more memories.
Narrative experiences of the PSVR 2
Of course, classic video games also master such timing, for example when cutscenes run in the game engine. But virtual reality has advantages here: The large field of view and the isolation from the outside world simply make everything seem bigger, more impressive, and somehow more meaningful.
Even a James Bond-style intro becomes a whole new experience in VR. The story adventure Dyschronia: Chronos Alternate from MyDearest and IzanagiGames clearly takes its cue from the classic agent films. In the same style as the original, the fast-paced sequence blasts me with everything left and right - from the names of the developers to pistols and torpedoes.
Running schemes like in an anime are present, too – accompanied by appropriately dramatic J-pop vocals. Of course, all of this comes into its own on the colorful OLED display of the PSVR 2.
So well, in fact, that I would like to see such a lead-in for every narrative PSVR 2 game from now on. The best thing about it is probably the luminosity, it just suits my preference for neon graphics.
Story Punk for Quest and SteamVR
The narrative VR experience Battlescar: Punk Was Invented By Girls, with its muted colors, couldn't grab me nearly as much. Yet, this experience also burns off a veritable fireworks display of spatial storytelling tricks to visualize the mind of protagonist Lupe.
They range from room-filling text and image collages to gigantic hands of an antagonist who violently yanks a character into the air.
Probably it is also due to the partly openly destructive punk attitude: In the depressingly staged New York scene of 1978, I simply lacked sympathetic identification figures.
When it comes to inventiveness, the multi-award-winning VR film from Atlas V is nevertheless way out in front. Some of Lupe's thoughts in Battlescar turn into giant words that fall past her into the depths like a parachute jump.
Even a piece of meat riddled with maggots tumbles past her and gamers from a closet in surreal fashion before spreading out like a curved musty canvas for the next scene.
Time for VR narrative forms
In the age of growing fields of view, such moments could look even more impressive. And, of course, with the help of new eye-tracking capabilities like in Before Your Eyes. Even VR novices and non-gamers can immerse themselves in strange worlds without being distracted by thoughts about controller mounts.
By the way, those interested can also experience Before Your Eyes without the Playstation VR 2. Two years ago, a flat version was already released for Steam, which picks up blinking via webcam. There, the scenery doesn't envelop you as extensively as with Sony's VR headset. I bet the emotional impact is pretty strong in front of the monitor, too, though.