Finding Yourself in a Virtual Fiction

14 February 2019

Last week I went to the Night of Philosophy and Ideas at the Brooklyn Public Library in New York. One of the experiences on offer was a short CGI virtual-reality film called BattleScar.


I haven’t had many virtual reality (VR) experiences before. I’m new to this. But I know at least that there is a real difference between those VR experiences you are meant to interact with extensively—like a video game—and those you are not. This was one of the latter. “This is mostly a standing experience,” the person helping me with my headset explained. “You can take a couple of steps, but you won’t have to go very far.” We were in a small back room on the second floor. Four of us were watching BattleScar at the same time with individual headsets. Our minders kept watch over us while we were immersed in this alternate world, making sure we didn’t clumsily run into tables or trip over wires.


What is most compelling about BattleScar (much more than its plot, which I’ll set aside for this discussion) is the way it plays with your perspective. It makes full use of the three-dimensional space in which you find yourself as a viewer. Sometimes you are ground-level, watching the two main characters interact above and around your head. Sometimes you are dramatically elevated, the scenes transposed into miniature dioramas.


You are, as a viewer, implicated in the same physical space as the characters in the film. That doesn’t mean you’re fooled into really believing you are no longer in the actual world. It just means that, in some sense, you feel yourself to have a position in the space of the fictional story. So if other things in that virtual space look smaller, you yourself feel correspondingly larger (and vice versa).


For a couple days after seeing BattleScar I thought that this phenomenon presented a new formal problem for those who want to create successful VR fiction. The feeling of being physically present in the virtual space is so compelling that that there isn’t really a clear break between the real world and the fictional one. It’s not a matter of breaking “the fourth wall”—that is, some clear boundary between the space of the fiction and the space of the real world. It’s rather that it often doesn’t feel like there is any such delineation between your world and the virtual reality, even if you know full well that the two are not the same.


A large part of this has to do with the link between your actions and your viewing experience. When you move, your angle on the scene changes, in both vision and hearing. This seemed to me to be importantly different from the position you take in an ordinary movie. You don’t ordinarily feel yourself to be physically where the camera is. (That is true except in some rare cases when a filmmaker chooses to draw attention to the physical location of the camera; think of that moment in 12 Years a Slave when Solomon Northup—or is it Chiwetel Ejiofor?—gazes directly into the camera lens, thus making you feel as though he is looking right into your eyes). 


Here’s how I was thinking of the formal problem in VR fiction. If you’re a VR filmmaker, you face a dilemma. Do you choose to ignore the viewer’s feeling of being present in the (space of the) fiction? Or do you explicitly address her presence, treating her as a character in the drama—or at least an observer whose gaze interacts with the character’s choices in how to act under a watchful eye? Taking the first option seems disingenuous and avoidant, and it runs the risk of making the viewer’s feeling of her presence a mere distraction. (Why not just make a 2D movie?) Taking the second option might be seriously corny; just think of Dora the Explorer waiting blankly for her viewers to answer the question she has just posed. Moreover, trying to incorporate the viewer into the story might (as a logistical matter) have to ignore most of what the viewer actually chooses to do—look away, close her eyes, sneeze, etc.


As I said, I thought this way for a few days. But then it dawned on me that there isn’t really a fundamentally different formal problem here for VR fiction that doesn’t exist for fictions presented in other media that use space to represent space—e.g. theater, pictures, and regular old 2D films. Each such presentation of a fictional event presents it from a particular location in the fictional space.  You ‘witness’ the events represented in a film from a certain point in space (around where the camera would be if the camera existed in the virtual space of the fiction). You take in the drama of an opera from an angle partly determined by your real, physical location in the audience. Sometimes the ‘presence’ of the consumer is explicitly addressed, as when an act of a drama opens with a direct address to the audience. Sometimes it is simply not acknowledged.


(For more on the ways in which pictures can implicate and interact with their beholders, I highly recommend Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality.)


Often, the fluidity of this perspective itself works to break down the sense that the actual consumer has that she herself is “in” the story in some sense: the shot cuts to a new perspective on the scene, or the stage set rumbles into place to transform the angle the audience gets on what’s happening. This switching was not absent from BattleScar, and it did dis-orient me a little bit. The fact that I might change perspective at any time went some distance to break the uncomfortable feeling that I was “really” standing in the same space as the two protagonists. But even after each switch the pull of this illusory self-location in a virtual space still seemed much more irresistible than it ever does for me while I’m watching a “regular” movie, or reading a book.


Maybe regular interaction with this kind of VR format in fiction might help me ignore my own presence in the space of a VR fiction. Perhaps we will all get used to it, just as we all got used to the transporting ‘magic’ of movies, and then the problematic relationship of viewer to drama viewed can fade into the background of our viewing experiences. But I’m not sure. Perhaps the irresistible feeling that you are in a fictional VR world will shape the stories that get told in this medium—or sink the medium at the outset, in favor of cheaper and less formally problematic media we already know and love. It is difficult to say which of these will happen.

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, February 15, 2019 -- 10:47 AM

I have never considered

I have never considered myself techno-phobic. Not in most respects, anyway. I used to play early versions of video games, not manically nor with any such addictive tendency. I played them for fun. Much later in life, I became interested in such fields as philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and genetics, reading voraciously and learning all I could about those fascinating disciplines. Then (and continuing) I began writing about philosophy and, eventually, writing my own notions about that humanity. You may see where this is going... I'm not at all interested in the virtual reality thing. Seems like a waste of time to me. But, then again, I have not made money from VR, and would have never been a candidate to have done so. Not in my genes, I guess. I hope it proves its worth---if it has any. I never delved into quantum mechanics either. But I can see a future for it---if we ever actually understand it and how to harness its potential. I suppose one might say the same about VR? Well, I'm being optimistic. May as well.