I've always believed that virtual reality has huge potential as an entertainment platform, and clearly some directors are still with me. Oculus supported five "experiences" that premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, one of which landed a seven-figure deal.
The experiences are innovative and interesting — but they're suffering from an identity crisis.
A few months ago I sampled "Coco VR," a "VR Experience" based on the movie Coco, which was forthcoming at the time. I ran around an animated Land of the Dead in the form of a skeleton, touring an art museum, seeing a mariachi performance, and trying on skeleton costumes.
And that...was it. It wasn't a game, and it wasn't a movie. It was an "experience."
It was interesting to look at, and the technology and artistry of the work impressed me, but running through virtual art galleries and restaurants with no goal beyond "the experience" didn't engross me. I can more easily attend real art galleries, and real people to view them with, just a few blocks from my apartment.
It seems that most non-game VR content these days, even "films" at film festivals, is trying to be an experience, and I think this is a mistake.
The three Sundance films I experienced with an Oculus Rift and a Gear VR were all essentially films that required the user to participate.
For example, the Oculus-supported "Wolves in the Walls," a VR dramatization of a Neil Gaiman children's book, tells the story of a young girl, Lucy, who insists that she hears wolves in the walls of her house. We watch a cute story of Lucy's running around her house, trying to convince us of the existence of said wolves, until at one point she hands us a camera and asks us to take pictures for her. Eventually, we capture photographic evidence of the nefarious creatures, and all is well.
Spheres: Songs of Spacetime (the film that got the massive deal) is a gorgeous film of space and the universe — but we still have to do things to progress the story. We're asked to raise our arms to fly out of a black hole, or to pinpoint various stars with our controllers.
And the Black Eyed Peas' Masters of the Sun is an interesting and engaging story, but we still need to click speech bubbles, and sometimes search for the correct object or door to click on, to advance the story.
Here's my question: Why? Why have developers decided that every experience must be participatory? Why can't I sit back and watch a movie in VR, the same way I'd watch a movie in a movie theater? And, most importantly: Who are these "Experiences" for?
People who want to actively participate in VR have a medium at their fingertips already: games. But these experiences clearly aren't games. In all three of these experiences, I was following a clear storyline. Nowhere was it indicated that my actions would impact that storyline: It's not like the black hole in Songs of Spacetime blows me apart if I don't get out of it in time, or Lucy forgets about the wolves in the walls if I don't take enough pictures. These films are adding participatory elements for the sake of adding participatory elements.
(Incidentally, the emphasis on experience is affecting the gaming side of VR as well. "It just seems like you fly around and look at things," my hardcore-gamer friend told me with disdain after trying the incredibly hyped Lone Echo game.)
So these films aren't for gamers. Are they for movie-watchers? Maybe. But it's unclear to me how these random participatory elements are supposed enhance the experience of these viewers — who are first and foremost there to view.
The fact that I was required to fumble with Oculus controllers for several minutes to take pictures with a virtual camera in Wolves in the Walls did not make the movie more entertaining for me. In fact, it took me out of the experience — I had to figure out which buttons on the controllers corresponded to which buttons on the virtual camera, which was time I wasn't spending focusing on the story.
At the end of the day, Oculus' Sundance films are gorgeous, well made, and impressively ambitious. But until they decide whether they're movies or games, they're going to be alienating potential fans.
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