The Symbiosis Of Narrative And Immersion In Virtual Reality

Graham Sack mines theater to craft an aesthetic vocabulary for VR.


Graphic: Rain Embuscado for NEW INC. Courtesy Claire Lorenzo.

We put on the headset and land on a couch, surrounded by strangers pouring out their life stories. Distracted, our eyes wander elsewhere in the room--a glance at the ticking clock, a momentary glimpse of the flickering screen. When our gaze returns to the strangers, we discover that they've aged and faded away. Eventually, they are gone completely, their stories lost with them.

This disconcerting encounter, titled Don’t Look Away (2016), is one of Graham Sack’s first experiments in virtual reality storytelling. Here, the director, screenwriter, and artist aimed to create an interactive experience that depends entirely on its audience’s attention and engagement. Produced in collaboration with fellow NEW INC members from the creative studio Sensorium Works, Sack’s project melds a traditional form of narrative—the monologue—with virtual immersion and interaction.

“[Virtual reality] provided an opportunity to pull together a number of different aesthetic vocabularies that I’d been working with in one way or another over the whole course of my career and life as an artist,” Sack told me in a recent phone interview. Drawing from his classical theater training, along with his experience as a professional screenwriter, Sack brings the language and concepts of theater and film to the forms and structures in VR.

Theater’s appeal to persuasion over control, for example, informs Sack’s understanding of the viewer’s gaze. “In a theater, you don’t have total control over where people are going to look,” Sack explained. “What you have instead are a series of techniques for persuading the viewer about the points of interest. There’s mise-en-scène, or how you use line and the placement of body and space to draw the viewer’s eyes in particular directions...You also need the performances to be fully embodied, and actors who are thinking about the fact that anyone is looking anywhere on stage, because what you are doing is pulling focus and attention, and holding it.”


Still from Graham Sack's Lincoln on the Bardo (2017). Courtesy the artist.

It's worth refining what Sack means by the word “experience." (The prevailing buzzword came up so often in our conversation that I started contemplating the word down to its syllables.) In VR, experience is the world of details to be felt, touched, and sounded out to its phonetics. It’s a kind of pre-meaning—a primal state of simply existing within a story, without following it through to some rising action or climax in the way dramatic structures take you through a beginning, a middle, and an end. The VR “experience,” then, is a static immersion, in which viewers find themselves in a meticulously constructed world. 

"If a story can be told well without the radical immersion offered by virtual reality as a medium, it would do better not to be told on VR," Sack noted.


Test shots of actors for Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). Courtesy Matthew Niederhauser/Sensorium.

In the case of such a fast-evolving medium, VR's relationship to the formal elements of storytelling is often overlooked. Sack is conscious of the dangers of demo culture, in which storytellers make work that simply demonstrates the latest breakthroughs in the technology, rather than harness its advantages to complement the stories that are being told.

“In order to justify something being in VR, it would need to have elements that would not translate into film,” Sack continued. “And those may be things like a very strong sense of place, [like] making them feel like they are in an environment. A very strong sense of point of view is another element—and, obviously, opportunities for 360 degree visuals.”

“Something is constantly coming up,” Sack continued, “and artists are constantly being dragged forward, instead of asking what can be done that will be the most effective.” For Sack, "effective" is about developing a new aesthetic vocabulary for VR that borrows from theater, film, and other mediums. “What I want to do is begin from the story and the experience, and figure out what elements of the new technology are appropriate, but not do something for the sake of the tech.”

VR presents an opportunity to revolutionize narrative structures, but thoughtful innovation requires standing still and thinking critically. Sack's approach tells stories that retain the tenets of storytelling without being lost to every small advancement in the technology, resulting in projects where narrative and the immersive experience harmonize in a symbiotic relationship.


Author: Annie Felix

Editor: Rain Embuscado