Immersive Stories. Virtual Reality, Post-Cinema and Storytelling
In recent years, virtual reality (VR) has emerged as a new frontier of innovation and experimentation within what is known as “immersive entertainment” — gaming, art, museum exhibitions, TV and cinema. The proliferation on the market of new headsets (from the expensive HTC VIVE and Oculus to the popular Google Cardbox), the spread of platforms, apps and also VR cinemas around the world, and the inclusion of VR productions in international film festivals (e.g. Sundance, Tribeca, Venice) are trends demonstrating that VR is no longer just a fascinating 1980s-inspired literary or cinematic subject (from Tron to the Matrix trilogy, to the recent Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One). VR is also a new way of designing and creating an experience in which the spectator is more directly, immediately, and effectively involved and entertained through immersion and a strong sense of presence, i.e. the illusion of being part of an alternative world.
Moreover, VR (and immersive technologies in general) have seen a real explosion of new interest during the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, due to the need to avoid travel and social contact. The global crisis led many companies to adopt VR as a tool for their marketing and communication strategies. The entertainment industry has realized that the experience of simulating exploration and social interaction in safe conditions offered by VR deserve to be further developed.
Although we are in the early stages of the VR adventure, significant steps in theoretical reflection have already been taken regarding psychological and philosophical concepts such as presence, transportation, embodiment and empathy, or physiological issues such as motion sickness and other adverse responses to the VR experience in general. Much has been written on technical aspects of VR systems in cybernetics and artificial intelligence, and we have also learned a lot about the history of VR as an audio-visual media along a timeline that goes from Sensorama to the Oculus Rift. On the other hand, so far, very little has been said regarding the narrative dimensions of VR.
The special section of the issue aims to explore the relationship between VR and (post)-cinematic storytelling in both fiction and non-fiction modes.
The formal possibilities of VR actually change the way a story is told. The screen and the frame — emblematic of the “traditional” form of the filmic narrative experience — seem to vanish in VR. The expansion of the visual horizon to 360 degrees, in fact, disrupts the edges of the frame and creates a field that can be potentially explored in its entirety. Whereas in canonical narrative the storyteller (and the filmmaker) draw the viewer’s attention to precise and unequivocal locations, the VR story can be “located” anywhere around the viewer, and thus requires strategies that direct one’s attention so that narrative events can be properly experienced. So, what about the formal solutions that organize the user’s experience? What about the audio-visual “grammar” — framing, composition, editing, transitions, camera angles and movement, lighting, continuity, point of view etc. — which (both literally and figuratively) manipulate the user’s perspective and orient and steer his/her attention through the narrative?
Moreover, the medium of VR (namely tracking and rotational technology) allows different forms of “real-time storytelling,” which depend on the user’s response and ocular behaviour. For example, the story (i.e. the environment, the characters, the events) may develop differently depending on which characters or objects the user decides to concentrate on the longest. Although limited to a given number of options (as in interactive games), the user chooses how the story will proceed. Contrary to the traditional mode of narration, the power of narrative choice is thus transferred from the storyteller to a user conceived as a “storymaker.” What are the theoretical implications of VR real-time storytelling with regard to classical theories of film narration? VR technology creates new physical conditions for experiencing a story (seated on a rotating chair or free to move in space), which also depend on different levels of immersion (from 360° videos to interactive films and games); the user has the freedom (and the obligation) to explore the visual and narrative field, testing the response of the world to his/her own observation-shifts and movements. Are traditional accounts of film viewing still able to describe the condition of experiencing VR stories? The shift from viewer of a film to explorer of a field seems to call for theoretical paradigms that give the body and the sensorimotor level of experience a pivotal role.
VR is thus a hybrid and post-cinematic multi-medium able to offer a multisensory experience in which story continues to play a crucial role. VR calls into question and radicalizes the fluidity and openness of the relationship between the story and the spectator and probes the way in which storytelling has so far been analysed in film and media studies.
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Please send an abstract and a short biographical note to both Simone Arcagni (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Adriano D’Aloia (email@example.com) by October 25, 2020 — [subject: Cinergie VR Storytelling + name surname author(s)].
Abstracts should be from 300 to 500 words of length (English) and include 3-5 fundamental bibliographical references.
If the proposal is accepted, the author(s) will be asked to submit the full article by January 15, 2021.
The articles must not exceed 5,000/6,000 words.
Contributions will be submitted to double-blind peer-review.
The issue number 19 of Cinergie will be published in July 2021.