As a writer you want to make your audience ‘move in’ and then unpack their bags by evoking feeling in the sensory elements of your storyworld, playing on the elegant nuances of the 5 senses. Experience Designer and Ravensbourne graduate, Robert Andre took a leap to make the audience unpack their bags and experience rather than simply suspend disbelief and imagine with his Virtual Reality experience, Act 2.5 of Meet Lucy, a 3-act interactive story highlighting the reality of housing issues in London which debuted at Learn Do Share at Ravensbourne.
The brainchild of Creative Director and PhD researcher, Nina Simoes, the story was written by David Varela and designed and built as an environment and a personal experience by Robert Andre. Housed inside a red booth 2 metres high, 1.5m wide and 1m deep the VR experience lasts between 1.5 to 2.5 minutes, with immersion taking between 20-30 seconds as you become accustomed to the Oculus Rift headset and your experience goes from being physically transported into the middle of a story to an overwhelming ‘wow’.
Now what you’re watching is what you’re feeling!
Virtual Reality Experience Designer & Creator of Act 2.5 of Meet Lucy – Robert Andre and a player
This Virtual Reality component was cleverly designed so that the 400+ players who had already been interacting with the story through email and SMS prior to Learn Do Share would have a ‘real-life’ enhancement at the Ravensbourne event. Nina explains, “They experienced everything they’d been reading about up to that point – the confinement of the small space that Lucy and her family were living in along with the oppressive sense when all options aren’t ones you’d choose. This is where technology makes a difference – there is a particular moment in which you want the user to experience with you what it feels like. It’s deeply immersive.”
Robert adds that the sense of confinement was key. With players arrival point being Lucy’s kitchen it was critical that the space felt cramped and playing with spatial awareness was a deliberate design point. Robert explains, “The first entry point is the kitchen where you’re immediately feeling the oppressive heat of the oven. You’re confronted by Lucy, the protagonist, and she talks to you! This creates an immediate connection, as prior to this moment you’ve been talking to her through email. You’re not simply listening to her – she’s asking you to talk back.”
Narrative Design meets Experience Design meets Sensory Design
With a history in experience design Robert understands the value in the key question of ‘What do you want your audience to do?’ and has gone through his design career creatively challenging ‘why’. “It’s so important to put yourself in the audiences shoes and ask ‘Why? Keep it simple – don’t make it flashy it has to work BUT be functional AND work for the user. If the user can’t fathom it. Then it’s failed.
Robert wanted to mix the complexities of narrative design with experience design and sensory design by not only immersing the player visually and aurally at the centre of Lucy’s home, but also played with elements of scent and temperature too. This multisensory experience was designed down to elegant nuances of story as experience and in addition to the heat in the kitchen and the cold fan in the bathroom, he took time to find the right sounds, even in the background.
“I was aware that images and non-verbal choices in the story setting add impact and there is jazz playing on a radio in the environment. I needed to consider appropriateness to the character or the scene? Is this a movie we’re watching or are we really in somebody’s home?” and to keep it as ‘lifelike’ as possible he avoided characters as computer game-like avatars. Time was taken to cast and shoot real actors as the 3 main characters (Lucy, Ama and Jemma) in the Meet Lucy storyworld. This decision paid off by giving the sense that players were really in a blurred reality of being inside a strangers home and not in the middle of a console game. “It adds to the intimacy of the experience to be confronted with a real character and you have the fluidity of reading the emotions on her face,” he adds.
Story & Creation: A collaboration between storyteller & experience designer
From a storytelling perspective the collaborative nature of writing to craft a visual storyworld that then becomes a ‘reality’ (albeit a virtual one) is a dream come true. Nina spoke about the challenges of that for writer, David Varela. “As a writer David had to carefully think about the space that he was describing – the senses, the smells and putting himself in the shoes of the characters and becoming a user experience designer. He was writing from a different and a deeper level – in comprehending the imagined world that will be incorporated into the virtual world”.
Robert explained, “it was essential that we collaborated as we were coming at it from 2 angles. The writer builds the characters, the back-story and the other beats and fine points. Then, as the experience designer and storyworld builder/modeller you have to consider the parameters of the story from the writers perspective.” So where do the lines blur? Or do they? Between imagined storyworld creator, visual storyworld creator and story experience designer?
“It’s all in the collaboration between the designer and writer! You have to agree on the development points as it all must work together. The characters have to look a certain way – you’re building an environment and “it’s real but has to be believable rather than realistic”.
Designing a Virtual Reality experience amplifies a combination of writing styles – the sensory look and feel of a novel, the visual stimulation and storytelling of film or TV with the interaction of a game but Robert insists that subtlety is key. “The senses are working hard to make sense of what’s been interacted with. The audience/player is taken on a journey and whilst images are great for the screen, they’re not written, shot or designed for an immersive experience. It has to be written for a VR experience”. This means that attempts at repurposing existing screen-centric stories isn’t going to work. He realized that the editing suite techniques needed to shift too. “In the editing suite, a sudden cut to another scene (as you would in a film) isn’t real or life like. The construction of story and ideas, scenes, ideas, has to be considered. A new grammar and design aesthetic has to be adopted. If you’re giving people the opportunity to roam around in an environment the whole structure of the story has to change along with key questions to be addressed, such as who is the protagonist in your story and why are you following him?”
Robert, Nina and the team see huge value in creating VR experiences to tell societal stories, to allow people to literally put themselves in somebody else’s shoes and experience from an existential point of view and believe that with the involvement of audience they can listen and build a world in which we can help create solutions – this is storytelling with context and purpose!
Nina added, “We wanted to see how people would interact and if the story would hold people together and we proved that it did. Our proof of concept worked and was very successful, now we would like to explore the concept further. We need to look at making technology to work more for us. VR allows participants to enter into a different dimension. These fictional experiences can encourage interactions that can contribute to the development of new solutions for the challenges we face in the world today.”
The story of Lucy Maddox (based on a true story) has now concluded but can be found at the Learn Do Share Storify at https://storify.com/RaveDMIC/learn-do-share-london-2014
Further context on Meet Lucy can be found at - http://www.storycentral.com/interactive-purposeful-storytelling-meets-virtual-reality-at-learn-do-share-london-with-meet-lucy/
Photo credits: Fabio Vazquez Higueras