People love a good narrative. It taps into our sense of empathy and compassion. Innately, we navigate the world in a selfish manner, always in first person. So, when reading a book or watching a movie, it’s natural for the reader to place themselves in the shoes of the characters, becoming a part of the story. The more extensive the world-building is, the more engaged the viewer, and the more effective the story becomes. In the case of extended reality, viewers are able to achieve a whole new level of immersion. They are able to be placed directly into the world: they become a character themselves, experience the action head-on. It’s the future of story-telling, the new medium for narrative media.
Tricia Austin from the University of the Arts London established the term “narrative environment”. She says that “as we follow the spatial narrative, we not only
empathize with a protagonist, but we literally became a parallel embodied
protagonist in our own story of discovery and identity building” (Researchgate). This is what distinguishes traditional narrative media from spatial narratives- the level of immersion is far more advanced. It adds on one more layer to the story, one where the viewer feels as though they are able to impact it themselves. Moments of conflict become more anxiety-inducing. Moments of relief become more comforting. Moments of tenderness become more meaningful and memorable.
Several short films and experiences have come out in VR, many of which are available for free to the public on Youtube. Oculus has worked on several award-winning Virtual Reality films, including Henry and Miyubi. Henry in particular played a lot with the impact of immersive media on the emotions of a viewer. The main character is a hedgehog, who has trouble making friends due to his pokey spines. At several points in the movie, this character breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the viewer, who is placed in the scene with him. This would usually happen at the points in the story with the most heightened emotion or tension. It was meant to feel as if Henry was looking to the viewer for help, for reassurance- creating a greater sense of empathy and connection between the viewer and the character. There were also smaller “discoverable” moments, where a user might look to the side and see a butterfly flying towards them, or a rollie pollie by their feet. These served to make each experience unique to the user. The goal was to make them feel as though they were uncovering Henry’s world, rather than just being placed in it (Engadget). XR in narrative media is important not only for its value in the entertainment industry, but also its potential in the realm of activism. Heightening viewers’ sense of empathy enables filmmakers and creatives to tap into their sense of humanity. Placing the viewer into the middle of a battlefield, or a burning forest in the Amazon, is a form of storytelling that goes beyond just “telling” the audience the message they are trying to get across. It shows them. The audience becomes a part of the action. This allows creatives to better communicate the level of exigency.