Journal article Open Access

Narrative in Virtual Reality? Anatomy of a Dream Reborn

Marie-Laure Ryan

When the big leap forward of computer technology took place for the general public in the 80s and 90s, virtual reality technology (VR) was touted as the “next big thing” that digital media would bring into our lives. Janet Murray’s influential book Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) explored the possibility of turning narrative into the “immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer” that defines VR. But VR did not live up to its expectations, and after the year 2000, it faded from the radar of popular interest. It regained attention around 2011 when Mark Zuckerberg, the founder/CEO of Facebook, bought Oculus Rift, the maker of a relatively cheap and lightweight head-mounted display. Currently available VR narratives are distinguished from other digital narratives through three-dimensional images,  interactive panoramic representations, and the ability to manipulate our experience of our own body. In this article I discuss three projects that use some of these resources in order to assess the storytelling potential of the medium: Clouds Over Sidra, a documentary about a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan; Hard World for Small Things, a fictionalized version of the shooting of an unarmed black man by white policemen; and VRwandlung, a project that puts the user in the situation of the hero of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, who wakes up one day to discover that he has been transformed into a giant insect. Basing my judgment of this limited corpus, I assess the potential of VR narrative with respect to four kinds of immersion: ludic, spatial, temporal and emotional.

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