We’re a long way from virtual reality’s Citizen Kane

Back when virtual reality first graced people’s lips, talk centred on how the new technology could revolutionise storytelling. The word immersion was said so many times it lost all meaning. Evangelists heralded an age of interactive, empathetic narrative, all centred on exciting VR hardware.

We’re a long way from virtual reality's Citizen Kane

There have been excellent films made in virtual reality, often taking a documentary-makers eye to subjects such as the European refugee crisis (The National Theatre’s Home | Aamir), ongoing conflicts in Syria (Chris Milk’s Cloud Over Sidra) and the plights of migrants on the US-Mexican border (Birdman director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena). For scripted features, however, there has been a distinct lack of success.

Why? Two years in from virtual reality’s initial buzz, virtual-reality filmmaking has so far failed to break into mainstream audiences. There has not been a VR comedy or drama series of any widespread critical or commercial success. Aside from a handful of documentaries and installations, scripted VR film has largely been relegated to ancillary projects, marketing afterthoughts for big budget films and TV shows.   

Breaking Fourth wants to turn this around. The London studio defines itself as “storytelling, reimagined”, emphasising writing and voice acting over visual novelty. Sat in a room close to Tottenham Court Road, I’m invited to try a couple of their features, both of which are framed as an example of how an attention to story can hoist VR beyond gimmicky spectacle.

“I think that in the initial stages of VR there was a focus on the ‘wow’ factor; short experiential pieces where you’re on a beach, or walking on a high-wire,” says Ken Henderson, the studio’s co-founder. “That was fantastic to get people’s attention, but it’s not enough to keep their attention. To keep their attention you need story and character.”vr_film_ctrl_2

(Above: Ctrl. Credit: Breaking Fourth)

The first of the films I watched, Lucid, follows a young woman called Astra as she tries to reconnect with her comatose mother, Eleanor – who also happens to be a former children’s author. The lightly science-fiction yarn sees Astra use “experimental treatment” to enter her mother’s mind; the resulting confrontation pivoting around scenes from Eleanor’s children’s books.

The second film, a remaster of the studio’s VR film Ctrl, follows eSports player Liam as he competes in a tournament. What starts a modern take on a sporting drama switches gear after its opening moments, the tournament paling in comparison to the domestic violence that’s suggested off-screen at the hands of Liam’s stepfather.

Both 18-minute films are built around computer-generated scenes, although the traditionally filmed performances in Ctrl are projected onto giant monitors in the virtual arena of the eSports tournament. The subjects these stories attempt to tackle are hefty, and Breaking Fourth should be commended for trying to make VR films with human depth. The results, however, also illustrate a lot of what is wrong with scripted virtual reality.

Giving audiences a reason to watch VR film

Ctrl is by far the more successful of the two, making intelligent use of its eSports conceit to smuggle in a story about the lines between fictional and real-world violence. This is helped by the use of filmed human performance, Alfie Kingsnorth’s portrayal of Liam adding watery-eyed anger to the mounting threat of abuse at home. Lucid, on the other hand, touches on ideas of memory and loss, but get so caught up in navigating the entirely CGI setpieces of Eleanor’s imagination that its story of an estranged mother and daughter is only gestured at.

The former film also succeeds more in framing the viewer, giving a comprehensible reason for us to float around the action. Lucid, alternatively, takes the approach that, much like a screen-based film, the viewer is a camera and it shouldn’t matter why they have a window into the action. The results don’t entirely work, and left me questioning why the story needed to be told in VR at all.


(Above: Lucid. Credit: Breaking Fourth)

Discussions about the role of perspective, embodiment and camera movements are all well and good, but these can be forgiven in the face of well-written and well-acted performances. Ctrl and Lucid are ambitious but their biggest fault is that they are ultimately middling. The dialogue is uneven. The characters are rough sketches. The emotional climaxes aren’t properly earned.

The script has to sweat, giving the viewer a good reason to strap a piece of plastic to their head

This is crucial because VR film has its work cut out to keep audiences interested. VR headsets, even phone-based ones like the Google Daydream, are fiddly and annoying to setup, focus correctly and wear comfortably for more than a few minutes. This means the script has to sweat, giving the viewer a good reason to strap a piece of plastic to their head instead of lying on the sofa with a bowl of crisps. The writing and performances need to be stellar, not just so-so.

It’s telling that VR documentary is succeeding where scripted VR is failing. Transporting someone to the frontline of an actual warzone is a concept that, as fetishistic as it is, is easy to understand as something that can’t be got through a TV screen. Watching an animated short is something that can be done on YouTube, and I just don’t think the mild sense of bodily presence that comes with VR is valuable enough to automatically make it an appealing experience.

You either need a very good reason for your story to be told with a viewer-controlled perspective, or you need a shit-hot script. Ideally both. If studios like Breaking Fourth manage this, they could very well give people a reason to don those headsets gathering dust beneath their TVs. Otherwise, virtual-reality film is going to fall on its virtual-reality teeth.

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