Conversation with a Young Writer re #Writing/#Storytelling for #VR (@phanesiapharel)

On May 28, 2018, I blogged about the lessons I learned from the “Storytelling for VR” workshop in Melbourne, Australia. An updated version of that article was published by Submittable on December 3, 2018.

Then, on December 26, 2019, I was surprised to find a message from Phanesia Pharel via Linkedin. Phanesia explained that, as a young writer, she is interested in telling stories that can impact women of colour in the VR space. I subsequently discovered that Phanesia is a highly talented and award-winning playwright, director and songwriter, whose plays have been performed in stages across America.

I am both honoured and humbled by Phanesia’s request to have a conversation about writing/storytelling for VR. Not only because my knowledge in this field remains limited, but also because I am fairly ignorant about theatre and how professional insight in playwriting and performing can help to enrich and empower VR experiences.

Indeed, looking back, among the 12 participants at the “Storytelling for VR” workshop back in 2018, I was the only text-based writer. The others were filmmakers, curators, directors/producers, screenwriters, actors/actresses, and even university lecturers, across platforms such as television, music video, film/documentary, theatre, and web series. There was even a digital architect specialising in using VR spaces as a therapeutic tool to aid individuals with social anxiety.

So, knowing how much I still don’t know about writing/storytelling for VR, my conversation with Phanesia remains a friendly chat. Below is a dialogue through which two emerging artists encourage each other to study and discover more, to boldly explore a brand new territory using the knowledge and resources we currently have in our own fields, and to dare to dream large.

Phanesia: I love the possibilities for immersive stories within the VR frame. How are VR companies finding writers?

Christine: The VR industry boasts a lot of brilliant teams whose members have collaborated on previous projects in other fields and are now working together to navigate new waters. I am of the view that VR (and AR and MR for that matter), however glamorous, innovative and immersive it can be, is merely a way of telling stories. Think of how traditional pen-and-brush-based artists learn to master a variety of computer graphics software in order to create cutting-edge animated films. As long as we keep an open mind, with a sense of wonder and curiosity, we can use existing knowledge and insight to adopt and adapt to new cultures and technologies.

It helps to have connections and networks. More importantly, it helps to be bold and daring to ask for guidance. I have learned throughout the years that the great majority of people out there are willing to give a hand, as long as you are genuinely asking for advice. Most professionals are happy and willing to discover new talents – as a way to find kindred spirits, I think – and to pass on their hard-earned wisdom to forthcoming generations.

Everything about writing/storytelling for VR needs be nurtured, but there are excellent storytellers out there in every field. I believe VR companies are always searching for good writers/storytellers of diverse professional and cultural backgrounds. More importantly, those emerging and established writers/storytellers wanting to promote themselves to the VR industry are encouraged to equip themselves with technological skills, or at least to pair up with someone already skilled, in order to cultivate insight in the complex process of transforming stories to real-time VR experiences.

Phanesia: Is it worth it to write your own VR scripts and what are the possibilities we should consider?

Christine: That is an interesting question. I am of the view that, in the majority of cases, stories exist before anyone attempts to find a way to tell them. There is no good or bad story, but there are numerous forms of and mediums for storytelling. Our job as writers/storytellers is to come up with original and innovative ways to tell these stories as best as we possibly can.

As I mentioned in my Submittable article, in writing/storytelling for VR: “There is presently no established format for writers to depend on and be trained for. Neither is there any particular ‘gateway’ through which writers can be properly initiated into the industry.” However, if you consider a story to be worthy of telling as an immersive experience that can impact users in a VR landscape, then definitely give it a go. Highlight those parts of the story where an action takes place, and explore how you can engage users technologically, by enabling them to interact with the setting, characters and/or events. Your goal is to help users (“viewers” or “visitors”) have fun, not only visually and physically but also emotionally and psychologically.

Also, in writing/storytelling for VR: “Keep in mind that the user is experiencing the VR world in real time. There is no fixed point in either storyline or space-time continuum.” To me, as a text-based writer, the most difficult part of writing/storytelling for VR is to position myself as the origin of that landscape, at the centre of everything as the one that takes the journey, but at the same time to imagine that I am not physically there. In other words, I have to remove my physical presence in that landscape and concentrate instead on my existence only as something invisible. In this way, I can focus on my experience and how my interaction with that landscape can help to further immerse me in that journey.

Phanesia: Are there any conferences or events someone interested in writing for VR should attend?

Christine: At any moment, a quick web-based search can reveal numerous VR/AR/MR conferences and events around the world, and I am sure many of them are worth attending. However, on occasions where we are unable to attend, knowing what events take place and which speakers appear to discuss what content will help to familiarise ourselves with the industry. As a writer, I tend to focus on stories and storytelling, i.e. what stories are told in what way and what technological techniques are used to enrich and empower the storytelling process. (A comparison between my original article and the updated version published by Submittable clearly reveals such preference.) I am less interested in the technologies themselves, although I am (slightly) aware of their nature and significance.

I would also encourage those interested in writing/storytelling for VR to experiment with diverse genres and styles, not just in writing but also in reading and even producing and performing. Workshops like the one I attended are valuable but hard to come by, so we can challenge ourselves to explore all sorts of possibilities about storytelling. I imagine that you, of the theatre background, would have your own insight in designing and creating interactivity and immersion. I would love to hear your views and observations in this field.

Phanesia: Are there any blogs, people or companies we should follow?

Christine: Again, there are numerous things happening out there, and everybody would and should have their own priorities. I tend to concentrate on trustworthy sources of industry news, and do follow-up reading on those names, achievements, trends and debates that I am interested. Keep in mind that a VR project, like a film or a play, is always the result of teamwork, celebrating not just the creative vision of its director but also the dedication of his/her entire development team, which consist of 3D artists and developers, sound specialists, and visual capture technicians. Because of this, it is perhaps easier to focus on successful VR projects and their producers than on any specific individual. (I imagine that you, of the theatre background, would understand teamwork much better than I do.) With that said, whether you follow people or companies in the VR industry, it is useful to personally experience their projects, to study how their products correspond with their visions.

Christine’s Note: It remains my hope that the conversation above can be of some use to everyone interested in “writing/storytelling” in general and “writing/storytelling for VR” specifically. Phanesia and I look forward to receiving and learning from your feedback.


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