“You have 20 minutes to create a world. Go!”
Last week, we gave a day-long workshop on VR at the Awwwards London Conference. Following a “VR 101” session covering the tech, marketing and storytelling principles of VR, we asked the attendees to form teams to do a storytelling exercise.
The idea was to use a simplified version of Alex McDowell’s “World-building methodology” to create 3 synopses for VR experiences in under an hour.
World building is a system for creating rules and behaviors for fictitious worlds arising from the science, technology, social structure, geography, economics, and politics governing them. Once a world is created, and only then, can one start thinking about more traditional storytelling items such as characters, plot..etc.
In film or literature, storytellers are used to building worlds around their characters, once the script is locked. In our world-building exercises, participants were forced to put their storytelling habits on hold and to focus instead on the origin story of their world, its science and social rules, its landscapes...etc. To add to the fun, each team had to work on a random combination of a theme and an emotion…
The world-building exercise lasted around 20 minutes. This was followed by a character-building assignment looking at the main protagonist’s appearance, personality, back story..etc. Finally both outputs were merged to conceptualise a practical VR experience looking at device, gameplay, specific interactions..etc.
We found that the exercise presented two very exciting advantages over usual storytelling brainstorming methods. Firstly, it unlocked creativity among participants, simply because the worlds created called for unusual stories, far outside the standard creative landscape the participants were used to navigate. Secondly, building worlds temporarily freed participants from asking themselves too many questions about which VR technology they would use. They weren’t writing a 360 film or for the HTC Vive but rather designing a human experience, always keeping in mind what the viewer/player would feel emotionally, cognitively and physically.
Each team finally got to present their experience to the rest of the participants. We heard about a black-and-white world where empathy was a crime and selflessness actions acted as color-brushes. In another one, “glasses” acted as a physics regulator. Anyone who lost them would experience an alienating reality with MC Escheresque physics. In the final team’s near-future apocalyptic world, people would be hired to chase vermin away from the city, until a body-swapping malfunction would let you realise what the vermine really was. As one could have expected, every story echoed the current political climate, with themes of delusion and dehumanisation permeating every experience. But they did so in wildly different ways.
Those concepts, developed by teams of non-professional storytellers under an hour, were better than most of what one can currently experience on Steam or the Oculus Store. Each experience was truly designed for VR as opposed to being film or video games ideas shoe-horned into a headset.
This is testimony of the power of world-building as a creative framework for VR but also a refreshing confirmation that when one manages to drop his old creatives habits, original and impactful ideas will flow again.