#125: Rob Morgan on Narrative Design in VR & escaping the uncanny valley via interactive social behaviors in NPCs

Rob Morgan is a game writer, narrative designer and voice director. He got into the realm of writing for VR experiences from his experience at Sony London Studio, and then freelanced with nDreams on their Gear VR game Gunner as well as their conspiracy-theory/moral dilemma adventure game called The Assembly.

Rob brings a very unique perspective about what’s different about writing narratives and telling stories in VR after working on a number of different projects of significant scope & budget across the Morpheus, Gear VR and Oculus DK2. One of the big takeaways that Rob had is that there are a whole level of social & behavioral interactions that we expect to have with other humans and so you can’t treat NPCs in a VR experience the same way that you might in a 2D experience. For example, there are social queues that you expect a human to react to based upon where you’re looking, whether you seem like you’re paying attention or if you’re threatening other people in some way. There’s a whole range of interaction that we demand and expect to have, and so there’s a lot of interesting nested body language and social queues that if they’re added within a VR experience could add another dimension of immersion.

Rob talks about the importance of having other human-like characters within the narrative experience in order to go beyond an interesting 5-minute tech demo, and to start to have an engaging narrative. He says that there’s a distinct lack of human characters in VR demos because it’s hard to not fall into the trap of the uncanny valley. But Rob suggests that one way to get around the lack of visual fidelity within VR is to start to add simple interactive social behaviors in NPCs to create a better sense of immersion.

He also talks about how important the voice acting is within VR as well because the uncanny valley goes beyond just the look and feel of the graphical representation of humans. Humans are really great at detecting fakeness, and Rob says that this is a vital element of immersion if you’re acting is somehow stilted or not completely authentic or believable.

This was one of my favorite interviews from GDC because Rob lists out so many different interesting open problems and challenges with storytelling in VR. He says that the rules haven’t been written yet, and so there’s a large amount of space to experiment with what works and what doesn’t work.

He eventually sees that there will be a convergence between VR, AR and wearable technology in general, and he’s excited for the possibility of creating a fictional layer of reality for people that they can interact and engage with in a way that’s just as real as the rest of their reality.

Rob presented a talk at GDC called “Written on your eyeballs: Game narrative in VR at GDC 2015” which can be seen on GDC Vault here if you have a subscription.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

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