Paradise is an immersive audio piece exploring themes of domestic violence that was an interdisciplinary collaboration between Darkfield, VR documentary filmmaker Gabo Arora of Lightshed.io and researcher and clinician Nancy Glass from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. It attempts to blend a number of different XR genres together in a provocative fashion, including elements of immersive horror to provoke emotional reactions, interactive AI to tune the experience according to gender, elements of social impact documentary to challenge pre-conceived notions for why victims of domestic violence stay within abusive relationships, some social dynamics experiments done with your intimate partner about communication and understanding, and all set within a narrative context of a social game hosted by AI therapist of the future exploring why couples stay together or fall apart. I found the end result be confusing, muddled, and a bit too experimental without coherently tying everything together in the end.
Paradise also attempts to generalize themes of domestic violence into a more universal story for anyone within a relationship who experiences relationship problems, and so rather than addressing issues of intimate partner violence from a more distant third-person perspective, they designed a first-person experience to be done with your intimate partner. This resulted in a number of provocations designed to evaluate if you’re trapped within a relationship and to explore alternatives other than violence if things go wrong, but I found that these provocations merely sowed doubt and conflict without being properly contextualized or resolved by the end of the experience.
Paradise is intended to be a provocative piece, but overall I found it to be a bit too scattered across many tonal shifts prioritizing too experimental innovations in immersive storytelling. It felt like an experience to stir the pot, but I was left with a lot of questions about how this project came about, what they were trying to achieve with the pieces, as well as some of the specific design decisions that were made. I was able to get more context and backstory about Paradise by talking with the creators in this podcast interview.
Paradise was born out of an interdisciplinary collaboration at Johns Hopkins University. Gabo Arora founded the Immersive Storytelling and Emerging Technology program at Johns Hopkins University while Nancy Glass is a Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing as well as a clinician and researcher who focuses on prevention & response to violence against women and children. They collaborated with Darkfield, who has specialized in using the medium of spatial audio to explore themes of psychological terror within the horror genre.
I had a chance to talk with Darkfield’s David Rosenberg, Arora, and Glass about the journey of creating Paradise and their intentions behind the piece. Both Arora and Rosenberg have aspirations to push the artistic boundaries of immersive audio and immersive storytelling within the XR medium, and intended to provoke listeners to explore possibilities beyond violence if their relationship starts to break up. Glass intended to provide provocations within the field of nursing around the topic of domestic violence that encourage people to move beyond blaming the victim for not leaving abusive relationships. I saw the piece again after speaking to the creators, and I still found that their story was not quite landing and there were some significant gaps between their intentions and my direct experiences of it.
I think this piece could benefit from focusing on a more specific target demographic. Is this piece for nurses to learn more about how to relate to victims of domestic violence within a medical context? Is it for people who are already within a relationship with intimate partner violence? Is it for anyone within a relationship? What about people who are single? According to Glass, each and everyone of these demographics would ideally be targeted within a piece, but to me it feels like there are many tradeoffs in medical training vs entertainment that would provide sufficient context for a piece like this, as well as more a focused onboarding and offboarding process that could help bring their message home.
I also found that there’s a number of limitations in trying to translate an experience like domestic violence into a first-person experience through the lens of universal challenges that all couples experience. They included speculative thought experiments designed to provoke visceral reactions, but without fully contextualizing or unpacking them.
If it’s intended to shift the field of nursing or cultivate empathy for people experiencing domestic violence, then it can be difficult to fully contextualize other people’s third-person experiences within the context of a first-person narrative. Francesca Panetta found that it was difficult to include 3rd-person perspective testimonials from prisoners who had experienced solitary confinement within the context of a first-person experience of solitary confinement VR narrative of 6×9. Instead, she used 2nd-person language focusing on what you were experiencing from your first-person perspective of being within a virtual solitary confinement experience. So there are inherent limitations to cultivating empathy or educating people about other people’s experiences within the context of a first-person perspective.
I still believe that there’s a lot of power and potential of spatial audio to evoke strong emotional reactions, but this piece feels like more of an early iteration of a unique interdisciplinary collaboration that could use a bit more Institutional Review Board oversight for an academic study rather than a provocative & experiential narrative piece pushed out as a commercial release on an entertainment horror platform before they’ve had a chance to fully evaluate whether or not it is hitting the mark or achieving it’s intended goals.
I do think that we will inevitably and eventually start to see a blending and blurring of different genres and forms of immersive storytelling to be able to achieve some fusions of them, including social impact documentary, AI-driven interactive narratives, horror, and social dynamics with your intimate partner. But Paradise feels like it’s taking a bit too many leaps without tying it all together and ultimately leaving the audience behind. You can try out the piece and judge for yourself by downloading the Darkfield app here.
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