#823: Dreams & Symbolic Language of VR: Embodied Poetry with “7 Lives”

7 Lives aims to explore the underlying structure of fluidity and interdependence by taking a non-narrative, symbolic, and embodied poetic approach. You witness an experience, and then time freezes as you’re able to explore how that event is related to the memories of the other witnesses of that event. It’s a surrealistic experience that feels a bit like a cross between a psychedelic journey and out-of-body, near death experience.

I had a chance to talk with writer and designer Sabrina Calvo about the design of 7 Lives. She did quite a bit of world building of the experience through writing, and she talks about some of the design intentions of the experience for how play with perception and create an altered liminal space that explores transitions and unfolding processes. We also talk about poetry and how she sees games as a form of embodied poetry. She leverages symbolic French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s definition of poetry as being the process of extracting essence of the things and to evoke the feeling of the things without using the things itself. We explore a lot of interesting experiential design insights and reflections that don’t require you to personally experience 7 Lives, but it’s also available on Viveport for $5.00.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So, continuing on in my series of Dream, Dreamlogic and the Symbolic Storytelling Language of Virtual Reality, today's episode features Sabrina Calvo, who is the writer and designer of Seven Lives. Seven Lives was at Tribeca, and I'm not sure where it's going to be available. It was one of those types of experiences that you may have just had to be at Tribeca to be able to see it. But I think that there's some interesting things about the experience that we'll be unpacking, but to give you just a bit more context in case you don't have a chance to see the experience before you listen to this. In Seven Lives, you are seeing somebody about to step in front of a train and die, and then from there, you kind of freeze time. And then you go into all these different perspectives of the other people that are in this scene. It's kind of like a point cloud representation. You're floating around, you're going into these bodies. And then from there, you're able to see whatever memories that that trauma that's happening in the scene is bringing up how that trauma is related to what's happening with them. So you're kind of like freezing a moment in time and diving around into different bodies in this liminal space of transition. And it's kind of a non-narrative, poetic, symbolic storytelling language. that is not so much clear, but it did kind of feel like dreamlike or this psychedelic journey and explore how they're using that as a language to be able to explore different topics within the medium of virtual reality. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Sabrina happened on Saturday, April 27th, 2019 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, New York. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:52.551] Sabrina Calvo: Okay, well, my name is Sabrina and I've been working in video games design for the last 20 years. And I'm also a sci-fi writer of weird fiction. And I co-wrote and designed Seven Lives, which is a near-death experience in VR that we developed for Red Corner.

[00:02:13.287] Kent Bye: Sounds like you're coming from the video games industry, and so at what point did you decide to start to explore the medium of virtual reality?

[00:02:20.587] Sabrina Calvo: Well, it's a medium I've always explored in my writing for a long time. I was, you know, I'm a child of the 80s and VR in the 80s and 90s was kind of like this beautiful utopia that we all had. So it was something that I had in me for a long time. I'm obsessed with gestures and I'm obsessed with body perception and proprioception and so it was very frustrating for me that the technology was not exactly where I wanted to be in order for that but then this project was born out of a discussion we had with Charles which is my co-writer and we both collided on an idea that he was in Japan and he was sitting in a subway and he was looking at all these people with all the different lives and emotions and everything and he was thinking of a way to go through all of them and find a way to kind of like do a chorus of all these voices and emotions and I was struggling with an idea for a while which is the embodiment and the persistence of the soul and I was like well maybe what we can do is incarnate the weightlessness of a soul but at the same time try to make a point about the physicality of the soul and maybe VR would be the perfect tool for that and it gave me an opportunity to explore a kind of body awareness that is not human and then that was the starting point and then we went all in on the concept from there.

[00:03:44.678] Kent Bye: Yeah, so I think before I saw the experience, you had described to me what you were trying to explore with the soul. So what were the more metaphysical concepts or sci-fi explorations, or what is it about that afterlife or the soul that you were trying to really explore within this embodied experience of VR of Seven Lives?

[00:04:04.084] Sabrina Calvo: Well, my work has always been about the intersection of spirituality and technology, basically. I'm not sure it's about the afterlife, it's probably more about a before death, I would say. Because it's not about death per se, it is about the fact that we need rituals. in our lives in order to understand our traumas and understand our emotions and our relationship with our emotions. And in order to do that, we have to be able to understand other people are doing that. And if in order to understand how other people are doing that, you need to understand how you do that. So this beautiful interdependence of people and of emotions, what is the core of the concept So basically, what we're trying to say maybe, but it's not a message because the game itself is not clear. It's a non-narrative puzzle that you, symbolic reality that you can play with so that you can make up your own meaning. But we have a structured cosmos behind it, which is basically the idea that what makes us human is our capacity for meta-empathy. to put ourselves in the shape and eyes and body of others. And then maybe we could use that as a tool to look at something that is dying inside us all day, every day, and reborn at the same time. So I guess that the metaphysical issue, if there is something like that, because I mean, I know I sound very intellectual and super intellectual about it, but I'm not, actually. I mean, I read very few philosophy. I basically am only concerned with poetry. So I have a very sensitive approach to this material. But the thing is, the whole game is not about death itself. It is about rituals and the cycles we have in ourselves with the emotions that we go through every day, that everybody is going through every day, and that we need to understand and that we need to pay attention to so that we can be able to be human with others, with ourselves, a kind of connection like that.

[00:06:08.669] Kent Bye: The poetry is an interesting connection just because it felt like you were using these other people that were witnessing this near-death experience. It's almost like you were able to go into their lives and navigate between their memories, but almost as a metaphor for the associations that they had leading up to that point, but also their peak emotional experiences, so that you're able to kind of tune into that moment in time, but kind of fractally go into each individual's mind. You're kind of freezing time in a way and then being able to go through the history and the past of these people's minds and then sort of discover different aspects of what you may have in common with all these other people that happen to be at that same moment in time.

[00:06:50.875] Sabrina Calvo: Yes, exactly. And the thing is that VR is very interesting because the VR is a time in itself. It's like a frozen snapshot of an alternate reality that we can explore at leisure where the VR time is not the time we experience in real life. So it's kind of like super interesting to be suspended in this kind of moment where you can let this soul that you incarnate, or maybe it's not you that incarnates the soul, maybe it's the soul incarnating you, imprinted by the emotions and the traumas of other people. And that was super interesting because basically how trauma works is because when you see something traumatic, It activates in you something that is inside you, that has been inside you for a long time, that you're not paying attention, and that is reactivated all the time. And that loophole and that feeling that you have with that is what you visit in our game. Just like these people are watching you die, basically, and that brings back a loop of emotions inside them that is linked to a moment of time where they experienced that for maybe not the first time, but at an apex moment. And so these are the imprints that you are kind of like experiencing and you're kind of looking at these loops. And then once you're inside them, once you are them, basically what you can do is exit the loop to go back to kind of breathless, a breath, where you can appease the loop. And as you appease every single traumatic resurgence in this person, then you can appease yourself at the same time. But you will not be able to enter these emotions and this souvenir if you have not experienced the same thing first. So you see, it's really an independence. And it's really tough to explain that linearly. It's impossible. So we have the VR time, and then we have the game design. The game design is allowing us a mild agency by choosing how you can move freely around these memories, how you can experience the order in which you can experience them, and the way you grab and weave the puzzles, the fragments of the story together in order to understand. But a lot of it is completely inexplicable. And it's set in Japan, and they're all speaking Japanese, they're all people from Japan. This thing is not scripted, they basically put their own lives in there. But it's not subtitled at all, because we wanted people to be able to experience these things in a non-verbal way. Just can you feel the story? Can you understand what is the underlying suffering or hope of joy in the story? And at the beginning, usually players don't understand that. They just try to say, OK, I'm not sure I got that right. And then as more as they go, because it's a very long experience for VR, It's like 25 minutes. They say, oh my god, no, what I thought was that is maybe not that. Maybe it's that. And then you activate yourself all the time. There is a huge space for participation. And that was, for me, that makes up for the loss of gesture, captation, and haptic feedback that we can have in VR. So it's kind of like we're going around all these super cool, poetic, metaphysical loopholes to create. the weight of the virtual world.

[00:10:01.547] Kent Bye: I had a very interesting experience when I went through Seven Lives because I had flown in on a red eye from Portland so I had slept on the plane for about four and a half hours and I ended up seeing about 14 VR experiences over the course of the day and I was fine for all of the other ones except for Seven Eyes, where because I think it was part of it being in Japanese, it's starting to loop, it started to be really blurry. It almost like was like putting me into like this altered state of consciousness. Usually when you see a piece of VR, you have a certain amount of prediction loop, but there was so much that was being disrupted about what was happening. It was like almost trying to invoke in me what it would feel like if I was actually in this kind of altered state of this liminal space of this in-between Bardo place where I'm able to freeze a moment in time and see how my actions are impacting other people's memories in that moment. But at the same time, just the way that it was kind of structured and kind of looping back and forth. And as I turn around, it's like I can't fully see everything at the same time. It's blurry. I can only look through like a little straw. So I have to like look around and peace of my mind. But all of that, it put me in a weird brain space that I've never experienced in VR, where it was almost like kind of being hypnotized in a weird kind of way.

[00:11:09.415] Sabrina Calvo: Yeah, that's super interesting because, I mean, obviously I'm interested by trends and I'm interested in drug experience and, well, I'm interested in opening up the doors of perception and VR is very powerful for that. It is a super, it activates parts of your brain and part of your cognitive perception that is super interesting to me. But we need to put a content warning to people, basically, when people want to test Seven Lives because Some of the people went through some traumatic event recently, and we're telling them, are you sure this thing can trigger things inside you? And the way we depict them, this very dreamy, weird way of looking at it, might be too tough for them. And that's correct. That's perfectly okay. But there is another thing. For the world development, we ask ourselves the question, when is it too much? I mean, like, conceptually and physically. Because of course, if we want to induce the weight of being a soul, you have to engage a part of the body too. And a lot of people have physical problems with the games. Not because it's like VR or whatever, it's really that it is something you're not used to because you can fly around and then you can be in suspension and then you are absorbed and then you can turn around, you can look around and then there is like things that are clipping in the game that are not really there and you have like a residual vision and then you have like hypnotical loops and mirrored places and then you have like this huge sound design around the player all the time that is telling another story there so it's a lot of signals it's a lot of silence sometimes it's too much sometimes it's not enough and this balance can be really upsetting to people you know and It's funny for me because I'm always shocked when I experience it after writing it and working on it for four years. I was like, there are things I can take in this game. You know, there are like the sequence where you're in the office with the Japanese manager who is like looking at you intently and formulating very hard things to cope with, I can't take it anymore, you know, because as a transgender woman I was confronted by these issues too, you know, but it's my experience of the problem and I put this thing out there and I know it can affect people. I mean, ethically, VR poses a lot of questions, I think. The same as video games. Video games have been around for a long time now and VR is kind of like still pretty new and the technology is not there yet, so we really need to engage our responsibility as creators now about what we propose. That's why we didn't want to create an entertaining experience with Seven Lives. That was hard. That was super hard not to tell a story, for instance. A lot of people say, oh my god, what is the story? Is there a beginning, a middle, and an end? Do people understand exactly what it means? And we're like, we don't want that, because this thing should be not an abstraction, but should be between two worlds, basically. And in-betweenness is always tough, because people think it's nowhere, but it's someplace. But at the same time, that's tough.

[00:14:24.830] Kent Bye: I feel like that VR is able to blaze new neural pathways into the brain, and so you're able to cultivate these series of images. So in this piece, there's a lot of loops and blurriness, and it's something that I've never had a spatial experience of before. I mean, I've seen little sequences in film, but it's quite different to be immersed within a world that is reacting to me in that way. I think because it was so new, there was so much cognitive load of trying to process it and make sense of it. And so I'm just curious if that's something that, as you have experienced this type of experience within VR, if it's easier for you to digest and discern, or if you found yourself, because this is a piece that you've made and presumably seen dozens and maybe even hundreds of times, and so you've been able to have those repetitions to blaze those neural pathways in your brain deal with those experiences that you're providing in the experience, but as people are experiencing it for the first time, I'm just curious to hear, like, if you see it, if you still go back to those original moments, or if you've developed a sort of capacity to be able to both discern and experience these types of aesthetic within VR.

[00:15:28.548] Sabrina Calvo: It's very tough when you're dealing with a million-dollar project where a lot of people are involved and a lot of technology is not sure. You don't know exactly what's going to happen. You have no idea. It's a leap of faith, basically. But I believe in the strongness of writing the project correctly, and I've been involved in depicting the invisible world and new neural pathways for all my life as a writer and a designer. So what I did for this game was more to write around the game for the people to understand what I was doing. Most of the writing I've done for the game is not inside the game. It's around it. It is for the people who are making the game. So I wrote pages of altered consciousness. point of view on a certain scene. I wrote conceptual world models to understand the structure of multidimensional reality, to understand transitioning between two states of consciousness, to describe accurately what it was to hallucinate under mushrooms and psychotrops. I wrote about Greek mysteries. about the rituals of Greek mysteries that are very similar to game design, actually, which I'm using ancient Greek mystery design as game design in my classroom. And Psychotrop, Greek mysteries, video games, they all have something in common that's super interesting. And so I didn't know what was going to happen because, honestly, I have an aesthetic But I can't control this whole team of people who all have these different ideas. But at some point I let go and I say, OK, what we can do is not trying to say, because Jan, the director, had his own version, because he's into some shamanic process of his own.

[00:17:19.282] Kent Bye: Did he also direct Ayahuasca? So he directed Ayahuasca, which is another sort of psychedelic journey.

[00:17:23.927] Sabrina Calvo: The two pieces really respond to each other in some ways. But my path is very different from Jan's. I'm not a shaman at all. I'm just a modest student of consciousness. So I thought that maybe if my writing and my poetry was evocative enough, people will all see what they could do in the game, and even if they have not experienced these altered states. And when I see the result, I say so many talented people worked on this piece, you know, and with their vision and everything, and somehow it coalesced together. But I do realize that there is something that was aesthetically there from the beginning, is the subway, the psychogrammetric way you experience the soul for the first time when you get out of your body and you watch all these people traumatized and freezed in time. That was from the beginning there and he set the type of aesthetics that everything could relate to. But for instance, the moment of peace that you experience in the quietness of this mirrored world, between worlds, that was Jans, for instance. He's obsessed with mirroring things and everything, and he brought that, and I know that the art team really worked to blend this vision inside the other vision. So it's kind of like, it's like a kaleidoscope that you play when you're a kid, you know? You look at this thing into the tube, and you look in the light, and it's beautiful, and then you pass around and say, look at this how beautiful is it and then the other one look at that and say oh my god that's beautiful and then he twist it and say look that's better and they're like, oh my god, you're right, that's better. So it's kind of like this back and forth aspect that I really like about video games, especially this collaborative work. But I do believe in strong writing that is not inside a game, that is around the game so that people can understand the reality that we're all evolving. Because words are reality in themselves, and they are a way to reunite themselves. And that's, for me, what it means to be a writer of video games. Also, there is narrative design, which is the way You use the narration as a gameplay in itself, you know, but that's different. That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about really how to bring a kind of invisible aesthetics together so that we can create this background, this molecular background to every single endeavor on the game. I wouldn't say poetry because it might be too pretentious, but it is right. It's just writing.

[00:19:43.276] Kent Bye: Well, in the experience, you're in this kind of liminal space of transition from being centered in the body to being centered into the soul. And just wondering if that in any way is a metaphor for the transitioning or the mixture that you have going from one gender to the next gender. For your own experience, if there is a part of your own journey there that is reflected here in this experience.

[00:20:03.748] Sabrina Calvo: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, everything I've done in the last five years is entirely linked to transitioning, but it's never the subject. And I'm very cautious not to do that because everybody I'm working with, I mean, want that because everybody's transitioning every day. Everybody's transitioning from, when I'm talking about my transition to people, a lot of people say, oh my God, I'm transitioning too these days, but between two states of life, between two, but that's exactly, that's beautiful. We are always transitioning and we are always thinking in certitudes about our own life. But we're not. Impermanence is everywhere. I know I sound like a Zen Buddhist person, but I'm not. That's the process of what we are. That's the process of life. For me, everything I'm writing is about transition all the time. My books are about transitioning. My games are about transitioning. But it's basically the way I see the world. I will never cease transitioning. I don't want to settle on a different, you know, maybe I am in society because that's where my point of view needs to be. But inside myself, it's an intense and a never-lasting process. You know, it is there. I believe in fluidity and our minds if there is such thing as spirituality and freedom of the mind is to be able to experience that fluidity in our daily lives and gestures and relationship with others you know and that's super important to me because if we have that if we keep that in mind that openness to possibilities and openness of being able to look back and being able to take what's work and what is not working, we might be able to experience this material world in a much better, safest place that we are right now.

[00:21:47.462] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's a theme that I see happening throughout the culture in many different potential philosophical shifts that we're on the brink of, going from seeing things as fixed quantities, fixed objects that are very quantitative binaries, that's the existing mainstream paradigm, but moving into something that's much more into the qualities and the spectrum and the process, the Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy or Chinese philosophy that doesn't see things as a fixed object, but more as a pattern of relationships that are in some sort of unfolding of beginning, middle, and end. And so just this idea that as VR and AI are coming up online, that we're moving away from fixed logic of programming into more giving things experiences of data and trying to figure out the higher level archetypal potentials of what the spectrum is. It becomes less of a fixed thing that you can point to, but more of a process that's constantly unfolding and changing and in transition.

[00:22:41.223] Sabrina Calvo: Yeah, and at the same time we both know how dangerous it is for the world right now, the states of flux, because people are using it in order to bring the world on the other side, basically. And, you know, that's something that we thought a lot when we designed the metaphysical cosmic model, the world model for the game, was that at some point, what is our philosophical point of view? And because we're talking about Japan, we are talking about some kind of what people used to call oriental philosophy. And we are Western people, and then we have the over-conception. But I don't believe in that. I don't believe that it's two different things. It's the same thing. It's just not experienced from the same part of the diamond. You know, I see reality as a diamond, and there are like facets on diamonds. and reflects light in a different way, but it's the same light and it's the same diamond, basically. So, what we try to do is to understand the underlying structure of fluidity, and the only thing that I can remotely approach as a truth in the world, but it's not, but in my opinion, is a rephrasing of old Greek archaic philosophy, which means that everything that is born tends to disappear. which was kind of like corrupted by nature loves to hide or there is a veil of ISIS you know all this kind of crap and everything so I'm not saying it's crap it's just like images of myth on the really very real process to me which is a process of organic entropy and it works in us it works in thoughts The whole meditation thing is all about paying attention to the space between appearance and disappearance of thoughts. And so that was the only philosophical thing that we were sure that we could defend correctly. there is this tendency in the world and what makes us human is that we have the tool with the consciousness to retain the flow all the time and to make it like somehow in material in objects that we can either worship or use or take care of and object concepts, ideas, whatever. And then we have this, it's like basically being in water and fighting waves and trying to retain them as they go out, you know, and trying to fight them when they go back, you know, so it's kind of like that makes us human. And that was the only thing really that we could, and the rest is very difficult because We need to pay attention to who owns our technology and where the technology is coming from. Technology is informed from the beginning by the people who are designing the technology. It's not about, oh, technology is not good or bad in itself. I don't believe in that. I believe technology in itself is coming from a place, and from this place it is informed by the practice of the people who are creating from this place. So we're still using VR. We are seeing in Tribeca, in the Western world, in capitalist Western world of material, whatever, and I have problems trying to posturize something that is still a product, that is still an object that is going to be sold and distributed by the traditional channels of material finitude of the world, you know, so that's very disturbing to me. And that's why I didn't want it to be, we didn't want it to be a piece of entertainment. I was, you say, okay, if we are still playing this game of technology inside this world and we know where we are and we know what we're doing, At least the minimum that we can do is treat our material correctly and engage with it correctly and be true to ourselves and not fool ourselves. And a lot of people don't get it. They say, oh, the story doesn't make any sense or I'm getting physically sick from the game and I don't understand. It doesn't mean it. Whatever. I don't care.

[00:26:31.384] Kent Bye: I'd be really curious to hear your thoughts on the language of VR. Because you come from a poetry background, a lot of poetry is about metaphor and images and symbol and being able to use those associations and string them together. And it feels like VR is going to be very similar of those associations and symbols coming in. And it's a little bit of the dialectic between the word and the image. So there's something about poetry that's kind of like that bridge between the word and the image. But with VR, you're kind of bypassing the baggage that comes with the words, but you're able to use embodied experiences to maybe invoke these deep, unconscious memories. But it feels like it's more similar to poetry than any other written modality, just because it's so mysterious and associative and filled with metaphor. But I'm just curious to hear what you think about the language of virtual reality and its connections to poetry.

[00:27:22.293] Sabrina Calvo: Well, I will be cautious in speaking about poetry because a lot of assumptions about poetry are wrong, I think. A lot of people think that poetry is like truth and a lot of people hate poetry, you know. But I mean, I don't versify, for instance, and for me, that's why I wanted to say before entering this kind of answer is what it means to me, what does poetics mean to me. For me, it is extracting the meaning of the things and finding the ways to evoke the feelings of the things instead of the things themselves. And that's not for me. That's a theory that was kind of like experimented by Stéphane Mallarmé, a French poet. And he wanted words. He was digging into the verse. He was using this very sophisticated, symbolic reality. And he was super smart. And a lot of people cannot understand Stéphane Mallarmé at all. And I know I don't understand Stéphane Mallarmé. What I know is that I can feel Stéphane Mallarmé's writing really much. And that's why I like what he does. It's because I'm just I don't engage with the world, I engage with the way it's structured, the colors and the thing it resonates in me. And I have a couple of sentences and words that are still with me all the time. It's a description of gestures, a description of processes and it's so beautiful. So for me that would be that. It works for video games too. It's poetry according to the definition I just gave, which is not the definition most of the people have of poetry, let me be clear. For me, it is the language of video games too. It is also this kind of like trying to create another symbolic reality because we are already living in symbolic reality right now. We do have a perception of what is real, but a lot of this realness is fused and interpreted and packed into symbolic realities that we all share in order to function together and to have the same look at the real. because of subjectivity, because of Kaliya, because of all this super impossibility to express things. It's like if I'm telling you I'm hurt, you will understand that I'm hurt, but what does it mean? It means something for me, it doesn't mean the same thing for you, but you cannot understand that you're hurt, we're all hurting. For me, video games, VR is more immersive, and right now the technology is not there yet, so that means we have to be super dense, super tight in the experience, and tightness is always good poetry. You know, Malarmé was super dense. It was like... And Poe said that the poem should not be long, and I think he was right on that. Poe was not the greatest poet. I mean, for me, he's one of the greatest poets, but it was... Pure poetry is not... on the level of some others, but he understood poetry very well. And he said that you should always try to be as short as you can, because it's something that should be immediate. It's an instant. It's a moment. It's something that you grab, and it stimulates an image in you. It stimulates a meaning in you. It stimulates a feeling. And then I do think, and I hope so, that we are moving towards this with our culture, that we are moving toward this super beautiful expression of meaning and nuance and subtle. And that's why I'm making games and that's why I love engaging with games because a lot of indies today are completely into that. When you look at some of the games on itch.io today and creators like Porpentine or Carastone, or a lot of these amazing artists playing with the format of games today. It is pure poetry. It is so much more interesting than old poetry I'm reading these days, you know. And I'm like, okay, I've realized that when you play a game that engages with an idea beautifully, that blends aesthetics, words, interactivity, and design, and fullfootness, that is so powerful. And that's why I encourage a lot of people to play these games. Even here, people say, oh, you know games. It's like, OK, these big AAA things and everything. But this is not what games are about today. And a lot of these creators will never say to you they are poets, will never say to you that they are doing poetry. But they're all doing that. And that's saying a lot about them.

[00:31:38.405] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality is and what it might be able to enable?

[00:31:48.251] Sabrina Calvo: I'm not a prophet. I don't know. I have trouble trying to understand the future of technology. What I know is that I'm trying to do things with the technology we have right now. And I'm always pushing the limitations of what we have right now and then become something else that's good. What I do know about me and what I want from VR is gestures. I am obsessed with gestures and the moment the granularity of captation in VR will be able to simulate the subtleties of a delicate gesture. That will be the moment where we'll engage with VR, commit to VR fully. It's like the moment where we can say, OK, can we describe this beautiful turning of a hand inward toward the light reflecting on a snail, for instance? And then you can actually do that. And what's interesting is that in a lot of virtual worlds these days, we're not there. You're not able to control a finger, but we're getting there. It's scripted, but we can create and we have mesh technologies now in some virtual worlds where you can actually really affect the frames and the structure of the avatars and the world around you. Yeah, and I need space. The VR and vision is like, I need people to be able to walk in huge hangars together and move around together and be able to... I mean, I'm taking a lot of pictures of people playing our games, but I'm not interested in the whole picture, I'm interested in the way their neck is curving, for instance, when they're looking at the sky, at something inside the mask, and there is nothing around them, just a booth, you know, just empty space. And yesterday, there was someone who was raising her hands to touch something inside the game. And it was so beautiful. It was like a perfect frame of a human being trying to touch the invisible. And that is, for me, everything.

[00:33:46.226] Kent Bye: Yeah. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:33:55.075] Sabrina Calvo: We need to engage with the material for what it is, not for what we want it to be. Fuck movies. That's basically all I have to say. Okay, great. Well, thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:34:08.959] Kent Bye: So that was Sabrina Calvo. She's a sci-fi writer of Weird Fiction, a video game designer for the last 20 years, and she co-wrote and designed Seven Lives. So, I have a number of different takeaways about this interview, is that first of all, Well, Seven Lives was a very interesting experience. In fact, I think it's probably one of those experiences where you would have a wide range of different things that people have to say about it because it was so ambiguous, has a very large range of what people react to it. This is a type of experience where I go through the experience and then I have a conversation with one of the creators and I have so much deeper appreciation about what they were able to do and able to create. Part of it is just a bit of a confusion as to what it was about exactly and to hear a little bit more about the design intentions then allows me to kind of compare that to my own experience as well as to kind of think about the different aspects of either the production process or my own experience of the piece. I think there are some things that are giving you some very high cognitive load. So like they're making things very blurry and you can only kind of like see things from like a small window, almost like looking through a big straw. And then there was like different aspects of time looping, which was tripping my brain into a different mode of consciousness. And they were really trying to play with your levels of perception in this piece. And I think the challenge of the piece like this is that as somebody who's just coming in and seeing it, then it may make them sick or may give a very visceral reaction to that, which is I think what Sabrina alluded to there is that this was an experience that may have catalyzed people into feeling a little motion sick or a little disoriented. But the fact that you're kind of floating around and you have the game design component of you're in this world and you kind of choose where you go, you have the option to go into these different people's bodies. And then you kind of like piece together, oh, you're kind of freezing a moment in time and seeing how this event that's happening, this very traumatic event of somebody committing suicide in the subway. And then everybody that's watching it is then watching this happen and then have all these other memories come up. And then you kind of float into their bodies to see what is coming up. So also kind of playing with different styles. So using 360 video with these point cloud visualizations and you navigating around this kind of nonlinear narrative in a way that you have a lot of latitude as to what order you see things in. And I'm not quite sure how much branching there was, but I just kind of like intuitively went to these different people and then it ended. So it's hard for me, unless you do it many times to know what other aspects of branching there might've been in this experience. But I do want to sort of unpack a little bit since this is part of this larger series of dreams, dream logic, and the symbolic storytelling language of virtual reality. So in this instance, there's a lot of symbolism that's in there in terms of you're moving around like you're out of your body, you're disembodied. And so this metaphor for transition and also the soul the embodied aspect of the soul and you know because Sabrina is this transgender woman and talking about a lot of the art that she's creating is about these different aspects of transition and that she says that everybody is transitioning every day we're always transitioning that's just a part of life and that She's never gonna cease transitioning and that it's this intense and everlasting process That's unfolding and that they're really trying to advocate these aspects of fluidity. And so in this experience, it's not about being constant in one state But you're kind of floating and being fluid into diving into these different people's lives and their various different associations You're kind of freezing time in different ways So there's a lot of interesting things about the medium of VR and what's it good for. And I think this is actually kind of tapping into being able to see the interdependence of an event. She said that it'd be very difficult to kind of explain how these interdependent connections happen, but that if you're in this video game environment in the simulation, you see this event and then you're able to see what is coming up for each of these people. Then you're able to explore the processes and interdependence and fluidity in a way that is very difficult to explore just like reading in linear narrative. So they're really trying to use the affordances of the spatial storytelling and the symbolic ways of using these different metaphors to be able to explore concepts that just kind of transcend linearity and transcend these binaries and trying to get into this sense of this flux and this deeper metaphysical cosmological statement that they were trying to see. Like, what was their point of view? And they're really trying to come up with this underlying structure of fluidity. And that everything that is born tends to disappear and really exploring these different Buddhist concepts. Also very much influenced by a lot of the psychedelic journeys. And the other experience that was at Tribeca was called Ayahuasca. The director was working both on Seven Lives as director and Ayahuasca. And so there's kind of a relationship there. Ayahuasca was much more of a straightforward, explicit psychedelic journey. You sitting down in the Amazon jungle, and then you going into this altered state where there's a very fixed, linear psychedelic journey. And then also these connections to poetry and talking to Sabrina about Stéphane Mallarmé, who was very much into this symbolic poetry and read up about him, hadn't heard of him before. Part of it probably is because his poetry is very difficult to translate into English, just because there's a lot of wordplay that's happening within the French language. And there's also not literal translations into the quality that he's trying to evoke. It's very symbolic and mysterious and not literal. And so even people who are French, have difficulty kind of really understanding the deeper meaning, but there may be just a feeling or emotion that comes up when hearing all these sounds together. And so taking that same type of inspiration to see how there may be different aspects of using virtual reality to kind of very similarly explore these mysterious, dreamlike, poetic, symbolic qualities where you may not necessarily know what things mean. I think Seven Lives is a good experience that you go through it and you're like, what the hell does that mean? I think you get a wide range of different answers. And, you know, to kind of unpack the experience of this conversation, I certainly got a lot more context as to the deeper intentions. So, you know, one of the things that Sabrina was saying is that the definitions that she uses around poetry is that you're extracting the essence of things to be able to evoke the feeling of the thing without actually using the explicit thing itself. So you're able to digest a lot of these complex aspects of the human nature and then put it into the medium of whether it's poetry or virtual reality immersive experience or a video game. And so she was saying that poetry may actually be kind of a natural language of video games, even though video game designers wouldn't necessarily identify as poets. But there's a lot of similarities of this type of symbolic communication, which I think is very similar to poetry. It's very similar to dreams and dream logic, as well as this psychedelic journey experience. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for joining me today on the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a list of supported podcast. And so I do rely upon donations from listeners in order to continue to bring you this coverage. Just $5 a month is a great amount to give and allows me to continue to bring you this real-time oral history of the evolution of spatial computing and immersive storytelling. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com. Thanks for listening.

More from this show