Last year, Baobab Studios’ Eric Darnell was skeptical about adding interactivity to virtual reality stories because he felt like there was a tradeoff between empathy and interactivity. But after watching people experience their first VR short Invasion!, he saw that people were much more engaged with the story and wanted to get more involved. He came to that realization that it is possible to combine empathy and interactivity in the form of compassion acts, and so he started to construct Baobab’s next VR experience Asteroids! around the idea of allowing the user to participate in an act of compassion.
I had a chance to catch up with Darnell at Sundance where we talked about his latest thoughts about storytelling in VR, and explored his insights from their first explorations of what he calls “emotional branching.” Darnell says that one of the key ingredients of a story is “character being revealed by the choices that they make under pressure.” Rather than make you the central protagonist as a video game might, in Asteroids! you’re more of a side kick who can choose whether or not to help out the main characters. This allows an authored story to be told though the main characters that are ultimately independent of your actions, but your “local agency” choices still flavor your experience in the sense that there are different “emotional branches” of the story for how the main protagonists react to you based upon your decisions.
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Unpacking the nuances of these emotional branches showed me that Asteroids! was doing some of the most interesting explorations of interactive narrative at Sundance this year, and I would’ve completely missed them had I not had this conversation with him. We explore some of the more subtle nuances of the story, and so I’d recommend holding off on this interview if you don’t want to get too many spoilers (it should be released sometime in the first half of 2017). But Darnell is a master storyteller, and he’s got a lot of really fascinating thoughts about how stories might work in VR that are worth sharing out to the storytellers in the wider VR community.
They’re also doing some interesting experiments of adding in body language mirroring behaviors into the other sidekick characters that are based upon social science research in order to create subtle cues of connecting to the characters and story. There is another dog-like robot the experience that is in the same sidekick class as you where you can play fetch with it and interact with in subtle ways.
Storytelling is a time-based art form that has a physical impact of releasing chemicals in our bodies including cortisol at moments of dramatic tension, oxytocin with character interactions, and dopamine at the resolution of that dramatic tension. Given these chemical reactions, Darnell believes that the classic 3-act structure of a story taps is something that is encoded within our DNA. Storytelling is something that has helped humans evolve, and it’s part of what makes us human. He cites Kenneth Burke saying that “Stories are equipment for living.” Stories help us learn about the world by watching other people making choices under pressure.
There’s still a long ways to go before we achieve the Holy Grail of completely plausible interactive stories that provide full global agency while preserving the integrity of a good dramatic arc. It’s likely that artificial intelligence will eventually have a much larger role in accomplishing this, but Asteroids! is making some small and important steps with Darnell’s sidekick insights and “emotional branching” concept. It was one of the more significant interactive narrative experiments at Sundance this year, and showed that it’s possible to combine empathy and interactivity to make a compassionate act.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So on today's episode, I have Eric Darnell, who is a master storyteller coming from the film world. He's one of the co-founders of Baobab Studios and created Invasion, which is probably the most successful narrative in VR that we've seen so far. It's a short film featuring Chloe, a bunny who's defending the earth from two invading aliens. So back at Sundance 2016, I talked to Eric, and he had a lot of thoughts about this contradiction between empathy and interactivity, how they were really two ends of the spectrum, and they were really in conflict with each other. Well, after a year of watching people go through invasion in VR, Eric's evolved his thinking a little bit to the point where he sees that it is possible to combine empathy and interactivity, and that combination is through compassion. So Baobab Studios was at Sundance this year premiering Asteroids, which is a short narrative film that introduces some light interactivity and emotional branching. So we'll be doing a deep dive into storytelling and emotional branching on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference and Expo. SVVR is the can't miss virtual reality event of the year. It brings together the full diversity of the virtual reality ecosystem. And I often tell people if they can only go to one VR conference, then be sure to make it SVVR. You'll just have a ton of networking opportunities and a huge expo floor that shows a wide range of all the different VR industries. SVVR 2017 is happening March 29th to 31st. So go to VRExpo.com to sign up today. So this interview with Eric happened at Sundance. It was happening in Park City, Utah from January 19th to 29th. And before we get started, I just wanted to give people a heads up that we are going to be exploring all the different various emotional branches that happen in asteroids. And so If you want to wait until the experience comes out so you don't have any potential spoilers, then feel free to wait to listen to this interview. I think that there is quite a bit of unpacking of the content of the story, and so if you want to experience it before you listen to the unpacking of it, then Hold off on this interview, come back to episode 501 after it comes out sometime in the first half of this year. They don't have an exact release date. But I think that the content of what Erica is talking about is important enough for people who are involved in storytelling and VR. There's enough insights in here that I think are important to share out to the community. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:59.545] Eric Darnell: I'm Eric Darnell. I'm the Chief Creative Officer at Bebeb Studios. And, you know, we've been around for, you know, a year and a half or so. Our first piece was Invasion, which surprised us probably more than anybody about how well it actually did. It was a top downloaded piece, you know, above many games and things like that. And, you know, I think games and VR are a match made in heaven. But what it proved to us is that there is also space in VR for just pure entertainment. storytelling, stuff that's not necessarily filled with interactivity, and so it was kind of vindicating, I guess, in a way.
[00:03:36.800] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I remember one of the things that you told me last year was that there is a little lack of a conflict between the empathy and interactivity and that the more that you have engagement with a scene, the less empathetic that you're able to do. There seems to be like this receiving and giving that happens. So I'm curious to hear, since you have a little bit more interactivity in this experience, how you're thinking on that has evolved a little bit.
[00:03:59.396] Eric Darnell: Well, you know, when I started, you know, I had seen Chris Milk's great TED talk about empathy and coming from the film world, I sort of thought, you know, I think maybe we know a little something about empathy in cinema and I don't think that VR has necessarily cornered the market. But when I saw how people were reacting to the little bunny in Invasion and dancing around and reaching out and trying to touch Chloe, which is the name of the bunny, I realized that there is something actually very unique and special about VR that doesn't just make it a extension of cinema, but is really a brand new medium. So I became more humble and realized that I needed to keep my eyes open and my mind open and just do the work of discovering what's in the toolkit of VR. And because we're doing computer animation and on a higher end headset, we're rendering that stuff on the fly, two frames every 11 milliseconds, once for each eye, we can change the experience based upon how the user chooses to participate. So, I found a way to think about interactivity that was different than how we typically think of a game. By definition, a game is a challenge, something that you try to win. A good example is, let's say there's a little girl crying on a park bench all by herself and you come along and see her. If it's a game, your motives for talking to her or helping her, are often achievement-based. You're the star of your own story. You might help the girl and get brownie points or learn something about what you need to do to get to the next level. And that all makes perfect sense. But in cinema, you sit there and you empathize with that little girl and you know there's nothing you can do. about the fact that she's in trouble and need somebody to help her and you just wait to see what happens next. Of course, in real life, if this girl's crying on a park bench, most of us would act immediately and do something that's not based on, hey, I could be a hero or I could learn something about the world I'm in. It's just purely driven by empathy. So VR gives us an opportunity to take the interactivity the games provide, the deep sort of empathy that you feel in cinema when there's nothing else you can do, and then the fact of real life You combine that stuff together, and I think that's the great potential of VR. And in essence, how I think of it is that empathy, when you also have interactivity, gives you the possibility for compassion, which is empathy in action. A compassionate act, right? What we're trying to do with Asteroids, and we're only scratching the surface, I admit it, we haven't found the Holy Grail yet, but it's this idea that you're engaged in the story, you're involved, you're part of the story, you get to know these characters, you get to care about them and empathize with them. And then when the opportunity comes to interact, the motive for interactivity is not to win, it's just because you want to help. It's a compassionate act. And so that's what we're trying to do with Asteroids on a very rudimentary level, but I think that's a great potential of VR as we go into the future, to really get people drop them into this story that's bigger than life, bigger than them, and suddenly they are an actor in this story. That maybe they're not even the main character, but they care about what's going on, and when somebody turns to them and says, please help me, the reason to help them is because they care, and they want that other character to get what they want, or more importantly, to get what they need.
[00:07:24.950] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the things I really appreciated about Asteroids was that you're in this spaceship and you can look all around and it feels like there's a whole entire world building of this backstory of these two characters, Mac and Cheese, the two aliens that are flying around on this ship. And you have these little areas, they're almost like little shrines and you almost want to go over and kind of look into their worlds a little bit more and learn about them. but that you are starting to also introduce a couple different levels of interactivity. One, you're able to locomote around kind of a fixed space and you could really watch the narrative unfold from any perspective but you're giving these little teleportation locomotion ability to change your perspective of what's happening. But then you have these other moments that are kind of triggered where you have a choice to interact in a certain way and I was watching the film and then the buzzers rang and I picked up the controllers, I was like, okay, now I can interact. And then I push the button right away. And then I just, it was almost a little unsatisfying because it was like, oh, I wonder what would have happened if I didn't. So the next time I didn't do that right away, I was trying to like avoid that conditioned response of like feeling that moment of like, okay, now I can interact. And so I didn't, and I was like put into a jail, you know? And then I sort of like, then I wondered, well, if I would have done it, would I not have these like stuck in this jail to watch from this partially occluded perspective? So maybe you could talk about the early experiments that you're doing in asteroids and what you were trying to really accomplish with these different levels of interaction.
[00:08:46.775] Eric Darnell: Well, since storytelling is our number one goal at Baobab, that's always going to take precedent over everything else. And what I mean by that is that a great story that follows sort of classic storytelling structure and paradigms, it's a time-based art form, like a piece of music. and so you don't want to like get partially through a story and then stop and give the viewer unlimited amount of time to solve a puzzle or figure out what to do or anything else because the story has to move forward. You're working, you're building to this emotional epiphany and if you stop, it's like if there's a Beethoven symphony and you stop in the middle and give everybody like flugelhorns and say, hit middle C and then we'll move on, you know? It's, you know, you've totally ruined the experience of that time-based art, right? So what we do is treat it like real life. You can interact or you can not interact and whether you do or don't, the story is going to continue to go forward and we maintain control of that story so that we can deliver what we hope is a satisfying climax. So we're not doing branching narrative. In my mind, it's hard enough to tell one story, but by not doing branching narrative, we maintain control, we hope, over that overall arc. that is really important for appreciating the story. But instead what we think of it as is branching emotions. So you can choose to act and help a character and they may do something to acknowledge that. They may appreciate you or whatever that means. They may be happy. If you don't help them they may get mad at you and you know put you in jail or ignore you But the core spine of the story will continue moving forward no matter what. So by the end of the experience, if you have decided to be, I'm going to be the jerk in this story, then by the time you get to the end, maybe everybody else will hate you. But the story itself is still maintaining that flow. And if you've decided that you care enough about these characters to participate, then you may have a different emotional trajectory as a viewer experience. And even the other characters can have a different emotional journey but ultimately the story itself reaches that unexpected yet inevitable conclusion that all stories need to reach so that we have that epiphany at the end.
[00:11:03.225] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I noticed that there's a character that's like this little floating robot, almost like a dog, where you're able to play fetch with it. And it had a little bit of like mirroring effects, where if you moved your head around, it would kind of mirror what you were doing. And so it felt like you had more of an intimate connection and being able to engage and interact with this side character in a lot of ways, and that there was the two main protagonists of the mac and cheese aliens that were kind of playing out their story. But maybe you could expand a little bit about that robot character and what you were trying to do with that.
[00:11:31.741] Eric Darnell: The robot character is really your corollary. You and this other robot character are kind of on the same level. So you can see what that character's going through and it connects with the kind of things that you're going through. You're both kind of underappreciated. You're both sort of these menial little robots that are on the periphery of what these aliens are doing that they think is so important. And, you know, you talk about mirroring and these things are really, really valuable tools that we have. to help cement a connection between you and a character in the story. I've been doing some research into the signals that people give each other. Like if you see two lovers out to dinner, they may both be adopting the exact same physical pose as they look into each other's eyes. And they may not even be thinking about the fact that they have the identical pose, because it's actually something that we all do. In fact, there was a study done at Stanford where they had a computer animated salesman that's basically pitching something to the test subject. And they had a straight one, the control group, where just, you know, nice salesman pitching this idea. And then they had the experimental version of this, where the computer animated salesman would actually, four seconds after the test subject adopted a new posture, the computer animated salesman would adopt the same posture and then would continue to deliver the sales pitch. And while none of the test subjects recognized that they were being mirrored, 30% of the test subjects liked the guy more, 30% of them were more likely to buy what the guy was selling, and none of them had any idea that this was happening. So there's all these social cues that we give each other that are a huge part of interpersonal communication, and it's all under the radar. And yet, it's a significant percentage of how we think and feel about each other. So, that's something that, if we understand that, we can integrate that into the VR experience, because we know the orientation of the viewer's head, we know what they're doing with their hands, and as we get more advanced haptics and just information about what the viewer's doing, we'll be able to really dig in deeper and deeper and make these kind of emotional connections. more powerful, as the viewer has no idea that it's even happening to them. So that's something that's really important to us as we move forward in the future, is finding these sort of social, subconscious things that we all do when we communicate, that will just, as I said, help us connect with these characters.
[00:13:55.924] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know in the first experience there wasn't really a lot of embodiment in terms of your hands and what you're able to do and be able to pick up and throw things around. So maybe you could talk a bit about the process of adding those hands and what type of interactions that was able to bring to your storytelling.
[00:14:11.848] Eric Darnell: Well, you know, like with Invasion, when we were creating that, the hand controllers weren't out there yet. So we had to work without the hand controllers. And one of the instigators for me of this whole compassion idea is that there were a lot of people who took the headset off and said, that moment when the bunny got behind me and the aliens were in front of me and they were pointing their antennas at us and they were going to blast us away. I felt like I needed to do something to help that bunny. I needed to find a way to make sure she would be safe. That to me was like, oh, OK, we need to get some compassion and action in there. And the hand controllers give you the ability to interact in the environment, obviously, in ways that you can't when you don't have them. It's definitely a challenge, interactivity. And it's this fine balancing act. And so much of it also depends upon the viewer. Are they a hardcore gamer who are really versed in interactivity? Those people will tend to be looking more seriously for more interactive moments. If you're somebody who likes to go to movies who's never had a VR headset on, you may not even realize that you can turn your head. So we have this wide skill set that the audience brings to the table. And so we tried to design something with asteroids that would allow both extremes to appreciate or at least feel somewhat comfortable in that world. It means that if you're looking for a hardcore gaming experience, you're probably not looking in the right place. But nevertheless, by doing things like putting the viewer in jail at times when they think perhaps they've made a mistake, It works really well because then the viewer knows that, all right, I'm in jail, there's nothing I can do right now. And then they're in a great position to then absorb the really important story points. When we didn't do that, a lot of people were running around the ship trying to find other things that they could touch and press and change. They were missing all these really critical story beats that would allow them to understand the bigger picture. So it became both something that worked narratively for us and also something that was practical. Because you can't stand every place in that spaceship and understand what's happening with the narrative. By putting him in this little position that it's jail, it also happens to be the best place to stand to watch these story beats happen. And then once they happen, you understand the context and you understand the stakes, then the aliens let you out again and say, please help. And you know what the stakes are and you know what needs to be done.
[00:16:33.385] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that in most interactive games they have a little bit of a context switch where you're in that story receiving mode and then you have that switch where you're able to interact and I feel like you still are in that paradigm of those context switches which are pretty explicit in terms of allowing people to know. I guess the thing that I wonder though is whether or not that is a little bit of a presence breaker and the reason why I say that is because presence is all about plausibility. You want to have this sense that the space that you're in is real and then when you have a bounded set of agency then you start to be frustrated that you're not able to have that full ability to express that agency and so there's experiences like Rick and Morty's simulator which is built upon job simulator which you know they built it such that you could take a shoe and throw it in somebody's face and they would stop the narrative and they would say something about like hey don't do that and maybe they would pick up again you know and so they're able to kind of go to that extreme of like maintaining that level of agency and interactivity without doing these explicit context switches that could be a little bit like feeling of you know contrived like now the story's being shoved down my throat in a way where I'm not able to stop it. And I think that the crux of the challenge of interactive narratives is how do you allow that ability to interact, but not break presence in a way that may feel contrived.
[00:17:54.507] Eric Darnell: Yeah, it's a huge challenge. And I think by making it part of the story, even though, yeah, you're trapped in a corner for a little while, but there's a reason. You know, it's a baby step for us, I think, in finding that mesh, because I agree with you that In terms of storytelling, it's back to the symphony. You're following this emotional journey of the story and then you stop to kill zombies or whatever it is. And so whatever emotional momentum you have loses a little bit of energy and you have to work hard again to regain that. So the goal, or the holy grail for us, is to find ways to keep the viewer engaged in the story and perhaps with interactivity, but without having them disengaging from the story. And it's not easy. I mean, like I said, we've taken a baby step in that direction. I mean, one of the simple things that I would do next time is not have a big, giant room that you can walk all around in. Give the viewer something a little bit more contained so that you know that they're going to be in a place where they will be able to appreciate the narrative because of the way that they're situated in the environment that's not about being pinned into a corner, but it's about this is the nature of the environment that I'm in, if that makes any sense.
[00:19:07.167] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think that, you know, the thing that you were saying earlier about being able to combine empathy with interactivity is, you know, compassion. And so I'm curious to hear some of the responses that you've had in terms of that, because there's some moments in this experience where you're able to act out of empathy and embody that compassion. And so just curious to hear how that's been received.
[00:19:27.163] Eric Darnell: You know, a lot of people say as they're struggling to understand what it is that they need to do, that they're like, I really wanted to do the right thing. I wanted to do the right thing so bad. And when I finally realized that I could do this thing and and save the day, I felt so good. But I was so wrapped up in that moment and I was so worried. And that's exactly what I want to hear from people. You know, I don't want to ruin asteroids for people, but there's a point where You are the one that's the difference between life and death for a character. And so we want to give the viewer time to understand what it is that's happening and what it is that they need to do. But we don't want to stop the story for that and have the characters go into like a cycle, you know, while while the viewers trying to figure it out. So instead, what we have is we build the tension over that moment. So while one character is on death's door, the other characters turning the viewer and saying, oh my god, you can save the day with a smile on his face. This is the answer. And if the viewer is still not doing what they should be doing, this character gets more emphatic and suddenly he's like angry, going, oh my god, you got to do it, save the guy, for god's sakes, you're the one, you know? And it gets crazy. And so you actually get this build of character and you get this build of tension. And then when you do it, it's even more satisfying. Of course, We're not going to wait forever. So all those events are timed out based upon a real sort of narrative through line of what another character is experiencing. And then in that scenario, I don't know if you tried both options, but in that scenario, finally, there's this guy screaming at you like, my God. You have the power to save this life! This other little robot character is like watching his master and looking at you, and finally he will rip your hand off of your arm and use your hand to activate that button to save the life. And then, if you save the life of the character, then this other alien, who has been pissed off at you the entire story, turns to you and says, Oh my God, you saved my friend's life. Thank you so much. You are a valued member of our team and he bows to you and gives you this moment of like, wow, I finally proved myself. I finally mean something. But if you don't and the other character rips your hand off, then when that life is saved, nobody turns to you. Nobody thanks you. They thank the other character and then they go off and have a party and you're just standing there. Oh, well. And so that's the difference, like I said, between story branching and emotional branching.
[00:21:59.038] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm curious to hear the evolution from Invasion to Asteroids is that it seemed like a little bit like the hero of Invasion was Chloe, the bunny. And that was really like literally the enemies who were out to kill the bunny were like these evil aliens from another world, like the essence of the other. And so now, in this next episode, we're actually kind of a little bit more getting to know more about these aliens and learn more about them and maybe empathize with them a little bit more. So I'm curious to hear that arc and that trajectory from that first episode to this episode.
[00:22:34.505] Eric Darnell: Well, Invasion was really inspired by me watching the old War of the Worlds movie. I'd seen it a number of times. And, you know, it's the same ending every time, but it just somehow struck me, like, I mean, these guys, they're so advanced. You know, they've got this technology that's, like, way beyond the human race. And obviously they must have an intellect that's way beyond the human race. and yet they're just bumblers, they're massive bumblers who forget to account for microbiology. That's a huge, stupid mistake. It's almost Deus Ex Machina in a way, but what a mistake. And when H.G. Wells wrote that, that was the cutting edge of science and fascinating for people to realize what was the alien's downfall and it meant so much at the time. So I just thought, let's do the same thing. Let's have these two aliens come down, intent on destruction and taking over the planet. But they forget to account for the power of a little white bunny. What I didn't account for is the power of the little white bunny. And Chloe stole the show. And nobody cared about the aliens, and everybody wants this Chloe plushie. And she became the star and became in our advertising. And she was the face of invasion. So because I'd thought a lot more about these two alien characters and what drove them and almost thought of them as sort of like this Laurel and Hardy team, you know, they're bumbling guys. They get frustrated with each other, but they will always be together. They have this friendship that's deeper than anything that they could come up against. Just, you know, Laurel and Hardy got into some really bad scrapes and they were usually responsible for it. But you always knew at the end of the day that these guys were always going to be together. So I thought asteroids would give us an opportunity to dig deeper into what made these guys tick. So in Asteroids, Mac is this OCD guy. The window has to be absolutely spotless. No screwing around on the bridge. And he's frustrated at everybody, including the viewer. Nobody's taking this seriously. We're doing important work here. His drive for that perfection ultimately leads to putting his friends in danger. And so it's a simple arc that he has, but he is really the star of the story. He's the one that makes this big change. He's the one that realizes that, you know, these friends that he has means a lot more than a clean windshield. And so the viewer, while they're critical, if they choose to act, in the climax of the story, the viewer is not the main character. They are the secondary character. They're a sidekick. And when I was trying to sort of figure this out, I was looking at Lord of the Rings and thinking about, you know, Frodo is, everybody would say, the main character of Lord of the Rings. He's got the hero's journey, you know, he's bearing this incredible burden, and everything is on his shoulders. And Sam is like, He's not there because he has any heroic thing to do. He just is there because he cares about Frodo. Frodo's his friend. He loves him. So he carries the backpack. He makes breakfast. He's not really the guy. If he turned around and said, screw this, I'm going back to the Shire, the story is not going to follow him. It's going to follow Frodo. But there were times in that story where if Sam wasn't there, Frodo would have failed, or at least it would have been a lot more difficult for him. And as I was looking into this, I had forgotten this, but the last chapter of the trilogy is with Sam and his family in the Shire. And they're clearly going to live a great life together, and all this adventuring is behind them. And somebody asked Tolkien, why did you end the books with Sam, why didn't you end it with the main character? And he said, I did end it with the main character. And I think what he meant by that was that Sam was the audience. You know, Frodo sometimes is a real pain in the ass, but Sam, like, loves him through thick and thin. And that gives the audience this path into understanding Frodo and, you know, Sam's such a nice guy. If he likes Frodo, then maybe I can like him too, even when he's being a jerk or, you know, or cowering in a corner or something. So I thought that that in a way is a interesting entry for the viewer into any kind of story. They're not the main character. And storytelling is all about, at least classic storytelling, which is what we're trying to do, is all about character being revealed by the choices that they make under pressure. So the viewer isn't revealing anything about them. They know who they are, you know? So I think you really need that. You need some other character in the story that is really the spine, that's really driving things and will surprise the viewer. through the choices that they make under pressure or the way that they change based upon the things that are happening around them. And there's certainly other stories you can tell or other ways you can do it where the viewer is the main character, but that is the kind of experience that traditional classic storytelling has delivered and has made it so powerful for thousands of years. Kenneth Burke, a literary theorist, I don't know anything about him except that he said stories are equipment for living. Stories are things that help us understand the world and when we see another character go through some traumatic thing and come out the other side because of the choices that they've made that surprise the main characters, perhaps as they surprise the audience, we really learn something about the world and how we can maybe change the way we would act in some dramatic, traumatic situation where we have to make that kind of a choice. It's a classic thing, the mousy librarian, you know, who the kids are talking too loud and nobody listens to her and her boss gives her trouble and then she's walking home from work you know in her little sweater with her purse clutched close to her and then there's a school bus on fire and all these people standing around and you know she could stand there and watch too but what if she throws her purse down while everybody else is standing around she runs into the bus and pulls the kids out well that is like a great moment for the audience to go, oh, I thought she was this weak, mousy librarian, but when shit hits the fan, she's the one that's actually going to get in there. And now I love her so much more than I did before. Those are the kinds of things that story can do to surprise us and to teach us about how the world can work. And it goes back to like cave paintings or you imagine some kids sitting around a campfire and Croc and Drog telling the story about their hunt that day. And Croc climbed up in a tree and he jumped down on the elk and stabbed it right in the neck. And we've never done that before. And then the kids are listening to that going, wow. he thought of that maybe I can start thinking about those kinds of things and change the way that we get our food and change the way that we live our life and change things for the better and so I really think that for at least classic storytelling to really work that you need to see another character go through that process and one of the things that I've been looking at is that when a story follows that classic structure and there's been scientific studies on that that there's actually brain chemistry involved when things get tense and dramatic and it's like heading up that progression of increasing choices under pressure that cortisol is released and that's a stress chemical that makes you like really pay attention and really focus and then when you reach that climax that's completely unimagined, but ultimately completely inevitable, then all this cortisol is released, and that's the love chemical, and it just gives people this euphoria. If you don't follow that structure, you don't get that same chemical release in the brain. I mean, I love the idea of experimenting with narrative structure, but there's something about that classic three-act structure, you know, everybody from Aristotle to McKee has their own way of defining what it is, but When you can do that, you're tapping into something that's in our DNA. It's something that we've evolved with as our stories have evolved, and it's what makes us human.
[00:30:30.297] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I also think it's a way of transmitting knowledge, just the way that we store information in our brain as a semantic structure of how we learn about the world. So I think we learn about the world through stories, and if we can't go through those experiences ourselves, we can learn through those stories. One of the things that I was surprised to hear was that, you know, there was actually a movie deal from Invasion going back into the 2D flat world with this IP. And I'm curious to hear, like, what happened in that evolution and, you know, it seems like there's this trajectory of really exploring and finding the unique affordances of VR. This is likely the first case of an IP born in VR and then going back into 2D realms. I'm just curious to hear that journey and where you see that going.
[00:31:14.850] Eric Darnell: You know, we were like reaching out to people in entertainment, just saying, here's what we're doing, what do you think? You know, are there ways that we could work together? You know, just looking for possibilities as this little VR startup, and seeing what people thought. So we went to Roth Kirschenbaum, you know, Joe Roth used to be the chairman of Disney, and he's got this production company that's done a number of feature films, and that was how we went in with them. Here's what we're doing, what do you think? Have you seen anything in VR before? And they saw it and they said, we love this world, we love these characters, let's make a feature film. And we were like astonished. You know, that's not why we were talking to them. And it was really validating for us. It sort of proved to us that you could tell a story in VR. You could have characters that were really inspiring and that you could connect with in VR. And so, you know, not only is that great for us as a studio, but I think it's great for VR in general. It just shows the world that there is real value here, that people are creating stuff that matters, and we can connect with audiences in ways that are not unlike perhaps what you can do with cinema. You know, so, yeah, at the end of the day, we're just thrilled, you know? It's amazing. And that's where we are now. We'll see what happens.
[00:32:31.915] Kent Bye: Well, I'm curious because you are using this one IP to explore the stories in both mediums, you know, it's like the perfect use case to really discern some of the boundaries and the differences. What do you think are some of the unique affordances of virtual reality, what you're able to do in VR that you may not be able to do in 2D and vice versa?
[00:32:51.342] Eric Darnell: I think it really gets back to that idea of empathy and caring about these characters in a way that you never would when you're, as Chris Milk described it, sitting in a theater looking at a rectangle at a world that you can never be a part of with characters that don't have any idea that you exist. When you're out on that ice and the little bunny comes up and looks you in the eye, There's no fourth wall. There are no walls. You know, she's acknowledging that you exist in her world and it matters to her. And that to me is the big difference between VR and maybe any other medium. That rather than bringing something to the audience, you're bringing the audience to something. And it's just a completely different feeling for people. And it taps into a lot of things that we've already been talking about that are like below the conscious level. You know, it's eye contact. It's just something that's a basic way that we communicate with each other, even with our pets. It's really valuable, meaningful, and it feels real in VR. It doesn't feel real when Kevin Spacey in House of Cards looks at the camera. It talks to you. I love House of Cards, but it's not the same experience. And that is like one of the real big differentiators for me. That said, I mean, I think if you have a great story, I think it can work in many different ways. A lot of people talk about, oh, well, you should only do stories in VR. that are designed for VR. And my response to that is, you know, I think Shakespeare works pretty good on the page, it works pretty good on stage, it works pretty good on film, and it works pretty good as an animated film a la Lion King, which is based on Shakespeare. So I think it's more about taking great stories and great characters and then finding what the medium can do to really bring that stuff to life in perhaps new and unique ways that you wouldn't be able to do in other mediums. You know, cinema and theater, literature, they all have very different toolkits for what they do. But above all of that technique, they're all trying to do the same thing, which is to have that great story and tell it well with characters that you fall in love with. And so I don't see any reason why VR couldn't do the same thing with almost any story. If it's done right, you know, the story is worth it.
[00:35:07.810] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:35:15.794] Eric Darnell: You know, I don't know. I think that there's just so much to discover that it's hard to say. But from my own personal experience, you know, going in kind of cocky and saying, I know this stuff, I can do this stuff, to like realizing I don't know anything. You know, like I said, it was a really humbling experience. we don't really know what's in that toolkit. And I don't care how many manifestos I read about what you can and can't do in VR, and I read a lot of those when I first got into it, going, oh, we can't do that, we can't do that, we can't do that. And then in 12 months, every one of those rules was broken. Somebody's figured out a way to do it. So I think right now in VR, we just have to go into it with open eyes and an open mind and encourage people to try stuff and experiment and not tell them they can't do it, but tell them, go for it, do it, try it. Because that's how we're going to figure out what tools we have in our toolkit. and how we can tell those great stories or whatever else the heck we're going to do. Because at the end of the day, I mean, virtual reality is not just going to be for storytelling, it's going to be for games, it's going to be for education, it's going to be for healthcare, real estate, travel, and the list just goes on and on and on. And as you already know, I mean, they're already using it to help people with PTSD, kids with Asperger's, people with chronic pain. There's just something about VR that taps into the reptile brain, as I like to call it, that no other medium does. And I'm one of those people that I stand on the edge of a cliff in VR, and I know I'm standing in my office, and there's no way I'm going to take that step off that cliff. Just no way. I can't do it. I can't do it. My reptile brain is saying, I've kept you alive this long. You're not going to screw it up now. You still may have kids in you. All those people that stepped off the cliff didn't have kids. It's survival of the species thing.
[00:37:04.526] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Eric.
[00:37:05.728] Eric Darnell: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
[00:37:07.569] Kent Bye: So that was Eric Darnell. He's the chief creative officer and co-founder of Baobab Studios. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all there is just a lot of really rich insight about storytelling in this interview and it's something that I'll probably be coming back to again and again. First of all storytelling is a time-based art form meaning that there's a certain amount of dramatic arc that is raising tension and then there's a peak of a climax and then a resolution and By introducing interactivity into that equation, you can start to kill the emotional momentum of the story. And I think that was the big point that Eric was trying to make is that you can't just let people go off and interactive forever. And I think that when you look at the science of storytelling of how when there's a dramatic arc that's raising, you start to have these releases of cortisol. When you watch people interact on screen, you have the release of oxytocin. And when you have the resolution of the story, then that's when the dopamine is released, and that's the chemical that just gives you this feeling of elation. So that process of watching a story unfold is something that's actually integrated into our bodies physically, and it's a part of our DNA, and it's helped us evolve as a species, and it's like what Eric says, it's part of what makes us human. And so the challenge is finding new ways to have that time-based art form while introducing little elements of small interactivity. In this case, Eric has already created a very authored story. There's a spine of the arc of the story that is not going to change. It's going to unfold whether or not you participate or not. And the difference is that you're kind of like this sidekick character where you can choose to help the main protagonists or not. and that he thinks of it as more emotional branching. If you choose not to help out and you choose to be a jerk about it, then you get put off into this side jail where you're really constrained with your movements and you're forced to really just stop and listen. And when I went through the experience, I only had one opportunity to choose one thing, and I happened to choose to save the character, and so I got this specific outcome. It was really helpful for me to have this conversation with Eric just to learn that there was actually emotional branches that I could have chose to experience the story in that way. So I've talked about the difference between local and global agency back in episode 293 with Andrew Stern, AI and the future of interactive drama. And local agency is being able to make choices, but those choices don't have any huge consequence to the story. And whether or not you choose to help or not, the story is still going to unfold because as authors of a narrative, they're trying to create this time-based art form that is going to unfold and still have that dramatic tension. Introducing global agency, I think that is where we're going to really need a lot stronger artificial intelligence in order to make both these environments and these characters more interactive and plausible. At this point, without having a strong AI, then most of the stories that we're listening to right now is going to be very authored. So the other thing that is really striking about talking to Eric about this experience is that they're really having to deal with an entire audience of people that are ranging from people who are watching films and don't even know that they can turn their heads to people that are hardcore gamers and want this high level of interactivity. And so if you're used to watching VR and you get into this experience, you can actually locomote around and you're kind of taking these short incremental steps in order to locomote around in the area. Now, as I was watching the experience, I was already kind of locomoting around, and so in order to interact with the scene, which essentially amounts to pushing a button, there was an explicit cue that was given to me that was a little bit like a context switch. The controllers actually started buzzing, and so it was almost like, you know, your phone ringing. You're like, oh, I better answer the phone, you know, and so As I was interacting with the scene, I was watching the story unfold. The buzzers in my hand buzzed. It was like, okay, now it's time to interact. And I just like interacted right away. And so it was a little bit of like, oh, wow, I guess I wonder what would have happened if I didn't interact. And then so the next time I just didn't interact. And that was when I was put into the jail. But something that Eric told me afterwards is that, you know, some people didn't even know that they could locomote around the area. And in order to interact with the experience, you have to learn how to be able to locomote and move around. So as somebody who's experienced a lot of VR, the explicit cues that were being given to me felt a little heavy handed, but I have to take a step back and realize that, you know, at the other end of the spectrum, there's some people that still don't even realize that they can move their head around. And so to be thrown into a room scale experience, to learn the mechanic of being able to locomote around and be able to use your hands to be able to push a button. These are new skills that some people are just learning for the first time as they're watching this experience. So I've talked about this before, that virtual reality is like this three-pronged stool with the technology leading what's even possible from a content perspective. And then the content creators are working with the technology, being able to explore what's even possible with this new technological capabilities. And then the audience is sort of lagging behind those content creators, still learning how to even interact and experience these virtual reality experiences. So as some of these master storytellers are just starting to really explore how to work with interactivity, I feel like it's still a little bit like in that uncanny valley of it not being completely plausible. And so there's still a little bit of this context switching that's happening between the narrative unfolding and these periods in which you have this window of opportunity to actually interact and engage within the story. But I really like Eric's evolved thinking about the combination of empathy and interactivity. And at that cross section in the middle is that acting out of empathy is the act of compassion. And so I really do think that Asteroids is exploring this concept in a really elegant way in this narrative experience. It's something that I actually didn't fully appreciate until having this conversation with them to see all the different things that they were doing and the intention behind it. And I really loved Eric's description of story as being character being revealed by the choices that they make under pressure. And that in a nutshell is what makes a story, is that you're watching somebody else make decisions and you're learning about the world through those decisions if you've never been in that situation yourself. that within the context of a VR experience and who you are within the experience is that you're not necessarily the main character which is I think a lot of what happens within video games but within this middle ground of storytelling with video games you're more of the sidekick who is by the side and the protagonist is still gonna be doing whatever he's doing and making those choices and and you're seeing his character being revealed within that, but that you're able to be there and actually help that character do different things at different times. Like Eric said, if Sam and the Lower Rings were to leave and go back to Shire, you'd still likely follow Frodo and his journey, but that if Sam wasn't there, Frodo may either fail or his job may be a lot harder. And so you just have all these decisions to be able to help out while you're going along on this journey. So I think that's actually a really great way of thinking about your role as a character within these narrative VR experiences. And finally, I just wanted to come back to that quote that Eric said, that stories are equipment for living, that they help us understand the world. And by looking at the chemical reactions that are happening in the body with both the cortisol and oxytocin and dopamine being released, I think that Eric's emphasis that storytelling is a time-based art form and that you can't just let that process start and not really complete it because there's a certain amount of time that these chemicals are being released and how the story is being unfolded that you have to make this tricky balance of introducing the ability for characters to interact and engage within the experience but yet still maintain that tension that is contained within that time-based narrative art form. And I think that is the essential crux and dilemma of interactive storytelling. And the fact that Asteroids is starting to do this low-level local agency emotional branching, I think is a great way of maintaining the integrity of that arc, but yet still giving you a relationship within that experience that gives you a different emotional experience depending on what decisions that you made. Did you decide to act out of compassion or did you decide to just withhold your agency and step back and see how the story would unfold by not acting? So in terms of interactive narrative, I think Asteroids was actually doing some of the most interesting explorations of anything that I saw at Sundance 2017. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do tell your friends, spread the word, and become a donor. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.