The ‘spotlight’ insights series invites winners from the 6th International VR Awards to discuss their achievements and revisit the journeys that earned them the honour of raising one of our prestigious trophies aloft on stage at de Doelen, Rotterdam. This week we are joined by Jason Moore, director and creator of The MetaMovie: Alien Rescue, which scooped our 6th International VR Experience of the Year award.
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to not just watch a movie, but to experience it, from inside the world of the story? If you’re anything like me, the answer is yes. There is a deep curiosity and desire in audiences to go beyond the traditional flat screen experience, to step through the screen, into the world of the story, to be with the characters, on their journey, living the movie with them. As a life-long filmmaker and technology enthusiast, when early virtual reality technology became available, I immediately began experimenting. What I first discovered, however, is that there was one important obstacle standing in the way of this goal.
The First Problem: Suspension of Disbelief
Traditional fiction-based VR experiences generally relied on pre-recorded dialog from their actors and performers. This creates an uncomfortable situation for audiences: we feel immersed inside the virtual world, but cannot suspend our disbelief and feel empathy for a story’s characters because they fail to fully recognize and respond to us. I soon realized that one solution to this problem might be to utilize live actors.
In 2017 I wrote a short experimental story to be set in VR using live actors. I worked on the High Fidelity social VR platform, collaborating with VR developers and programmers, and I called this work the MetaMovie project. While I was confident that the actors would create an authentic performance, I was less sure about how to manage an audience’s role in the performance. Initially, I only invited one audience member in at a time. I gave them a small ‘role’ in the story, but asked them not to speak. This did solve the problem of believable character behavior – the actors were great – but it revealed another obstacle, and this one seemed much harder to solve.
The Second Problem: Audience Agency
In those early experiments, I watched as my test audiences engaged and interacted with the cast. It was clear they all wanted to speak and be part of the story far beyond just watching. But I was terrified of what this might mean. If an audience member can say whatever they want, and by extension, do whatever they want, how could we possibly keep things under control? Wouldn’t this present opportunities that could totally derail a story?
It was time for another experiment. In 2018 I wrote a second experimental piece, also set on the High Fidelity platform. This piece was designed to allow one audience member to freely speak to the cast and gave them complete agency to do whatever they wanted. Once again they were given a character to play, this time with more backstory and a more detailed ‘onboarding’ session where we taught them how to role play and what the parameters of the experience were about. The cast and crew and I rehearsed for six months and then spent about six months testing with audience members. This period of development was incredibly difficult and very chaotic. And while we were making excellent progress, I once again found myself at a crossroads with another tricky problem.
The Third Problem: Managing Audiences
Once we gave our audiences this ‘unlimited agency’ we instantly regretted it. We found it very difficult to steer the story in the right direction and found ourselves constantly overwhelmed by the unpredictable nature of people’s actions, words, choices and impulses. When we needed the story to progress towards a new location, they wanted to go the other way. When we need our audience member to cooperate with a cast member, the did the opposite. We even found audiences leveraging the power of the High Fidelity platform in their favor: they might spawn out an item from their inventory right in the middle of an important scene, creating a situation we were totally unprepared for.
We gave audiences agency and they loved it, but demanded more than what we were prepared for. But during these challenging months we collectively learned some important lessons. And armed with newfound knowledge, I prepared for another experiment. I raised $10,000 through Kickstarter and wrote a longer, more ambitious piece, one that I felt would potentially solve our problems. I called it “Alien Rescue” and planned on continuing to develop in High Fidelity. However, in the spring of 2019, the platform closed and I relocated the MetaMovie Project to the NeosVR platform. I soon hired a new development team, recruited more actors, and began work. This time I had greater confidence in our work, and I developed some core principles that we would collectively uphold as we put Alien Rescue together.
Core Principles of Alien Rescue
One of the fundamental new approaches I took with Alien Rescue was to recognize how different audiences are and how many different ways a story can go. Rather than try to impose our will and force things down a singular path, I leaned into game design and created multiple storylines and character arcs. I created multiple endings, lots of opportunities for audiences to make choices with real consequences. I provided a much more fertile playground where the experience could be highly flexible and bend to the will of our audiences.
However, this came with a price: it required my cast to memorize many extra scenes, it required them to instantly diagnose audience behavior, and it required them to be able to seamlessly move from the scripted material into and out of improvisational moments with the audience. It took us about 18 months of rehearsal to finally get to a place where we were confident that we could offer extreme agency, and our experience was starting to look and feel a lot like a “choose your own adventure” story.
We were invited to workshop Alien Rescue as a work in progress at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival, where we continued to refine the show. Happily, we discovered that our hard work paid off: audiences were delighted, they were easier to manage, and our branching storylines and multiple endings allowed for a great variety of play styles and approaches from our highly diverse audiences.
We have since performed Alien Rescue at festivals around the world, and were thrilled to win VR Experience of the Year at the VR Awards in December of 2022. Kent Bye (Voices of VR) wrote:
“Alien Rescue is one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had in VR. The overall sense of social presence has been some of the deepest that I’ve had in any immersive VR storytelling experience. I HIGHLY recommend checking it out”.
And Noah Nelson (publisher, No Proscenium) wrote:
“The promise of the metaverse is that we’ll all one day get to be part of elaborate, fully staged immersive game/movie hybrids that let us play out our fantasies. Oh. I’m sorry. I meant to write “reality” instead of “promise”, because that’s pretty much what I did this weekend during a run of Alien Rescue. I had a ball. I won’t be content until there are a thousand more things just like Alien Rescue”.
However, our project continues to experiment and innovate, as our journey has really just begun. We currently run shows for the public most weekends, and with each performance we test, experiment and tinker. We now accommodate up to four main “Heroes” and fifteen “Sidekicks” in each performance, and we continue to add new story branches, characters, choices and options. We even live stream our show to Twitch, where we are giving these audiences agency as well: they use chat commands to trigger in-game actions and even type in commands that control characters. As we continue to learn, we try to convert that knowledge into ever more immersive and exciting experiences.
As it turns out, yes, you can actually step through the screen and into the world of a story. You can go on adventures with characters, and you can do or say anything you like. It takes a lot of work, but everyone working on the MetaMovie project is committed to our ongoing experimentation and research. We continue to run shows every week, so if you’d like to learn more and experience all of this for yourself, you can learn more at our website.
The VR Awards will return to de Doelen, Rotterdam for the second time as the 7th International VR Awards ceremony takes place 30 November 2023. Be a part of the celebration and grab tickets here. For all the latest awards news, including nominations, register interest here.