Follow different characters to unveil new sides of a story. Tequila Works explains their 'spherical storytelling' narrative technique.
At Tequila Works, we have been interested in VR from very early on. As a studio, our mantra is Create with Gusto, and as such we needed to figure out how can we create an experience that is unique to VR, that can carry a strong storyline with adapted gameplay session and replayability.
This made us think that we needed to think about a new approach to tell stories in VR. This is when we met with Rob Yescombe, a well-recognized game and movie writer and started to work on The Invisible Hours, 2 years ago.
One of the best things about games, is that each player can have different experiences of the same moment. These kinds of contrasting experiences are great at generating word-of-mouth and replayability. This is easier to achieve in games where the focus is on ACTION; where there are lots of variables that can be generated by physics and mechanics. But it’s harder to create this kind of organic-feeling contrasting experience in a game’s STORY.
In the effort to create contrasting experiences in a game’s story, the common solution is to use a branching narrative: choose the left door or the right door; be nice to a character or be nasty to them; save someone or let them die.
This works pretty well. It creates variables between players, but it feels a bit mechanical. This is actually because those games place the player at the top of a narrative pyramid – where he is the most important thing in the world. Nothing matters until the player shows up.
With VR, we thought we could build a world like the real world, that is to say a world that would go on existing without me.
But here is the weird thing about real life:
Right now, I am the hero of my story. And you are just a supporting character in my story. While at the exact same moment in time, you are the hero of your story – and I am just a supporting character in it. And all these people – they’re just background characters in both of our stories.
While at the exact same moment in time, each of them is the hero of their own story – and we are both just background characters in them.
That’s the narrative structure of real life.
Real life isn’t the pyramid. It’s a sphere. Where we all share equal importance at the exact same time. This is what we called spherical narrative.
Here’s where the experience of real life really differs from entertainment media:
Our opinion of people and events changes depending on when we started looking. Two people can have completely different perspectives of the same person.
In life, in the sphere, we don’t always see everything in each other’s lives. The degree to which you think a character is a good or a bad guy has tons of possible variables based on the combination of good and bad behaviors that you may or may not observe.
And that got us wondering: what if we structured a story in VR in the same way real life is structured?
Imagine yourself in a dark theatre. Imagine you’re there to watch a murder-mystery play. And on the stage is a huge Agatha Christie style mansion – split right down the middle and opened up, so you can see all the floors and all the rooms.
Now imagine two characters in one of those rooms, discussing who they think the killer might be.
At the end of that scene, one of those characters will go down to the cellar. The other will sneak up to the attic.
But now imagine getting up out of your seat and walking onto the stage; into the play – into that dusty old mansion and following one of those characters to see what they do next.
But here’s the thing: whoever you follow, the other character’s story will still be happening at the exact same time in the other location. You could even run back and forth between them if you want.
Simultaneous stories. But now imagine this play has eight characters. Eight unique stories. All interconnected. All interdependent. All simultaneous. Just like real life. You can move freely between all of them, any time you choose.
This is The Invisible Hours.
The core of that experience, is: What you see is what you believe – but that may not be the whole truth.
This is our first attempt at this kind of narrative experiment, so right now you’re not a character in this world. You don’t change the story – but your story experience changes completely depending on who you follow and when. That means that you and I could reach different conclusions about who the killer is – just by virtue of how we observed the exact same content in different ways. It is the feeling of a narrative sandbox.
Let’s say you follow the Detective from the very beginning – well then the story will look like a detective story. If you suddenly decide to look the other way, and follow someone else for awhile, you might start to think you’re in a love story not a detective story. But then if you follow someone else, you might start to think you’re in a science fiction story, or maybe a horror story, or even a comedy.
So not only will your understanding of the core mystery change depending on how you explore; your perception of the actual genre of the story itself will change completely organically – based purely on who and what you’re looking at, at any given time.
It makes a story in Virtual Reality feel like it’s virtually reality.
We are developing an experience, we have to focus on the narrative, animations and characters but this time we also have a different player, one that will be intriguing.
The VR device goes everywhere. You can´t hide anything. What if the player decides to jump? And what if he/she decides to lie on the floor? For this feature we need to make collisions for every asset. And this collision will also be related to the teleport feature.
Unlike the characters in the story, the player is not restricted by time.
Time Rifting is a powerful 4D tool that also allows the player be the Director and play the part of the detective. The more power we give players, the more likely they are to create a unique experience. The player can revisit any location at any time to slowly complete the jigsaw. In essence we want the player to be the Watcher of this story, the only being with the ability to gain omniscience and omnipresence. The players are compensating their cognitive limitation in 3 dimensions by controlling the 4th.
With the Time Rifting players can:
- jump around any character’s timeline
- revisit any scene and explore it in a different way
- or just rewind a few seconds to catch a line of dialogue they missed.
Or let’s say you find a document burning – you can rewind time to see what that document said, then maybe rewind some more to see who burnt it, why, then maybe forward time again to see if they lie about it later.
Doing things like this can organically create moments of ‘dramatic irony’ that you would’ve experienced differently if you had watched the events in a different order.
We expect a lot of our players to be very active in their pursuit of the story – but of course, not everyone can do that.
What about your Grandma? Maybe she loves old re-runs of Murder She Wrote, but asking her to go from simple TV to something this complex would be too much.
But we want her to play too, so we needed a system that would hold her hand. We created a special mode that allows the player to get connected with one character and to follow all along the game the story of this single character.
We hope that you’ll enjoy playing The Invisible Hours, and getting into this totally new experience of spherical narrative in VR.