Noah Falstein is a veteran of the video games industry. His foray into the world of interactive storytelling began in the ’80s.
“A lot of us thought it was just a fun hobby, and possibly a way to make a little money before we did something boring. Happy to say it hasn’t gotten boring yet, and there’s every prospect to think that it’ll go on from there!” he grins.
With experience at LucasFilm Games (later LucasArts Entertainment), then Dreamworks Interactive (later acquired by Electronic Arts), Falstein worked very closely with a number of filmmakers, as well as storytellers of other sorts: ‘novelists, playwrights, really the whole gamut.’
“That was an incredibly valuable experience because it helped me see what storytelling means beyond the narrow scope of what we were doing in games or even what the filmmakers were doing.”
In many ways, he says, language was our first version of virtual reality. Though there are a number of different theories on when humans evolved language, many place it roughly a million years ago, right around the time we started
“There’s a nice symmetry there, because I’m sure many of us have had the experience of talking around a fireplace or a campfire. There’s something comforting about the end of the day, late at night, having a fire blazing and swapping stories about things that happened to you that day.”
Certainly, it’s easy to see the value this has on humans as a species. “It’s really easy to see why as a species, we’ve evolved to have storytelling as a key thing and how being able to have language and be able to share these stories is so important because really, the ability for us to imagine things or to have experiences and then be able to share those experiences with each other was a key survival advantage.”
That kind of information was important and of course, still is today in a much changed way, says Falstein. Flash forward a few hundred thousand years, and we developed drawing and painting. More years still, and we started acting, then writing. With advances in technology, we developed the printing press, then photography, film, computers, the internet – and video games.
For Falstein, and indeed many of us who have spent many an hour grinding on WOW or giving ourselves just one more turn on Sid Meier’s Civilisation series, video games can be more than just an escape.
“Instead of me telling you about my experience, we’re now sharing the ability to actually try those experiences yourself,” explains Falstein. “It is about trying stuff out yourself. We do it as children but … we do it into our adulthood as well and that’s, of course, the basis of the whole games industry.”
One natural evolution of the technologically-savvy storyteller is, of course, through VR. “What I think is important about virtual reality is that it combines a number of things that we’ve been refining over these tens of thousands of years of trying to refine storytelling and more recently, interactivity.
“It has those ‘you are there’ moments that you get with painting or theater or photography where the idea was that with language, I could describe to you images that I had in my mind or experiences I had had that day. With painting, people were first able to actually show images and share pictures so that you didn’t have to imagine them. With theater, we were able to act that out and give you a real-time 3D-sense of what it was like to be there when the experience happening, and same thing with photography, get a sense of what things actually looked like without being interpreted through an artist’s point of view.”
Of course, all that is possible with VR, creating an immersive world that becomes somewhat real. And neuroscience appears to back up Falstein. “For example, we have a whole set of neurons that fire only when you’re within arm’s reach of someone or something and that are even more strongly activated when you see faces coming towards you and coming within that arm’s reach distance. We’re all aware of what it’s like to be in a crowded subway and have people who intrude into our personal space. It can be very uncomfortable but if you’re home and it’s a friend or a loved one, it can be very strong and evoke strong feelings of empathy and happiness as well. That seems to carry over into VR.
“We can use virtual reality for empathy, for immersion, and that sense of really being there with the characters, and I really believe we may be able to transcend what’s been possible, even with film and television, in VR storytelling and of course VR has that capability as games do of making it fully interactive.”
What does this mean for consumers of VR – developers and gamers alike? For Falstein, it means taking risks on this new technology. “We need to do these experiments moving forward. I really suggest anybody who is a developer in VR, or AR, try this stuff out. If you’re simply a consumer and want to try it, go out, get a headset, there are many different types available, and see what you like. Vote with your pocketbook and say, ‘Yes, I think that this kind of technique works really well,’ or, ‘I’m not so crazy about this other technique,’ but in particular, if you’re making new types of VRs, I know many of you are, share what you learn with each other. In the early days, in the early ’80s, we did that all the time as we were trying to figure out what this whole video game world was all about, and it helps everybody equally to be able to share that information and pass it on to each other.”
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