Friday, 23 May 2014

Why nothing is not the answer to: "what do I do?"

In a Dutch amusement park called "The Efteling" (a park based on designs by illustrator Anton Pieck), there is a place that is easily overlooked. A place where time has no meaning and day and night last forever. You can find the place if you walk past the merry go round and through the mirrored hall. It will be dark in there and the room is filled with empty seats and tables. And in the middle there is the most beautiful diorama of a fantastical world filled with miniature wonders and macabre European fairytales. I could spend hours gazing in to the diorama. It feels like time stops.

In a diorama time does not pass. When I will visit the diorama in the Efteling again this year, I know the little trains are still there, I know that the lady with the geese are still waiting on the train and I know the haunted house is still on fire. If a diorama would have an end, the world would not feel like it will be there again and again and again. It's the feeling you have when you listen to a Chris Isaac song, look at a hopper painting or when you sit in a hotel lobby.

Take Blocked In for example, my first diorama I proudly released last year. Calling Blocked In a diorama was a well thought out choice. I wanted to create a type of experience that would convey the sense of wonder the diorama in the Efteling did so perfectly well and in the end the design choices supported the name as well. In Blocked In you will see large tetris blocks falling from the sky. The thought of making the blocks stack up in front of the window would be a logical one. The problem is that the player would take off the Oculus once the room is blocked in by the blocks, because they would feel like the diorama is done. The equivalent of the flagpole in the end of Super Mario. By creating an infinite loop of blocks falling the player can stay in the room for as long as they want. And they will feel the room would still be there once they leave the room. Some of my fellow dimensionauts mentioned they would remember the room like they would remember a real place.

The thing most people asked me when I showed them Blocked In on the Oculus Rift was: " What do I have to do?". I usually answer this question with a simple: "Just look around and enjoy the view". Perhaps some people would answer the question with an even simpler: "nothing". Answering this question with a nothing is almost as wrong as using the term demo for these kind of experiences.

The term demo downgrades what a diorama can be in interactive media. As does the answer nothing, since you'll do a lot of things in a virtual space. In traditional videogames you have a distance between you and the screen. And therefore between you and the character you are controlling. When you put the player inside of the digital world, you are the character and you are in the world. This sounds blatantly obvious, but it isn't. It can only be fully comprehended once you put on the Oculus Rift and experience it for yourselve.

Everyone has a place they like to visit and just be there. For me it's the diorama in the Amusement park. Other people might like to visit a bench in the park, a weird incomprehensible piece of public art, or a pond where there are ducks doing silly duck things. Now let's say you bring a friend along, he would not ask you "what do I have to do?". If your friend would ask this, you would not answer him with a nothing. You would probably ask him: "what's wrong with you? You should play less videogames...". This is also why I think the enjoyment of a diorama is not something that is only triggered by the novelty of people experiencing VR for the first time. You actually feel like you are in the space.

Ofcourse people who have not experienced VR before will treat a diorama as a videogame. Blocked In was the first diorama for the Oculus Rift and thus people will try and make sense of it with their other experiences. Since digital entertainment is usually a game and therefore their reference for enjoying new forms of interactive media is how they play games. The following reasoning might occur: It's digital, it's entertainment, you don't have a controller, you don't have to save a princess, shouldn't there be more interaction? No there shouldn't and it's not a game. But it's also not not a game. It will fit in perfectly at a games festival. Sometimes I call the dioramas interactive illustrations, but in the end a diorama is a diorama.

Being in a space is a full experience in itself, it's not less then a traditional videogame, it's different. A new breed of experience or game if you will. And it's a type of breed I'm most comfortable with. It's fun to see other devs have embraced this style of interactive design as well, and created their own amazing dioramas.

I think one of the worst thing to do as a VR dev is to think a VR app needs to be a traditional type of game to be perceived as something worth while. Another bad thing would be to give a game a post VR treatment (it's what made 3D in cinema's gimmicky and irritating for the viewer). The thing is that a good experience should be derived from the aspects of what makes VR so great, and that's presence. If something breaks the presence you should reconsider cutting it. Boldy put, if the experience works without VR it does not need it ( although it makes everything 100x cooler, but I'm trying to make a point here so bare with me!)

A diorama for example is something that would only work in VR, because you have to be in the space to perceive the world from your own point of view, with scale and depth and the presence it will bring. It makes you feel like you are visiting a real place and perhaps even have memories of visiting it. The interaction is limited to enhance the presence, without the pressure of the experience ending. Solid experiences need to be created from the aspects of what makes VR so incredibly wonderful and that means making choices that will most likely challenge conventional design. Doing this will distinguish itself from a tradional game and make it stand on it's own. It's those kind of experiences that will push the medium of VR farther and give it it's own identity. And I can't wait to see what other VR type of experiences people will come up with.

If you would like to see more of my dioramas check out: or stay updated at or follow me at twitter @Camefrombeyond.