Audience Fluency in VR: thoughts on Scarecrow VRC

Since Scarecrow VRC is open again, however briefly, I thought it would be a good time to finally get around to writing up the thoughts I had about it when I saw it last November.

Scarecrow VRC is an immersive experience implemented as a world in VRChat; three audience members join a live performer in a virtual space for the performance. All the participants are mute, so all communication is gestural. It was a novel experience for me; I am relatively new to the current efflorescence of immersive theatre, and to VR. I attended along with my wife, who is a social VR developer and thus vastly more experienced in this realm than I am. Discussing the experience with her, and reading Kathryn Yu’s review of the experience at No Proscenium, has me thinking about the importance of audience fluency.

I was, for a lot of the show, confused. I spent a while waiting for exposition that never came. I didn’t understand why we were supposed to be doing the things the performer appeared to be exhorting us to do. At one point, I walked away from the others because I get excited about visually exploring virtual environments, and I got lost. I think I missed out on some play while I was trying to figure out where everyone had gone.

I think this is because I did not have the right frames to anticipate, not what was going to happen, but even what categories of things might happen, and what categories of things I might do. I did not have the right set of emotional responses engaged. The point at which the experience began to cohere for me was the moment when, while running around drawing with a magic wand, I realized, “Oh. This is a Happening!” At that point everything fell into place, and I understood what we were doing, and how I might be able to feel about it.

Happenings were the right frame for me because I was a performance studies nerd back in the day. I imagine someone who’s had more experience than me with immersive theatre or social VR would have referents that are probably closer to the creators’ expectation.

The interpretive challenge, for me, was that Scarecrow is a show where the narrative element of the experience is almost entirely unimportant. There’s some exposition at the beginning about firebirds devouring villagers’ hearts, but honestly it’s unnecessary: the nominal story won’t really help you understand any of the things that happen, and the events of the show won’t really answer any questions you might have about the story. It’s an experience of connection, and perception. And I was totally unprepared for that.

I spent the first half of the show trying to figure it out: who are these characters? What are these items? Why are we doing this? What happens next? And that was almost entirely pointless. There were no answers, and resting in that frame kept me from recognizing that the point of the show is the gestural dialogue between the participants, and the play that that enables, and the moments of connection it fosters.

It was, in that respect, somewhat akin to The Under Presents’ Tempest, which is similarly a show that depends on gestural negotiation and connection. However, in Tempest, the performer is not mute, which allows them to more actively guide the experience, and at least for me helped me shape my expectations correctly earlier in the process.

Dan Cook talks about the necessity in game design to accurately anticipate which pre-existing skills a player may have, so that the game’s challenges are neither inaccessible nor boring. I think that all forms of media that demand their audience do some work to make sense of it face this challenge of equipping the audience with the right tools to interpret the work. In forms whose affordances are well-understood, audiences generally have those tools already, but in new forms, it becomes less of a given that the audience will have the tools to read the work correctly.