In 2021, the idea of the “metaverse” moved from sci-fi circles into mainstream conversation when Facebook was rebranded as “Meta” and announcement that they were about to take us to the new frontiers of virtual reality. The response has been largely lukewarm, with commentators not convinced or not impressed with their proposed metaverse. Since then, updates on the company’s supposed ambitions for virtual reality have been slow to come. We still seem a long way from Snowfall. But there are immersive spaces online with robust communities. second life is the best known of them, although its glory days are over. One of the most popular metaverses that people actually use and love is VRChat, an interaction platform with a fairly robust set of features for creating avatars and worlds. We’ve already covered a YouTuber who finds human interest stories by talking to users in games like VRChat. Now, a filmmaker has taken that concept to a new level with the first Metaverse feature-length documentary fully integrated into the game. Thankfully, We met in virtual reality is not only a notable first, but also quite good on its own.
Joe Hunting has made film based on virtual reality one of his specialties, having already directed several short films in this vein. For this project, he spent a year on board with various VRChatsubcultures, actively collaborating with them and eventually filming their activities in the middle of interviews with them. And when I say the documentary is entirely in-game, that includes the filming process. Flush used a camera feature developed as a VRChat trump avatar, and a lot of the production involved adjusting to the learning curve that presented. Prior to this, VR film mostly followed the lead of video game streaming and downloads, i.e. built around screen capture and screen sharing. This sets a new standard for the format, allowing for much greater visual dynamism.
A more subtle but useful distinction between screen recording and using an in-game camera is that Hunting is effectively acting more like a traditional documentarian here. Sometimes it happens off the cuff, like what would happen if Frederick Wiseman lived in a science fiction universe. It’s an appropriate vibe, as none of these users blink at an anime girl (there’s so much anime girls in VRChat) chatting with a demon. The aesthetic reinforces how normal it all is, a virtual extension of mundane human interaction.
The unique advantages of this virtual element, however, cannot be overlooked. Many topics in We met in virtual reality discuss how they are fans of the platform because of the safety it offers – whether to freely express their gender, engage in risk-free sex work, or simply socialize without risking catching COVID . And that’s to say nothing of how games like this can facilitate connections between people in wildly disparate parts of the world who otherwise would likely never find each other. Some of these small communities are quite beautiful; one of the largest is an American Sign Language learning group. As one bubbly host notes, it’s the kind of thing VR is particularly suited for, as the controls allow for a level of precision in hand gestures that other video games don’t have, while the pseudonymized use of avatars can put users who might be uncomfortable with video chatting at ease.
We met in virtual reality expresses a view of the metaverse that is far more optimistic than most of what we see in non-fiction, almost mistakenly. There is not much discussion about the negative aspects of VRChat or abusive behavior by users. Everything critical is here mainly by implication; when the safety rules and protocols of a digital strip club are listed, we can infer that past infractions have created a need for them. But I think there’s enough bad news about the Metaverse for us to embrace a more positive portrayal. After all, the unserious and unappetizing meta design of virtual worlds might make us overlook all the real potential here.
We met in virtual reality premieres on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max on July 27.