Director Joe ChaseThe immersive film is rendered in real-time on VRChat, a virtual reality platform where users can have complete control over CG avatars and interact with each other in a variety of settings and over thousands of miles. .
Shot during Covid-19 at a time when many people were physically isolated and struggling emotionally, it takes a heavily promotional stance on the burgeoning technology, celebrating its potential to build community, sow love and connect people worldwide.
An advantage of completely filming a virtual reality documentary in virtual reality is how effectively it enables “show, don’t tell” movies without a clear narration. Most of the film’s interview participants struggle to communicate conventionally, either due to physical disability or social awkwardness; but the film doesn’t force them to fully explain themselves because the very phenomena they seek to portray play out for us as they speak – the joy and emotional support that interviewees find on the platform is touching and easy to recognize, as are their unspoken idiosyncrasies.
When VRChat user Toaster tells us that dating his partner Dust Bunny in VR made him feel “good about himself,” the irony seems lost on him – Toaster’s avatar has cat ears, white hair and a tail. This kind of tragic anecdote is often told in the context of new technologies, whether it’s children preferring video games to playing outside or social media users glued to their phones even while company of friends.
Still, there’s a difference between VR relationships and these two examples, because while social media users have the ability to talk to their friends if they just put down their phone, Toaster may never have found the confidence to be in a relationship (which has extended to the real world as well) if not for virtual reality.
Toaster is about the privilege of being able to start over and be who you want to be, with no expectations. Other interviewees echo these sentiments. Dust Bunny teaches virtual reality belly dancing classes, and others lead lap dancing and improv classes, skills that many people wouldn’t have the confidence to try in real life.
A non-binary person (inhabiting an anthropomorphic dog character) talks about their ability to be themselves in VRChat without being questioned so persistently – there’s more fluidity in how you represent yourself.
There is a narrative that VR interaction is “pure”, in the sense that people have enormous agency in how they present themselves and can only judge each other based on their personality. While this may be true, in practice it is undermined by the sexualized personas that most users choose to inhabit.
Although there is sometimes a robot, a costumed chimpanzee, or Kermit the frog, the majority of users take on the appearance of animated, busty, scantily clad young girls. A man defending his choice to play a young female character briefly touches on the issue, but the popularity of that choice and what it tells us is never properly discussed.
Indeed, very few negative aspects of the platform are meaningfully addressed. We hear little about how virtual reality has affected the friendships or health of users in the real world. There’s a reluctance to break the illusion – it’s not even explained how the technology works, other than that users have full body trackingwhich seems to contradict a main goal of the film – to introduce the benefits of virtual reality to the general public.
The film’s rather obvious title refers to the many relationships that form in virtual reality, but romance isn’t the film’s main focus – community is.
The power of communities
The film opens with a bizarrely well-mannered conference room of bizarre characters at a weekly community meeting (chaired by a purple squid monster) in which attendees explore the VR worlds each has created. Even for those familiar with RPG games, some aspects of VR roleplaying are downright surreal, like characters ordering virtual drinks at a bar, but it’s easy to appreciate how much it brings people together.
Probably the most practical use of VR explored in the film is teaching sign language – exactly the sort of thing one might have assumed would be difficult in VR, as sensitive hand gestures are so essential.
Jenny, an American Sign Language teacher with auditory processing disorder, teaches classes for up to 60 people at a time. The community, Helphas already gone since the filming of the film from 2,000 to 5,000 people.
Virtual reality has advantages for filming; for example, there are few sound mixing issues and the resolution is fixed. Hunting’s camera work is surprisingly dynamic given that there is no camera, only the interface of the VR platform, which is still fairly rudimentary, to reduce processing requirements and occasional glitches, stack characters or jump through walls. While it still uses streamlined avatars, in many ways VR is already very functional and it’s only a matter of time before the aesthetic catches up.
As we get used to the aesthetics of vivid animated video game scenes, the novelty fades a bit, so the pacing of the film drops. Stories about how VR brought people out of a dark place are also getting repetitive.
Overall though, the movie has a lot to offer. Virtual reality is a fairly marginal culture, even if it is already affordable. This will surely have a huge impact on our lives in the near future. This overwhelmingly positive view of a space does a lot to break down the preconceived notions that many people have about the platform. DM/ML
We met in virtual reality is available in South Africa on Showmax. You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]
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