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A Proposed Curriculum for an Introductory Course on Interactive Digital Narratives in Virtual Reality

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Abstract and Figures

Immersive Media programs of study are being developed and enacted at many higher education institutions. It is proposed that a course on Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) in Virtual Reality (VR) can familiarize undergraduate students of diverse backgrounds with the foundational technical, design, and development tenets of immersive storytelling. Course curriculum balances IDN design and immersive storytelling strategies with VR project management, user experience and interface design, spatial audio, digital scenography, introductory programming, and rudimentary artificial intelligence. The course connects technical and media affordances to theories of IDN to provide an introductory understanding of IDN in VR. The proposed course ran in the spring of 2021 at a small liberal arts college. The paper presents the course’s 15-week curriculum. An evaluation that includes student work, insights lessons, and resources is provided.
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A Proposed Curriculum for an Introductory Course on
Interactive Digital Narratives in Virtual Reality
Joshua A. Fisher[0000-0001-5628-5138] Janíce Tisha Samuels[0000-0002-8364-4076]
1 Department of Interactive Arts and Media, Columbia College Chicago, 600 S Michigan, Chi-
cago, IL, 60605, USA
jofisher@colum.edu
2 National Youth Art Movement, 200 East Randolph Street, Suite 5100-38, Chicago IL 60601
janice@nationalyouthartmovement.org
Abstract. Immersive Media programs of study are being developed and enacted
at many higher education institutions. It is proposed that a course on Interactive
Digital Narratives (IDN) in Virtual Reality (VR) can familiarize undergraduate
students of diverse backgrounds with the foundational technical, design, and de-
velopment tenets of immersive storytelling. Course curriculum balances IDN de-
sign and immersive storytelling strategies with VR project management, user ex-
perience and interface design, spatial audio, digital scenography, introductory
programming, and rudimentary artificial intelligence. The course connects tech-
nical and media affordances to theories of IDN to provide an introductory under-
standing of IDN in VR. The proposed course ran in the spring of 2021 at a small
liberal arts college. The paper presents the course’s 15-week curriculum. An eval-
uation that includes student work, insights lessons, and resources is provided.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Interactive Digital Narratives, Curriculum Design
1 Teaching an Emerging Practice
Teaching an emerging practice such as Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) is a chal-
lenge [13]. Teaching students how to implement that narrative form within the emerg-
ing medium of Virtual Reality (VR) makes achieving pedagogical goals more difficult.
In the domain of IDN, theories and taxonomies seek standardization, tools for compo-
sition are always changing along with design strategies [36]. In Immersive Media, the
technologies and production tools are ever evolving [7]. Further, as a media of attrac-
tion, VR draws on interdisciplinary practices to produce experiences [8]. These shifting
sands, experimentation, and diverse media traditions make it challenging to build a
pedagogical foundation for students that will help them become immersive storytellers.
Yet, as noted by the Association for Research in Digital Interactive Narratives
(ARDIN) committee, there is need for effective curricula [9]. Through integration of
theory and hands-on skill building, the main objective for the proposed course was for
students to become adept at developing IDN experiences for VR.
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In academia, the desire to standardize IDN language, design strategies, and theories
has been emphasized by Hartmut Koenitz and other members of ARDIN [1, 2, 4, 10,
11]. The authors of a recent presentation by the Immersive Research Learning Network
(IRLN),The State of XR and Immersive Learning Outlook 2021expressed a desire
for more immersive storytelling in XR curricula as a credible pathway toward stand-
ardization [12]. Yet, as of this writing, in the archived proceedings of the IRLN there
is not a single article proposing a curriculum for a course that teaches IDN for VR [13].
The VR audience, which grew by 60% in 2020 (headset purchases) [14], is a testa-
ment to industry’s need for capable developers, designers, and storytellers. To prepare
undergraduate students to succeed in these areas, this paper proposes a 15-week curric-
ulum for an introductory course on creating IDNs in VR. Note that by introductory, we
do not mean that this course is suitable for first-year students. Instead, we propose this
as an introduction to the practice of crafting IDNs in VR. The course was evaluated by
an informal midterm evaluation and an end-of-the-semester formal evaluation. Due to
the small sample size, the results are preliminary and should not be generalized. Les-
sons, outcomes, and insights for future research and curriculum development follow.
2 The Course
As part of a new Immersive Media BA and minor program at Columbia College Chi-
cago, a series of intensive courses were being developed to replace two survey courses.
The two survey courses introduced students to immersive media generally, from aug-
mented to mixed reality and projection mapping to immersive theater. They provided
no technical training or theory. To give form to the discipline as part of the degree
program, the proposed course was designed and developed. The course goals were: (1)
Develop an understanding of the design and development techniques for
VR experiences (Virtual Environment Design, Unity programming, Spatial Audio, VR
UI, VR UX, and Interaction Design), (2) Construct a VR experience with best practice
and artist-led techniques, (3) Understand IDN story structures and implement them in
a VR experience (4) Articulate and receive clear feedback through usability studies.
With the establishment of the Immersive Media program. It was deemed critical that
theory and practice be well-balanced and blended within its curricula. As discussed in
previous work on IDN pedagogy, the creation of IDNs requires a “practice-based edu-
cation” [1]. Accordingly, the course was scheduled to meet once a week for three hours
to accommodate both direct instruction (lectures) and practice-based learning.
The course time was broken into 3 one-hour sections. In the first five weeks, two hours
were spent on lectures on IDNs in VR. One hour was spent on design, coding, or de-
velopment activities. In the second five weeks, time was split evenly between lecture
and studio activities. In the final five weeks, students spent class time doing work on
their VR IDNs and working through usability studies to produce the final experience.
The topics covered in the course were C# programming in Unity, locomotion, spatial
audio, virtual environment design and digital scenography, interaction design, VR UI
and UX, usability tests and feedback, IDN story structures and writing strategies. Crit-
ically, each of these topics needed to scaffold effectively over 15 weeks for students to
produce a compelling portfolio piece [15].
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2.1 The Course Structure
Students iterated on their VR IDN over the course of the semester. During the first 7
weeks of the semester, students focused on building their concept, diegetic material,
and a usable late-stage alpha or early-beta version of their IDN. For the midterm, due
at the end of the first 7 weeks, students were required to turn in this rudimentary build
for usability testing and feedback. Over the final 8 weeks, students iterated two more
times before turning in their final experience with a cinematic trailer for their portfolio.
The entire course structure is in Table 1 below. Longer explanations of content follow.
Table 1. IDN in VR Course Schedule. Classes were broken up into lectures, instructor-led ac-
tivities, and studio time. Subjects and practices would often meld from one class to the next.
Weeks
Material Covered
1-2
IDN Overview
3
IDN Writing Strategies, Narrative and Character Development
4-6
Basic Interaction Design and Locomotion
6-7
Virtual Environment and Digital Scenography
8-9
Rudimentary AI and Custom Narrative Game Mechanics [16]
9-12
User Interface and User Experience Design
12-15
Dedicated Studio Time and Usability Studies
Interactive Digital Narrative Overview. Early lectures on IDN surveyed the field’s
history [17], what differentiates IDN from traditional narrative[18], dramatic
agency[19], and canonical IDN works suggested by Hartmut Koenitz and Mirjam
Palosaari Eladhari [4]: namely Façade [20], afternoon, a story[21], and Save the Date
[22]. Further, VR IDNs from SideQuest were assigned. A list of these follows this sec-
tion. Marie-laure Ryan’s work on textual architectures is also presented by Week 3 [23].
These architectures were then used in the next weeks to begin producing IDNs. With
only 15 weeks, the goal was to get students building as quickly as possible.
Interactive Digital Narrative Writing Strategies. Ryan’s story structures [24], were
used as worksheets and templates. Specifically, the Vector with Side Branches structure
was presented as a plot to travel through in a Spatial Storyworld Architecture [24, 25].
This the students to think of each of the vector’s branches as a different VR space. As
Asim Hameed and Andrew Perkis discuss, from each space come moments for dramatic
agency and storytelling [26]. Following the suggestion of Colette Daiute and Hartmut
Koenitz, students were lead in character development exercises [3]. These Non-Player
Characters (NPC) became nodes for branching dialogue and the narrative within the
VR spaces. Concepts of worldbuilding were introduced along with immersion [18, 25]
and Sense of Presence (SoP) [2729]. Students created their storyworld, the spaces
within that world, and what interactions would increase and maintain immersion and
SoP. These were then reviewed and critiqued by peers in class before being revised.
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Basic Interaction and Locomotion Design. VR IDNs that achieve immersion, support
an SoP for interactors that enforces an affective experience [30], and provides them
dramatic agency requires consistent, transparent, and meaningful interactions [18, 23,
31, 32]. At this point in the semester, students were taught to code and design basic in-
teractions. Tutorials were foundational and implemented in Unity. Advanced narrative
game mechanics were discussed in a later module. Students were taught the importance
of interaction design, both as being meaningful to the narrative [19] and as an oppor-
tunity for joy and play [33] to support immersion. Video tutorials for designing foun-
dational grabbing and pointing interactions were provided along with Unity Packages
of pre-coded and designed scenes. A 3rd party interaction framework was provided
later in the semester to help students develop and design faster.
Locomotion Design is critical for creating immersion and for exploring an IDN with
a Spatial Storyworld architecture [3336]. Simultaneously, locomotion in VR is an is-
sue of accessibility wherein an interactor’s natural mode of locomotion must be con-
sidered [37]. Students are taught to implement multiple forms of locomotion including
(1) impossible space architectures [38], (2) joystick, (3) teleportation, (4) flight, (5)
climbing, (6) and vehicle or platform based [39].
Virtual Environment Design and Digital Scenography. For the course’s prescribed
story architecture, Virtual Environment (VE) Design and Digital Scenography were
taught to achieve spatial immersion, a focus on game spaces [33] that tell stories. Level
design material was based on the work of Miriam Bellard of Rockstar North [40] and
others [4143]. There is a fair amount of semantic overlap between narrative in games,
experience, and level design. Students were taught to collapse these concepts into a
form of digital scenography. Digital Scenography is the practice of using the design
and composition of space to tell stories and support immersion [26, 44]. These practices
included how to use light [45], compose spatial sound [46], and the use of color to direct
user attention [47, 48]. Activities on how to create these environmentsthe technical
processes and conceptual workwere done in class and for homework.
Rudimentary Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Game Mechanics. In VR, worlds
enforce immersion and a sense of social presence when there are NPCs [49]. NPCs
reinforce narrative immersion, and their behavior within the world lends social pres-
ence. Beyond the NPCs, movement of animals, machines, objects, and more can give
interactor’s a sense of embodied scale [50], scenographic energy [51], and help direct
their attention [52]. Impressing upon interactors that there is emergent behavior in the
space enforces the narrative immersion [25, 53].
Narrative game mechanics were introduced. As defined by Teun Dubbelman, “Nar-
rative game mechanics invite agents, including the player, to perform actions that sup-
port the construction of engaging stories and fictional worlds in the embodied mind of
the player. [16] These mechanics go beyond the foundational interactions discussed
earlier in the semester. Given the unique nature of each IDN, materials and resources
for these mechanics were produced through one-on-one instruction with peer review.
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VR User Interface and User Experience Considerations. Students were taught best
practices for User Interfaces (UI) and User Experience (UX) back-to-back. They re-
viewed the material from Oculus Quest [31] and from LiminalVR [54]. LiminalVR’s
collected research on the psychological impacts of immersive design choices is valua-
ble for IDN work. As in previous work on IDN curricula, engagement with the psycho-
logical impacts of interactions is required [3]. Their research covers the impacts of mo-
tion, color, lighting, music, sound, interactivity, ludic interactions, flow, and cognitive
load. Student’s familiarity with these concepts helps them achieve immersion and SoP.
Students were encouraged to make as many interactions narrative game mechanics
as they could. An effective UX is necessary for an IDN [11, 55]. For example, one
student created a teleportation interaction that looked like a rope that was, in some way,
connected to the character’s story and the world. This was to encourage UI and UX that
achieve Jay Bolter’s transparency in service of immersion [5658]. For example, one
student’s story involved a bully being turned into a gecko who then must converse with
bugs. To begin the game, the interactor must open a box. After opening the box, insects
scurry around inside, their movement encouraging the user to lean in. When the user
leans in, an interaction is triggered that leads to a scene change that starts the narrative.
Usability studies for iterative design were presented. Due to the pandemic, students
created their VR experiences in isolation. This made conducting usability studies diffi-
cult. Students were taught two procedures: usability interviews [59] and the think-aloud
method [60]. For the latter, students would record their playthroughs and speak through
their thoughts and interactions. The student designers of those experiences then sum-
marized their peers’ thoughts into action items for iteration. VR UX issues of fatigue,
simulator sickness, and accessibility were also addressed with solutions.
2.2 Proposed Experiences
Students may not have had the opportunity to experience VR. Accordingly, they
need to become familiar with how people tell stories with the medium. The following
are suggested experiences. They are available on SideQuest and the Oculus store.
Vanishing Grace [61]: A narrative puzzle game that uses spatial exploration, two
different modes of locomotion, rich voice acting, and interactions that are both ludic
and narratological. It is also a case study in limiting scope, standardizing interactions
in the world, and designing meaningful spaces.
Moss [62]: A 3rd Person VR adventure experience that upsets expectations for VR
narratives. The interactor plays a god-like character that directs Quill, a young
mouse. The spaces are lush, but more importantly, Moss is a case study in how to
build a social sense of presence for the interactor with a character. When the interac-
tor is not active, Quill will look up at them and respond to their inactivity. This in-
teraction helps to teach the importance of character development and social presence
and their impacts on immersion.
The Book of Isabel [63]: An exploratory walking simulator through a traumatized
girl’s mind. Interactors walk through memories and hear Isabel discuss the event and
her recovery. With limited interactions but an emotional story, the experience is a
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good template for students with limited programming experience. Further, it was
produced by a graduating undergraduate at the Academy of Art and Design St. Joost.
This makes it a motivating example for students.
A Fisherman’s Tale [64]: This VR experience is a puzzle game that plays with per-
ception. It uses recursion and chains of interactions to create a world wherein the
interactor is controlling an avatar, that is controlling another avatar, and so on. It is
a case study in using non-Euclidean space in VR to create compelling spaces for
interactions. For students, it helps to inspire creative ideas outside of their familiar
game worlds and their natural reactions.
Shadow Point [65]: Another VR puzzle experience wherein diegetic content helps
interactors solve puzzles to find a missing woman. Each world provides a new kind
of interaction to appropriately script the interactor for future scenarios. It is a good
case study on connecting ludic elements and creating narrative game mechanics.
Last Labyrinth [66]: A true VR IDN with multiple endings that utilizes puzzles and
social presence to achieve immersion. Interactors communicate with Katia, who is
unintelligible, to escape a labyrinth of horrific traps. Much like in Moss, the bond
created with Katia is used to raise the emotional stakes and is instructive for students
in producing SoP. Further, limited interactionsnodding and shaking the head; us-
ing a laser pointerdemonstrate to students that they do not need complex interac-
tion designs to create an active and rich IDN in VR.
2.3 Teaching Challenges
As alluded, there are challenges to producing the proposed curriculum. They stem from
the evolving IDN and Immersive Media spaces, as well as students’ literacy in both. In
the instance of a course covering an emerging field, especially one developed for a new
program, it can be challenging to ascertain incoming students’ technical capacity, visual
or digital design skills, and general background in the material [67, 68]. Self-reporting
through pre-course surveys can be inaccurate [69]. Students may come from different
traditions entirely if the course is an elective. Preparing effective material, both in
providing enough rigor for the most skilled and accessible for the least, is difficult. This
is especially true of programming and experience with development engines like Unity.
Access to hardware and experiences is an issue. The Oculus Quest was used in the
case study and may be an affordable option. However, the recent announcement that
ads would become part of VR experiences may not make the Quest acceptable [70].
Further, students may, and did, resist being forced into the Facebook ecosystem. Lastly,
if an instructor were to require students to purchase all the suggested experiences, they
would be spending $115 (as of writing). Finding a solution for renting or sharing VR
experiences would offset this financial burden and increase accessibility.
An additional challenge is physical space. Some students will be able to work and
create their VR experiences in large apartments. Others may only have access to a small
bedroom or dorm. For the sake of equity, a common space should be provided to stu-
dents somewhere on campus where they can experiment. Additionally, a VR emulator
should be made available to all students. The emulator will speed development for all
students regardless of the size of their physical space.
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3 The Case Study
This course ran at Columbia College Chicago in the spring of 2021 within the Depart-
ment of Interactive Arts and Media. Eight students participated in the course. The stu-
dents self-selected into or chose to substitute an elective on interactive storytelling with
the proposed course. The students came from the following programs: one from Crea-
tive Writing, one from Programming, one from Interaction Design, one from Cinema
and Television, and four from Game Design. Two of the students were seniors who
graduated. One student failed to complete the course.
Each student was provided with an Oculus Quest that they could use for the entirety
of the semester. Further, they had access to lecture and tutorial videos hosted for asyn-
chronous access on the college’s learning management system, Canvas. Lastly, students
had access to either tutors or the instructor via Microsoft Teams.
3.1 Evaluation Instruments
To evaluate the course’s effectiveness, a midterm informal course evaluation was given
with the same 5-point Likert-scale questions (one being the worst and five being the
best) as the final formal course evaluation. In both instances, students were encouraged
to explain or reflect on their chosen value. Six of the eight students completed all the
evaluation instruments. The student who did not complete the course did not engage
with any of the evaluations. The evaluation questions were broken up into two sec-
tionsa set on the course and another on the instructor. Only the questions about the
course are discussed. Note that for the midterm evaluation, the tense of the questions
was set to the present perfect continuous tense (i.e., I have been intellectually chal-
lenged by the course). They were: (Q1) I was intellectually challenged by the course,
(Q2) I was encouraged to take learning seriously and to think critically in this course,
(Q3) Class requirements and activities were useful learning tools to support the achieve-
ment of course goals, and (Q4) Overall, the course was well organized.
3.2 Evaluation Results
Before continuing to discuss the results, it must be noted that due to the small sample
size, that these results cannot be generalized. They should be viewed as preliminary.
During the midterm evaluation, the average score for the midterm evaluations was 4.6
of 5. A selection of written responses (A1,2,3) to these questions (Q1,2,3) are below.
Q1 (4.8/5): (A1) I want more discussion of the VR experiences and best practices.
(A2) Some of the videos are less useful than others. I would prefer having a smaller
core of videos that best demonstrate learning concepts and then having a list of
extra videos we can choose to watch for more inspiration.
Q2 (4.5/5): (A1) The lectures on immersion and presence felt rushed. (A2) If I had
known this course was about storytelling and not games I might not have taken it
(A3) Too much focus on narrative and not VR. (A4) The lectures are a little heavy,
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however, the classes always provide interesting and useful content that I think will
help me in the future.
Q3 (4.2/5): (A1) Slower tutorials please! (A2) There are not enough tutorials for
my story. (A3) Class playthroughs for feedback are long and boring. (A4) The C#
programming is very difficult. Provide more documentation.
Q4 (4.9/5): N/A
In response to this feedback, a number of course corrections were made as the course
transitioned from the lecture-heavy first half to the production-based second half. In
response to Q1 A1, students were asked to come to class with video recordings of an
experience playthrough they felt was effective. Reflecting on the problems, solutions,
and recommendations discussed at the conclusion of each playthrough, students then
discussed how to design similar aspects for their own experiences. In response to Q2
A1 and A2, the ludology and narratology discussion was presented along with an ac-
tivity that encouraged students to consider the connection between play and narrative.
Students were encouraged to build ludic elements into their IDN. In response to Q1 A2
and Q3 A1, 2, and 4, templates were developed for various interactions, dialogue, IDN
transitions, locomotion, and spatial audio. Walkthroughs were presented in class and as
recorded videos. Before studio time, quick one-on-one meetings with students were
held to clarify processes and overcome obstacles. In response to Q3 A3, class play-
throughs for feedback were turned into asynchronous sessions for the students to com-
plete independently during class time.
For the final evaluation, the average score for the questions improved to a five out
of five. The high score is not representative of a perfect course.
Q1 (5/5): (A1) The class was tough, but it felt worth it to learn. (A2) This course
certainly wasn't for the faint of heart. It was incredibly challenging, but also very
fulfilling. (A3) In the future I think it is very important to do some pre-evaluation
on the skill level and knowledge of the students. This course was incredibly chal-
lenging, and I felt way in over my head. (A4) Students need to know the level of
work before signing up.
Q2 (5/5): (A1) When I joined the course I was told that as long as I followed tuto-
rials I would be able to have a finished project enough to do well. This was not the
case for me. (A2) In studio collab, I feel that since the project would not be my
own, I would not feel as motivated as I did in this class.
Q3 (5/5): (A1) I had to put in probably 20 hours a week on this course. Students
need to know and be prepared for the level of work they are signing up for. (A2)
My experience in this course was probably different from other students in the
course, simply because I had no previous experience with game design or Unity,
as well as very very basic understanding of C#. (A3) I'm really really proud of
myself for sticking with it and producing the final product.
Q4 (5/5): (A1) Teach the class about SideQuest earlier. (A2) Once we started to
build our world the guidance and tutorials didn't feel like enough. (A3) Presenting
the students with tools and things they can utilize to build their worlds would be
beneficial before starting to get into the conception phase. If I knew how difficult
some of the world & interaction building be I would probably start with something
a whole lot simpler for myself.
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The responses to the questions during the final evaluation indicate several changes for
the future course. As indicated by all respondents, the class was difficult and required
a major investment outside of course time. The college where the class was run expects
students to spend 9 hours outside of class on material. Clearly, as discussed in Q3 A1,
some students did more than double that amount of work. And, as in Q1, some students
felt wholly unprepared for the scope of work required to complete an IDN in VR. In
response to these challenges, future courses will provide a wide range of design and
code templates to ease the production demands for students. Plug-and-play templates
might be the most effective even if it reduces the diversity of IDNs created. Options
like Quill [71], the VR illustration and animation tool, might be more accessible and
are frequently used for sequential narratives.
In response to questions and responses about the production demands (Q2 A1, Q4
A2 and A3), an established 3rd party framework for interactions will be implemented in
the future course earlier in the semester. There are several 3rd party frameworks that
can be implemented in Unity for the Oculus Quest (VR Easy [72], VRTK [73], and
NewtonVR [74] to name a few). These templates provide a breadth of interactions with
comprehensive documentation. The future course will utilize The VR Interaction
Framework produced by Bearded Ninja Games [75]. The framework has documenta-
tion and tutorials for grabbing, grabbable events, climbing, teleportation, joystick loco-
motion, ziplines, platform movement, buttons, switches, levers, inventory management,
tools, damageable items, drawing, UI elements, and more.
As discussed by Q1 A1, Q2 A1 and A3 during the midterm evaluation and Q4 A1-3
in the final evaluation, a stronger connection between technical practices in VR and
IDN storytelling needs to be established earlier on in the semester. Not only will this
help with project scope (Q4 A3), but it may result in interactions that have stronger
dramatic agency and connection to the narrative. IDNs in VR should be presented as
case studies that students can emulate using provided frameworks and templates.
4 Outcomes, Insights, and Resources
Of the eight students who enrolled in the class, five students produced complete IDN
VR experiences that earned top marks. To earn the top grade, students had to present
an experience that was bug free, had a complete narrative arc with a beginning middle
and end, that achieved immersion and SoP as reported by peers, created at least five
areas for the story, included interactions that provided dramatic agency, and had to have
completed most of the action items from the usability studies. Students presented their
final experiences through a trailer and in an in-class playthrough.
Of the seven students who completed the course, the top grades were given to one
student from the Creative Writing program and two from the Game Design program.
These students produced the most comprehensive and longest experiences (20 or more
minutes long). These experiences also had multiple branching dialogue options that
expanded the storyworld, and in one case, changed the outcome of the story.
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4.1 Select Student Work
The best student work is presented here with summaries of their narratives as well as
stills. Links to their trailers are also provided.
Corbit. Corbit, in Figure 1, “takes place in a whimsical world in the center of the earth,
where every cog has their purpose in the machine. Corbit aims to explore existential
and environmental concepts in a fun, hopeful and engaging way.” The interactor em-
bodies a Cog, part of a system of cogs and gears, that help to keep earth alive while
humanity causes damage. Over the course of five spaces, interactors learn who they are
in this world and what their role is, how humans are destroying the earth, and what they
can do to fix it. In conclusion, the interactor learns that their work is Sisypheanthat
the machine is made for the earth, not humans, and will exist long after they are gone.
Corbit uses digital scenography melded with UI elements to maintain immersion while
supporting the user’s SoP. The narrative is grounded within contemporary issues and
anxieties which works to support SoP and engagement. Corbit effectively utilized the
antechamber VR design method [76] to script the interactor before the experience be-
gan. Not only did the student capably weave diegetic information into the antechamber,
but the interactions they scripted in the space modified the world.
Fig. 1. From left to right: (1) The interactor rides a platform through the world of the machine.
It is a sprawling space of massive scale intentionally designed for immersion. (2) NPCs in the
space provide branching dialogue options and diegetic information. (3) UI to access the IDN
content is rendered in world on screens or consoles that do not break immersion. (4) Sceno-
graphic clues are given to encourage user interactions that impact the world. The trailer is here:
https://youtu.be/QRdEI5mdfss
The Spotted Journey. In this experience, shown in Figure 2, the interactor inhabits the
role of a bully who is transformed into a gecko for their immoral acts. The student
loosely based the narrative off a myth about the goddess Demeter’s punishment for a
man that mocked her as she ate and drank. The interactor must do good deeds while
collecting crystals from rooms within their own house. Once the interactor is trans-
formed into a gecko, the bugs and small creatures within the space take the opportunity
to scold them for their bad behavior (when large). The Spotted Journey relies strongly
on scale and climbing locomotion to make the player feel small and feckless. As the
interactor goes from room to room, the climbing challenges require larger body move-
ments. Such movements have a beneficial impact on SoP. NPCs are quick to let the
interactor know how rude they were when they were a fully-sized human inhabiting the
space with them.
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Fig. 2. From left to right: (1) When the experience starts, the interactor is a young child. They
are then scaled down into a gecko for the experience. (2) Interactors are made to traverse large
rooms to encourage feelings of helplessness. (3) Interactors must climb on furniture to get mag-
ical crystals and do good deeds. (4) At the end of the experience, if the interactor has chosen the
right dialogue options, NPCs that travel with them throughout the experience are present when
they are turned back into humans. The trailer is here: https://youtu.be/X-LLmQ3bkZk
System Security. Presented in Figure 3, in this VR experience, the interactor is a char-
acter that is a program inside of a larger system. Their role is to stop viruses from
sneaking into the system and causing havoc. A mix between Paper’s Please and Tron,
System Security forces the player to make difficult choices regarding who gets to enter
the system and who gets deleted. Over the course of the experience, the interactor be-
friends a coworker. The interactor learns that this new friend may have a virus inside
of them. After plugging into their friend’s head and discovering that they are infected,
the interactor is forced to delete their friend. System Security effectively used
worldbuilding and characters to create a sense of narrative immersion. The difficult
choices interactors had to make increased the stakes of their dramatic agency. In the
end, the interactor is not actually able to change the world in which they inhabit.
Fig. 3. From left to right: (1) In the antechamber space, interactors are introduced to the world
and are taught how to scan “bytes” to see if they are infected or not. (2) The interactor’s bed-
room showcases the dystopian and dark world of the narrative. The billboard says, “Remember
their Names”. (3) The main interactions occur in the security hall where bytes are scanned. In
the background, an infected byte is escorted away. The interactor hears the byte get deleted in
the distance. (4) Inside of their befriended colleague’s head, the interactor learns that they are
infected and witnesses their friend execute a fellow byte. The trailer is here:
https://youtu.be/jXitKdS3o4w
These three experiences present the range of IDNs developed. Each had their own
unique world, story, and narrative game mechanics. Not presented were the following:
one, interactors play as a worm in a community of migratory worms moving from one
rotting food to another; two, the interactor plays a piece of patch work cloth in an
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oppressive tailor shop run by an oligarchy of pure fabrics; three, interactor is a discarded
robot searching for their old human owners; and four, where the interactor is an over-
worked factory caterpillar looking to overthrow their oppressive spider bosses.
4.2 Successes and Failures
The course was successful in introducing students to the world of IDNs in VR. It was
also successful in helping students achieve the course goals. All but two of the students
produced a playable IDN in VR. Almost every student met the challenges of the course,
learned a variety of different technical skills, and became more literate in the VR design
and development space. Given that a creative writer, with no prior Unity experience,
produced the most comprehensive and emotionally satisfying experience is a testament
to how scaffolding, templates, and direction can help novices achieve their goals. Tem-
plates and resources from the course are available here: https://github.com/jadler-
fisher/IDN-in-VR-Resources. These resources will allow students to focus more on
their stories than their technical implementation.
This course’s failures fall into two domains. The first domain is connected to IDN
and VR Literacy. Students were introduced to the free experiences available on
SideQuest too late in the semester. This delayed learning and then implementing con-
ventions. Further, not connecting these same experiences to technical demos made it
difficult for students to connect their own IDNs to VR affordances. In short, teaching
narrative game mechanics came too late. The second domain of failures connects to the
scope and variety of work required to complete a comprehensive and compelling expe-
rience. There was simply too much for a single student. They often felt overwhelmed.
Templates and tutorials were produced on an ad hoc basis to meet needs and skill levels
for various narrative game mechanics. Additionally, introducing the user study proto-
type pair protocol discussed by Koenitz and colleagues would have been beneficial both
from a research perspective and to produce better stories [1]. Lastly, only one student
produced an IDN wherein dramatic agency produced a new ending for the story. Most
students produced branching narratives wherein all choices resulted in a common end-
ing. So, while students did gain a working knowledge of IDN, the majority were unable
to produce either IDNs with multiple endings or kaleidoscopic stories [77].
4.3 Looking Ahead
Establishing IDNs in VR, as a discipline, will require persistent community participa-
tion in the design and development of curricula. Interdisciplinary practitioners and
scholars will need to continue to work together to institutionalize a set of practices to
concretize the field’s sands into a foundation. Sharing syllabi, curricula, and pedagogy
can help standardize the discipline’s language, history, and canon of experiences. This
is critical and exciting work to prepare the next generation of immersive storytellers.
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