Image Courtesy of Blackthorn Media

Storytelling in Virtual Reality

Blackthorn Media - Abbot’s Book

Last modification: 14 Sep, 2017
9 mins

A 28-year-old gothic novella has entered the realm of virtual reality. The Abbot’s Book tells the story of four generations of a noble family cursed by the power of an ancient book in 17th century Italy.

Author and creator of The Abbot’s Book talk about his journey from a novella, to film, and finally, VR.

What is The Abbot's Book?

Abbot's Book
 is a project I started back in 1989 as a novella. Over the years, it has taken many different forms. Back when the computer game Myst came out in 1993, I met the two brothers who founded Cyan. I remember saying ‘Damn, those guys are just like me and I know how to do everything they did.” So, that’s when I first got stars in my eyes and started to turn this story into a virtual world to explore.

Long story short, that led to a winding path through the movie business. I came to Los Angeles in '96 because the company that I wound up working for was interested, among other things, in the story of TheAbbot's Book and exploring it in CG, whether it be a game or feature film. They tricked me into working on movies for 18 years [LAUGHS], which was fine.

But it finally came time to start something new, so I started Blackthorn Media three years ago to pursue virtual reality work.

I wanted to have The Abbot's Book be one of the main projects that we build. So in the years between first writing the story and getting started, it turned into quite a huge project. We're doing eight episodes. It's the story of four generations of an Italian noble family and how they respond to the corrupting power of the book that's dug up from the catacombs underneath their estate. It's really about how families deal with the power and the temptation that they face as this book falls into their hands.

The Abbot's Book, Image Courtesy of Blackthorn Media

How did the original novella come about?

I wrote it when I was in college. It began as a term paper for a gothic fiction class I was taking. I've been a huge fan of gothic fiction my whole life and we'd been reading classics of the genre, like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’, etc. I found a love for the genre when I was growing up reading Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and some others. It was an analytic class, a literature study class, taught by an incredible guy named Edward Brodie who was, in fact, one of Anne Rice's professors when she was in college. We were reading all these books and writing papers and I thought ‘let me write a story instead of an analytic paper’. So I wrote the first few pages of The Abbot’s Book and handed it in as a sort of an audition. He read it and he said, “Well, I want to see how this ends, so go ahead.” And that's how the original story came to be.

I've been waiting to turn this story into a CG world that you can explore for decades. So it was really the first thing that we wanted to do when we started Blackthorn Media.

- Michael Conelly

What made you want to start working in VR?

Probably from Myst years ago. It was hugely popular in its day and broke out of the normal gamer crowd. I loved it just because it sort of anticipated virtual reality in its way. It was a computer-generated world that was free to explore. The timing and the pacing of the story were really up to you to discover and to find your way through. And that really stuck with me. So, when I thought about turning Abbot's Book into a more interactive entertainment than a written story, that seemed like a really natural way to go. I've been waiting to turn this story into a CG world that you can explore for decades. So it was really the first thing that we wanted to do when we started Blackthorn Media.

The Abbot's Book, Image Courtesy of Blackthorn Media

What is it about VR that works so well with The Abbot's Book?

We try to have a good answer for every project that we undertake. Virtual reality is an emerging medium and there are all kinds of interpretations of what it can do. We like to think we're a little bit to the right of video games and a little bit to the left of movies, and for me, there's a couple of dimensions that I think of when I think about why VR is good for this project.

When you flip through The Abbot’s Book, there's a good amount of design work and richness to the world. When you're authoring a story, you're trying to write it well enough to make somebody want to turn the page and keep reading. When you're designing a world, you're trying to design it in a way that makes somebody want to go deeper into it and figure out what's around the next corner. That’s one of the key things that we want to get at in VR: this sense of exploration and this sense of agency- feeling like you can go anywhere and do what you want to do.

There are also a lot of things that we're exploring in VR as a narrative vessel, and so some of these things that we're doing are somewhat experimental. One of those ideas is this notion of letting you experience this world as one of the characters. Unlike most movies where you're just an observer, we got this notion of the fourth wall that you can magically see through and nobody in the story seems to mind that these invisible eyes are part of this equation. We're not running a clock and saying this experience is going to be done in exactly 90 minutes and then you're on your way. We're creating a place that you can experience on a sort of ‘a la carte’ basis, and in order to do that, you're going to be different characters in this story. We think that will make for a very strong experience.

The Abbot's Book, Image Courtesy of Blackthorn Media

What kinds of issues have come up with developing for VR?

If you go all the way back to the release of the Oculus kit, certainly the first thing that comes to mind is getting motion sickness. As of a few years ago, motion sickness was a big concern. That went away once we started doing some of the best practices, namely, we blink from place to place rather than doing continuous lateral motion along the X and Z plane. The things that we had to learn along the way were how to make sure nobody ever got motion sickness ever.

How did you solve those issues?

From a room scale standpoint, we take full advantage of the space you have but in order to move farther than your 10x10 foot room will allow. We're using a blink mechanic, which a number of other projects are using as well. The goal is to use this blink mechanic to get these larger steps around our environment. That's the first and biggest problem that had to be solved in order to make people comfortable in this space. 

There are also loads of other little bits and pieces that you learn along the way. Like the resolution of the displays, text size in HMDs, simple stuff like that. There are accommodations that need to be made along the way. There's still certainly other issues that need solving in terms of what's the right kind of interface to have in a project like The Abbot's Book

The Abbot's Book, Image Courtesy of Blackthorn Media

What is the main thing that VR brings to the table in terms of storytelling?

You could be watching a great movie on a movie screen in a theater with the best sound system but at no point do you forget where you are. You're always in a movie theater. When you put on a VR headset and start moving around, it only takes a few seconds for some people to forget where the real world is. That level of presence and complete immersion is a powerful tool.

It's powerful particular for storytelling because it absorbs you completely into the experience, and I think it's a kind of storytelling that's going to be more powerful than anything we've seen before.

Blackthorn Media used Maya and the Unity engine to create.Get immersed in 17th century Italy on Steam.

  • Maya
  • VR
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