The co-founders of Steel Wool Studios detail how they used storytelling elements from film to make their virtual reality content more immersive.

People cry at movies — heck, I had myself a good cry the other night with a feature on Hulu. But it's not actually the film that elicits the emotional reaction, it's the story. From the beginning to the end, the point of a worthy narrative is to get us emotionally invested in the outcome of the characters we're watching or reading about. Their actions inspire us, shake us to our core, and sometimes cause us so much grief we need a minute to let it out before moving on to the next thing. That emotional investment is why we sometimes bond to merely mediocre films, or it might inspired us to line up at midnight for the next book in a longstanding series. We're aching for more of the story and that's what Andrew Dayton and Jason Topolski, co-founders of Steel Wool Studios, insist we need more of from virtual reality.

As a new convert to virtual reality, I was interested in sitting through this particular panel as part of the VRDC track at this year's GDC in downtown San Francisco. In the session, Dayton and Topolski shared the methods they've employed to make their own games come alive in virtual reality. It has very little to do with the technology and everything to do with the way the story is told.

Get the hook in quickly

"Get the emotional hook in quickly," said Dayton, matter-of-factly. "Different types of emotions can be evoked using subtle manipulation. You can get an emotional response just by adding a few surface elements —a small story, enough to get someone emotionally invested. It doesn't need to have a giant back story."

A good example of this, added Dayton, is the Pixar movie, Up. It presents the bulk of the emotion behind the story in the first ten minutes. It's an abridged montage of a couple's life together — their courtship, their struggles with infertility, and the eventual passing of the protagonist's beloved wife. It's achingly sad when you see him become widowed, but as the movie gets going, you start to hope that he'll eventually find that spark in life he once held for his wife.

Meet Digby, the little character you'll be interacting with in Steel Wool Studio's upcoming game for the Vive, Bounce.

Of course, virtual reality storytelling doesn't need to be that emotionally draining. Dayton and Topolski used one of their upcoming Vive releases, Bounce, as an example of how to interject a bit of emotion without overwhelming the experience. "We got the motions across with music, environments, and very brief connection you get to the ball, named Digby," said Topolski. "That short interaction in the beginning leaves you realizing that it's a hollow relationship with this ball, who is kind of just using you [to play the game]."

Use backdrops

Just like in the movies, and in video games, the backdrops and environmental elements matter. "Understand that, visually, you're there to support that story and support the emotion by your sets and your lighting — they're all support structures," said Dayton. "How you dim the lights, the colors you use...all those make a profound visual and emotional difference without you even consciously thinking about it."

Remember, it's still a game

The most important part of a game is still its game play.

Virtual reality games are still just that — playable stories. To give your game a story, your players need a character, or several characters to care about. "Every level is supposed to give you an exposition for the narrative," said Dayton. "It's supposed to make you feel a certain way." As he and Topolski closed out the panel, they made sure to remind us that the "most important part of a game is still game play." Because if that isn't engaging, then what's the point of sticking through to the end?