The Metaverse is coming. But before we get to that future dystopia, be it Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash Or Zuck’s cringey-what-have-you, there is this charming little cafe-stop along the way.
Joe Hunting’s We Met In Virtual Reality Is a surprisingly sophisticated documentary, shot entirely inside the VRChat platform at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The film follows a smattering of isolated VR users, and lonely souls from around the world, as they find community, companionship, and nuptial courtship.
There is Jenny, who teaches American Sign Language (ASL) to whomever attends her virtual classroom. She lectures in short jean overalls, flowing pink hair, and large striped boots, occasionally with a black tie, a cartoon fantasy, doing seriously useful work. She is also one of the more grounded avatars.
Many of her students, or the two romantic couples the film also follows, look like a cross between World of Warcraft and the Furry community. One guy is a just a hotdog. Another is a riff on gizmo the mogwai from Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Tails abound.
This is not surprising, and yet, the ability to teach something as nuanced and visual as sign, and several different sign languages beyond ASL, is to this aging GenX’r, well, pretty amazing, and incredibly useful. Remember when Bart Simpson wanted to do ‘the dishes’ because it was in VR? I do.
Most impressive is Hunting’s ability to plant a ‘camera’ in these environments, and offer his storytelling (in the typical talking head, event-hopping-now documentary format) in a way that is instantly recognizable and nuanced as the last 100 years of filmmaking . He has done several short films in this manner. But this is his first feature, and the confidence and grace is very much on display. Apparently he also shows up in the environment as young man in an orange shirt with a Leica-ish camera while shooting.
His establishing shots in the environments feel authentic, even with some rendering limitations, as does the occasional rack focus, pan, or tracking shot. Familiarity is a nice crutch until this kind of filmmaking evolves into its own language. Having seen several VR short films at festivals over the years, and having played the occasional game module on a Sony or Oculus rig, I was nevertheless astonished at the interaction of the characters, and the filmmaker.
It is not just the sign language, but also the body language. There is a sense of natural ‘noodling,’ exploratory play that comes through, not so much from the filmmaking which is disciplined, but from the people themselves interacting with one another in casual and intimate ways.
Over the course of the film, we also meet Dustbunny and Toaster, who have an ongoing relationship in VR. He attends her belly dancing classes in the open desert or, perhaps, in a Victorian velvet night-club. They practice a post-covid meet-up by using an airport and airplane environment. The interaction of their virtual selves looks natural and nuanced; body language is both nuanced and spontaneous. She lounges casually in his lap at one point. Perhaps I should not be surprised at this but I was.
There is a scene, the opening scene of the film, in fact, where many of the characters practice driving a car in the virtual environment, like playing a game inside a simulation. The result is charming chaos, with low stakes, even as the vehicle cares off the road or into the side of a mountain. It is high energy and fun, without losing the way people have shared experiences together; how that plays out socially. It put a smile my face, as did much of this film.
Obviously, there are toxic elements on VRChat. it is still the internet, even if it is the beta-phase for Web 3.0. Huntington instead focuses on the utopian, emotionally resonant connections of the communities, as they form and dissolve.
And relationships are taken to the next level, as in the virtual wedding in the middle of the film of IsYourBoi and DragonHeart. She lives in the UK, and he in Miami. They each used VRChat originally as a dating platform, when not working their real jobs.
For a year, they have been heading towards matrimony. They play billiards at one point. While it is a bit clunky visually, the game has real stakes between the two as they flirt. It mirrors the real world interaction as effortlessly even as a 2 meter tall red-eyed devil is playing against a gartered & stocking’d diminutive dancer.
We know, or at least strongly suspect from history, that these technological babes will careen down the into the sewers of misuse, crime and the darker side of human nature. From computer BBSs in the 1980s to ICQ in the 1990s to ChatRoulette in the early aughts, it has been ever thus.
But it is early days for VRChat, launched in 2017, and the sheen of innocence with Virtual Reality 2.0 (let us all collectively forget the headache-inducing chunky pixels of Jaron Lanier’s 1990s incarnation) has not yet been fully tarnished, like the maturing Social Media platforms that have been chipping away at democracy and common decency and dignity.
Hunting and his cast of characters are riding a happier emotional rollercoaster at the moment. The optimism of We Met In Virtual Reality is absorbing and infectious. For all its bleeding-edge tech, and murky event horizon, the film is an authentic feel-good film of our current pandemic moment.