The Yang and the Yin of Immersive Storytelling with Oculus’ Yelena Rachitsky

yelena-rachitskyThe future of VR storytelling will be immersive and interactive. Yelena Rachitsky is an executive producer of experiences at Oculus, and she’s been inspired by how interactive narratives have allowed her to feel like a participant who is more engaged, more present, and more alive. The fundamental challenge of interactive narratives is how to balance the giving and receiving of making choices and taking action vs. receiving a narrative and being emotionally engaged and having an embodied experience of immersion and presence. Balancing the active and passive dimensions is the underlying tension of the yang and yin of any experience.


The boundaries between what is a game and what is an immersive story will continue to be blurred, but Rachitsky looks at the center of gravity of an experience. Are you centered in your embodied experience and emotional engagement of a story (yin)? Or are you centered in your head of thinking about the strategy of your next action in achieving a goal in a game (yang)?

She’s recommends that experiential designers start with more yin aspects of an experience including the feeling, the colors, the space, and the visceral sensory experience of a story that you’re primarily telling directly to someone’s body. She’s also been finding a lot of inspiration and innovation of the future of storytelling from immersive theater, where actors are able to use their body language to communicate unconsciously with the audience and use their bodies moving through space in order to drive specific behaviors. The Oculus-produced Wolves in the Walls used immersive theater actors from the production Then She Fell in order to do the motion capture, and to help tell the spatial story using the body language of an embodied character in the story.

I had a chance to catch up with Rachitsky at Sundance this year where Oculus had five different experiences including Dispatch, Masters of the Sun, Space Explorers, Spheres, & Wolves in the Walls. Rachitsky has been key in helping to discover immersive storytellers and supporting projects that push the edge of innovation when it comes to the future of interactive storytelling. She says that the biggest open question that is driving her journey into immersive storytelling is “How can you be passive and active at the same time?”

Rachitsky says that immersive storytelling isn’t about the beginning, middle, or end, but rather it is about cultivating an experience that you have, and it’s about the story that you tell yourself after you take the headset off. This matches some of the depth psychological perspectives on immersive storytelling that John Bucher shared in his Storytelling for Virtual Reality book where VR storytelling could be used as a technological as a vehicle for inner reflection and contemplation.

I suspect that the focus on embodiment and the audience’s direct experience is part of a larger trend towards a new forms of storytelling that transcend the Yang Archetypal journey of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and VR and AR are more about a more receptive Yin Archetypal Journey that I would say is more non-linear, cyclical, embodied, sensory, centered in your own experience, environmental, nurturing, receptive, cooperative, community-driven, worldbuilding, depth psychological, connective, transcendent, esoteric, & alchemical.

The exact patterns and underlying structures of this more yin archetypal journey are still be explored in VR stories, but there’s likely a lot of inspiration that might come from kishōtenketsu literary structures found in classic Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives that focus more on conflict-free stories of cooperation, collaboration, and revealing holistic interconnections of how the totality is greater than the sum of all of the individual parts.

I’ve recorded nearly 100 interviews on the future of immersive storytelling now (here’s a list of the Top 50 from 2016), and a consistent theme has been this underlying tension of giving and receiving where there is a striving for a balance of the active and passive experience. I find that the concepts of the yang and the yin from Chinese philosophy and the four elements from natural philosophy provide compelling metaphors to talk about this underlying tension.

Using metaphors from natural philosophy, the fire element (active presence) and air element (mental & social presence) are yang expressions of exerting energy outward while the water element (emotional presence) and earth element (embodied & environmental presence) are more yin expressions of receiving energy internally. My keynote on from the Immersive technology Conference elaborates on how these play out in the more yang communications mediums like videos games and more yin communications mediums of film and VR.

Video games focus on outward yang expressions of making choices and taking action while film focuses on inward yin expressions of receiving an emotionally engaging story. VR introduces the body and direct embodied sensory experience, but it’s possible that this focus on embodiment and presence helps to create new expressions of yin archetypal stories that have otherwise been impossible to tell.

Most of my recent conversations about VR storytelling from Sundance 2018 & the Immersive Design Summit have been focused on this emerging yin archetypal journey of how embodiment & presence are revealing these new structures of immersive storytelling:

The concept of a “Living Story‘” from the Future of Storytelling’s Charlie Melcher is very similar to what The VOID’s Camille Cellucci calls “Story-Living,” which is about “creating spaces and worlds where people have a chance to live out their own stories within a framework that we design.” The recently released Ready Player One movie did not include some of the ‘story-living’ live action role playing scenes that were included within the novel, but Ernest Cline was definitely attuned to the trends towards immersive narratives when his novel came out in 2011, which is the year that the Punchdrunk immersive theater production Sleep No More opened up in New York City.

Whether it’s a living story or story-living, both involve becoming an active participant and character within the story that’s unfolding. AI is going to play a huge role in helping to resolve some of this tension between authorial control of the story and creating generative possibility spaces, and it’s something that I’m starting to explore in the Voices of AI podcast with interviews with AI storytelling pioneer Michael Mateas, AI social simulator designer & improv actor Ben Samuel, and AI researcher/indie game developer Kristin Siu. Oculus’ Rachitsky is looking forward to integrating more and more AI technologies within future VR storytelling experiences, and she’s even experimenting with using live actors randomly appearing within some future VR experiences that she’s working on.

I expect that the underlying tension between giving and receiving, active and passive, and the yang and the yin to continue to be explored through a variety of different immersive storytelling experiences. While Ready Player One explores a typical Yang Archetypal Journey in the style of Campbell’s monomyth, these types of active gaming and mental puzzle-solving experiences may look great on a film screen, but they’re not always compelling VR experiences that amplify the unique affordances of immersion and presence in VR.

I predict that immersive storytellers will continue to define and explore new storytelling structures that I expect will initially be focusing these more Yin Archetypal Journey of immersion and presence. There will continue to be a fusion of traditional storytelling techniques from cinema, but it’s possible that VR stories need to completely detach from the paradigms of storytelling that tend to focus on conflict, drama, and outward journeys.

It’s possible that the Kishōtenketsu story structures from Eastern cultures might work well in VR as they focus on more cooperative and conflict-free stories that focus on the Gestalt of interconnectivity. It’s also likely that if there does turn out to be a fundamental Yin Archetypal Journey structure that’s different than the Campbell’s monomyth that it’s likely that these stories have been ignored and overlooked, and that it’s possible that the mediums of VR and AR have been needed in order to provide people with an embodied, direct experience of these types of stories.

Eventually we’ll be able to find a perfect balance of the yang and the yin in immersive stories, but perhaps before we get this perfect balance then we’ll need focus on these Yin Archetypal Journey of immersion and presence. Once we open our minds about what the optimal structures for embodied stories that center us in our experiences, then I expect more of a seamless integration of live-action role play, gaming elements, social interactions, and collaborative stories.

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