Virtual worlds are computer generated environments where characters have defining experiences that either mirror or subvert expectations of reality. They’re a contemporary development of the play within a play; a story within a story. The virtual world provides an opportunity for an allegorical parallel to the real one. It may be uncannily super-real, dream-like, surreal, or nightmarish in quality. Unlike literary worlds, such as the parallel story in Nocturnal Animals, or a dreamscape like Inception, virtual worlds are technological — machine generated experiences.
Virtual worlds must be experienced through some form of human-machine interface. This is usually a sensor array attached to the head or body, a port of some type connecting to the back of the head or the spinal column. The interface may have symbolic references to drugs, such as ‘jacking in’, sexual references, or connotations of slavery and imprisonment.
The ‘uncanny’ is a description applied to virtual experiences that literally creep people out; although they might appear to be real there’s something disconcertingly unnatural about them. In the revelatory virtual reality story the central character believes they are living in the real world only to discover, usually through an experience of something weird that doesn’t seem true, that their perception of reality is in fact a lie. This story has philosophical resonance with ideas about the nature of reality, and our sensory perceptions of the world around us (for example, the classic ‘brain in the bucket’ thought experiment). As the central character attempts to work out what is going on, the story can venture into the classic ‘detective mystery investigation’ mode. The revelatory experience of a virtual world is often an allegory of religious awakening, or self-discovery.
The Matrix is one of the best known ‘uncanny’ reality scenarios, where a hacker called Neo notices a black cat, apparently on a recorded loop. This ‘glitch’ leads him to question the nature of his reality. There’s often a surreal influence to these stories: a version of Surrealism where the ordinary appears oddly unreal. This can be a metaphor for the strangeness of ordinary experience: hidden emotional references, possibly trauma. Other films like: The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and Vanilla Sky explore the paradoxical unreality of reality — the things around us are not what they appear to be. This sentiment, questioning the nature of reality, echoes philosophical skepticism, analytical doubt, and the philosophy of uncertainty — it’s not possible to question the world around us without accepting our own uncertainty. These stories hint that there is another way, an alternative to the tyrannical drudgery of the ‘simulated’ everyday.
Empowerment and transcendence
In The Lawnmower Man a gardener with learning difficulties transcends his limitations to become a kind of Nietzschean digital-superman. Here the virtual world is a parallel world where the character can develop his strength, and eventually dominate the virtual arena, which then becomes his chosen battleground. The theme of empowerment and transcendence in virtual reality stories is both a warning and celebration of how technology dominates contemporary life.
Source Code extrapolates on human memory to analyse the nature of reality, and the search for truth. This virtual world is a sophisticated playback machine for human memories — a means of scrutinising existence. The virtual world, is a vehicle for the main character re-experiencing a traumatic event, over and over again, which allows the audience to discover new perspectives and significance. It has an element of the analytical mystery, an elaborate puzzle looking for an answer.
Game and reality
Virtual worlds are synonymous with gaming environments. In these worlds gamers play as characters. This works well as a storytelling device to question the nature of reality — what is real, and what’s a game? And to examine identity — what is more real: the players’ identity, or the characters they are playing?
The body horror film Existenz explores boundaries, where the line between reality and game playing is blurred; the difference between being a player and playing a character within a game story. It examines the boundaries between the human body and non-human implants, the interface into the game world via a hole in the player’s spine, which also functions as a sexualised technological-orifice. Existenz combines mainstream popular horror with the art film, fusing crowd-pleasing action sequences with weird, surreal elements. The ‘uncanny’ is a means of questioning reality, media production, and mass media consumption — our absorption with manufactured experiences produced by big business.
The journey into a new world
The classical journey into a new world is a voyage of adventure and discovery. The hero explores new and exciting lands, and returns home altered by his or her experience. In Tron, Kevin Flynn, enters a computer generated world, where computer programs are living entities. In this digital land he is able to overcome injustice, and eventually return to his rightful place in the real world. The journey into a new world provides a distinct zone where the central character develops, allowing him to become the person he or she needs to be in order to overcome personal fears, and defeat their enemy.