We Met in Virtual Reality, 2022.
Written and Directed by Joe Hunting.
Filmed entirely inside the world of VR, this documentary captures the excitement and surprising intimacy of a burgeoning cultural movement, demonstrating the power of online connection in an isolated world.
If you’ve never put on a virtual reality headset and experienced VR for yourself, it’s quite the difficult phenomenon to fully construe in words. Taking the immersive tech one step further, cutting-edge director Joe Hunting is pioneering a new frontier of filmmaking with his first feature documentary, We Met in Virtual Reality, being filmed entirely within VR spaces.
VR as a gaming and social tool touts an unprecedented level of escapism, and so the possibilities it has offered to people stuck in their homes and separated from loved ones during the pandemic speaks for itself. The advanced interactivity of entering a shared VR space and talking, moving around, and even gesticulating with full-body motion tracking allows more granular and intimate social interactions than a mere Zoom call. As Hunting proves, it also becomes an exciting and dynamic medium within which to stage a first-of-its-kind documentary.
In December 2020, Hunting began chronicling how users of the VR social hub VRChat utilised the tech to stay social, learn new skills, combat anxiety, and perhaps even find love. VRChat allows users to meet up in virtual worlds of their choosing, don larger-than-life avatars, and have both their voices and movements translated into the virtual world through their headset.
Hunting embeds himself as a “cameraman” and interviewer within various VRChat communities, gleaning insight into the tech’s uniting potential from many voices who count as under-represented in the practical world. One of the primary figures is Jenny, an American Sign Language teacher who runs VRChat’s “Helping Hands” community to aid hearing, deaf, and hard of hearing people learn ASL in an inclusive environment.
Jenny, who appears in this world with equally pink hair and T-shirt, has a sweetness of manner that makes her a natural teacher. She herself suffers from auditory processing disorder as well as mental health issues, but clearly finds salve and purpose in running her well-attended VR ASL sessions throughout the week. For many, like the fully deaf Ray, these classes grant agency through comprehensive finger-tracking technology which he would otherwise be denied in so many other online social platforms.
Elsewhere there’s DustBunny, a fitness dance instructor who decided to start teaching dance classes in VR, and spends her downtime socialising with her long-term partner Toaster, who she met on the platform. Having met once physically, the couple’s future aspirations are to meet in person for a second time and, once the pandemic subsides, see where their relationship takes them away from the VR space.
Hunting also introduces us to IsYourBoi, an exotic dancer who used VRChat to escape a bereavement and the crushing alcoholism that followed. She eventually met fellow dancer DragonHeart, and despite living 5,000 miles away from each other, they’re fully committed to the extent that DragonHeart proposes a VR wedding to fully cement that commitment.
It might be easy for those clueless about this technology to scoff at it, and while there’s no fully measuring up to the reality of flesh-and-blood interaction, for people and situations where that isn’t possible, this film argues that VR is a specially equipped substitute.
During the pandemic in particular, it’s clear that bonds and support networks have been formed that granted people the strength to endure the worst sorts of pain and heartbreak. In one particularly emotional aside, Ray speaks a parting message to his recently deceased brother using ASL, before setting off memorial lanterns inside the virtual world.
Hunting shrewdly stands back and allows his subjects room to tell their highly moving stories of what prompted them to seek out VR and the digital togetherness of others in such an unconventional, offbeat space. “VRChat has saved my life and my sanity,” one subject declares during a rockin’ New Year’s Eve 2020 party, and watching how naturally people feel themselves inside this world, it’s easy to see how it can become both an escape from real-world pain and a vestige for expression. For one non-binary user, they evidently love their ability to run around VRChat as a space-dog.
VRChat was certainly giving the lonely, isolated, and infirm freedom to explore a limitless digital space long before COVID-19 was ever a thing, and it’s clear from this documentary that it has allowed some users to form potentially lifelong bonds that will extend far beyond the pandemic.
In this sense Hunting’s film makes a powerful argument that VR is a specifically attuned outlet to help people process the agonies and ecstasies of life beyond geographical, practical, and physical limitations. All in all, one is left with the impression that many VRChat users accept a measure of responsibility to ensure their communities are welcoming places for everyone, and that’s a beautiful thing.
While on one hand the virtual shooting does away with most of the logistical and financial challenges of live-action documentary filmmaking, Hunting is also working in totally uncharted territory here, and yet makes the VR space feel like a wholly natural venue for documentary storytelling. It helps that Hunting is clearly hyper-literate of the typical doc format, employing roving handheld camerawork alongside motivated framing and editing, which juxtaposed against the wacky worlds and wackier avatars makes for an experience paradoxically surreal and yet deceptively down-to-Earth.
Using his virtual camera, Hunting has created an affecting tribute to people finding their own agency and happiness through the versatility of incredible modern technology. As proof of both VR’s potential to unite humanity and the possibilities it extends to future filmmakers, We Met in Virtual Reality is a truly fascinating piece of work.
This highly innovative shot-in-VR documentary is a testament to virtual reality’s unique ability to bring geographically disparate people together in a highly tactile way, and the additional importance this has taken on during the pandemic.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.