In 2021, the idea of the “Metaverse” crossed from science fiction circles to mainstream conversation when Facebook rebranded as “Meta” and announced that they were about to bring us to new frontiers of virtual reality. The response was largely tepid, with commentators unconvinced or unimpressed with their proposed metaverse. Since then, updates on the company’s supposed ambitions for VR have been slow to come. We still seem quite a ways away from Snow Crash. But there are extant online immersive spaces with robust communities. Second Life is the most well-known of these, though its glory days are past. One of the more popular metaverses that people actually use and like is VRChat, an interaction platform with a fairly robust set of features for avatar and world creation. We previously covered a YouTuber who finds human interest stories by talking to users in games like VRChat. Now a filmmaker has taken that concept to a new level with the first entirely in-game, feature-length metaverse documentary. Gratifyingly, We Met in Virtual Reality is not just a notable first, but also pretty good in its own right.
Joe Hunting has made VR-based film something of his specialty, having previously directed several shorts in this vein. For this project, he spent a year embedded with various VRChat-based subcultures, actively collaborating with them and eventually filming their activities amidst interviews with them. And when I say that the documentary is entirely in-game, that includes the shooting process. Hunting used a camera feature developed as a VRChat avatar asset, and a good deal of the production involved adjusting to the learning curve this presented. Before this, VR film mostly followed the example set by video game streaming and uploads — i.e. built around screen capture and sharing. This sets a new standard for the format, allowing for much greater visual dynamism.
One more subtle but helpful distinction between screen recording and using an in-game camera is that Hunting is tangibly acting more like a traditional documentarian here. At times this plays out in a fly-on-the-wall fashion, like what would happen if Frederick Wiseman lived in a sci-fi universe. This is an appropriate vibe, since none of these users blinks an eye at an anime girl (there are so many anime girls in VRChat) chatting up a demon. The aesthetics reinforce how normal this all is, a virtual extension of mundane human interaction.
The unique benefits of that virtual element can’t be overlooked, though. Many of the subjects in We Met in Virtual Reality discuss how they’re fans of the platform because of the safety it affords — whether it’s to express their gender freely, embark on risk-free sex work, or simply hobnob without the risk of catching COVID. And that’s to say nothing of how games like this can facilitate connections between people in vastly disparate parts of the world who would otherwise likely never find one another. Some of these little communities are quite lovely; one of the more prominent is an American Sign Language learning group. As one bubbly host notes, this is the kind of thing VR is uniquely suited for, as the controls allow for a level of precision in hand gestures that other video games don’t, while the pseudonymous use of avatars can put users who might be uncomfortable with video chat at ease.
We Met in Virtual Reality expresses a vision of the metaverse that’s far more optimistic than much of what we see in nonfiction, almost to a fault. There’s not much discussion of the negative aspects of VRChat or abusive behavior from users. Anything critical is mostly here by implication; when the rules and safety protocols for a digital strip club are enumerated, we can infer that past infractions have created a need for them. But I think there’s enough bad news out there about the metaverse that we can embrace a more positive depiction. After all, Meta’s unserious, unappetizing conception of virtual worlds could cause us to forget all the genuine potential here.
We Met in Virtual Reality premieres on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max on July 27.