The Art of the Experience: Storytelling, UX Design, and the XR Hero's Journey
By Caitlin Krause
I’ve heard a lot of people share a joke that the only industries that refer to their participants as “users” are drugs and virtual reality. (Are drugs an industry? That’s another question.) While this joke makes me cringe every time I hear it, the point is that there’s no apt naming convention for the person taking part in the immersive, collaborative experience. We even call the design process “UX Design,” with UX standing for “user experience.” To further obfuscate matters, if it’s not termed “experience” it’s usually deemed a “game” and the “user” becomes a “player.” There’s so much to unpack here in the language, the lexicon of XR that informs and reflects how we feel about it.
The terms need updating.
XR experiences involve feelings, often beyond words. And, some will say it doesn’t matter what words we choose; it’s just semantics. I argue that words have moods and indicate meaning, significance, and cultural connotation. Yes, let’s attend to them without pausing too much to stall progress. Let’s not overleap the intentionality of our choices, as this is the ideal time to transform the language, at the beginning, from the ground up. In the process of exploring language and meaning, we’re addressing priorities about how we create different environments and interactions in XR that are, ideally, different and better than those we have in the purely physical world.
Ultimately, what’s more important to me than word choices is the question Do I understand what you mean when you say it? And, to quote Bertolt Brecht, “How does one act, if one believes what you say?” The joke about “users” stands, in my mind, for a false belief, initially, that the participant is passive, receiving a predetermined way of interacting with the XR world. What’s become evident over the past several decades is that the opposite is true: the “user” has agency, authority, and identity/identities in XR environments that are not predetermined and are certainly not fixed! It’s up to them to help navigate their experiences. And, with that in mind, there are great ways that a designer can create story structures and levels of engagement that prompt a user to feel a sense of challenge, belonging, satisfaction, and growth as they collaborate and participate. There are ways to guide the experience.
The technology (of XR) mediates a human-centered experience. In the fall of 2020, I released a book called Designing Wonder: Leading Transformative Experiences in VR. There are parts of the book that look at the history of user experience and design for immersive environments, citing useful research and findings from scientists and emotional design experts that can inform the design decisions we make when we create immersive landscapes, interactions, and collaborations.
Parts of Designing Wonder are about applied mindfulness, storytelling, learning theories, and collaboration tools. It’s meant to be practical and purposeful. In the book, I introduce what I call “The VR Hero’s Journey,” which is a way to approach storytelling with the immersive experience in mind. Below are excerpts from those chapters that address virtual worlds, storytelling, and the user experience with XR collaboration in focus.
Designing Collaborative Experiences in VR
The following is an excerpt from Caitlin Krause’s 2020 book Designing Wonder, reprinted with permission by and from the author. More detail, examples, and sketches can be found online at https://caitlinkrause.com/vr.
There are key ways [XR] is different than traditional in-person learning, work, and collaboration. In making this transition to embrace XR’s potential, a new level of literacy is required. There are concrete skills, practices, and considerations necessary to thrive and maximize work and wellbeing in this new space, transferring to our connected work-personal lives. In many ways, this is relationship building, on a human level, as we interact with technology that mediates our relationships with others, ideas, information and even ourselves on a personal level. This literacy spans digital, and is about each of us and our approaches at this watershed stage.
Recently, I designed and hosted a session called “Presence and Collaboration in VR” where people gathered from around the world to spend time (be it their morning, afternoon or evening) all interacting, learning practices that hinge on the skill of collaboration. The participants represented different nationalities, cultures, languages and backgrounds. Most of us had never met each other before. Many were using the shared social VR platform called ENGAGE for the first time. Some had never been inside a VR headset for a social, interactive VR experience before. We didn’t know all of this about each other, at the time, because we didn’t spend time on long introductions. We began by playing an interactive game, and the session launched from there.
The session exercises were based on practices I created that are interdisciplinary and active. I blend mindfulness awareness, noticing and creativity exercises, and interpersonal collaboration games that we could co-participate in inside of a VR environment. One person shared, “After going through the experience together I am hopeful the friction between humans, hardware and software will continue to melt away.”
Collaborative XR experiences can be for groups of individuals meeting for the first time; for corporate groups, leadership teams and cohorts of learners of all ages. It’s a new literacy, and it involves a sharing of ideas on a new level of collaborative power. I’m grateful for experiences that reach across many boundaries at a time where collaboration and collective freedom of exchange is quite profound… and, necessary.
The Archetypal Hero
Myths, legends, and archetypal “quest” patterns have been seen as the code of life, studied by mythologists for centuries. Many of these mythologists are also psychologists, including Carl Jung, whose avid studies of myths informed his research and work related to the mind. Other prominent mythologists include Theodore Gaster, Heinrich Zimmer, Mircea Eliade, Christopher Vogler, Claudia Pinkola Estes, and a 20th century man named Joseph Campbell, who we choose to focus on because of his set of observations known as The Hero’s Journey. In his books The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Power of Myth, and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell documented similar patterns among myths across a widely diverse spread of time, culture, and conditions. The common thread was the human and the journey. The Hero’s Journey became the expression of what Campbell termed “the monomyth,” the great story of transformation. He borrowed the term “monomyth” from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, adding the article “the” to indicate the singularity of the Monomyth applying to The Hero’s Journey. It involves a deep undergoing of change, awareness, and transcendence that all mythical heroes throughout the ages seem to share. They follow a path that involves calling, resistance, separation, descent, challenge, ordeal, courage, and return.
Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has become a powerful modern cultural metaphor for transformation. Of course, it can be approached on a literal physical level, but it’s also a compelling emotional journey of inner transformation. George Lucas credited Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with inspiring the Star Wars series, which brought Campbell attention and fame. The stages of The Hero’s Journey involve common structural elements found universally in myths, dreams, fables and folklore— not to mention modern cinema! The Hero’s Journey originally comprised 17 Stages envisioned and mapped by Campbell, which screenwriter Christopher Vogler (author of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers) adapted to a 12 Stage Journey.
A perhaps counterintuitive aspect of the Stages that’s important to consider is that Campbell intended them to be non-linear, and they exist in cycles of transformation. There are infinite adaptations, permutations and progressions, and Stages may be skipped, repeated, or shifted earlier or later in the sequence, according to the characters’ needs and the needs of the story. The Stages are symbolic of a development, or Arc of Transformation, that a Hero will undergo, and they are adaptive. It also helps to keep in mind, once again) that some of the Stage titles (“Crossing the Threshold” and “Approaching the Innermost Cave” for example) might lead us to think of them as a purely physical journey, yet they are truly intended to be seen as metaphorical and highly emotional.
Let’s take a look at one of the further adaptations of Vogler’s 12 Stages of The Hero’s Journey, created by Thea Cooke. On her webpage where her article appears about The Hero’s Journey in Advertising, Thea writes, “Below is an adaptation of Vogler's take, which is the version most commonly used today, but with one big change. Most of the time you see the hero's journey drawn as a circle; the hero ends in the same place they started. I believe it makes more sense to draw it as a spiral, because while the hero ends up where they began—either literally or figuratively—their journey has forced them to grow and change, so they ascend to a higher plane of existence. This also leaves room for their journey to continue as they face more trials, and ascend to even higher planes in the future.”
Most engaging stories – including engaging XR experiences! – do contain parts of this narrative structure, and it’s fascinating to recognize that template and use it to inform our design of wonder-filled experiences in XR.
The XR Hero's Journey
If we use The Hero’s Journey as a model to represent what each individual feels and encounters during their XR journey, it anchors some of our design considerations about the experience. Before, they are curious, and they enter the new experience just as they would begin a quest, with a feeling of excitement, nervousness and heightened anticipation. They have received a calling to encounter this, and it feels very personal. There might be doubts along the way. The exact nature of the quest varies, be it one for knowledge-gathering, to win a game, to engage in a group activity, or to go on an epic adventure in another world. During, they are fully immersed in the wonder of the XR realm, which is new, different, and possibly rife with dangers or challenges.
In broad strokes, The XR Hero’s Journey looks like 5 Major Stages:
Before: The Hero is in the “Ordinary World,” and needs both Anticipation and Assurance, plus Curiosity and a Mission
Enter: The Hero Crosses the Threshold and needs Comfort plus a strong sense of Purpose
During: The Hero Experiences Visceral Thrill and Loss of Individual Isolated Self; needs Safety and Clarity
Exit: The Hero makes the Transition Back and needs Framing of the Transformation
After: The Hero needs to Apply Experience to the Ordinary World, where they are Transformed
Let’s look and apply the stages of the Spiral version of The Hero’s Journey to a VR experience. Here is my adaptation to the compelling spiral diagram of the Hero’s Journey, originally created by Thea Cooke, that we looked at in the last section. My version introduces the nature of the before, during and after elements that are specific to an experience immersing oneself in VR:
The stages above combine to form the SCUBA framework that I go into more depth in describing in the chapter [of Designing Wonder] about XR Methodology. As we can see in the diagram above, the Mentor plays a critical role in the success of the Journey. Think of yourself as the Mentor. How will you support the Hero you’re guiding in the XR experience you design? Let’s investigate this even more deeply in the next section.
Every XR Hero Needs a Mentor
XR invites a user to come in and feel both immensity and insignificance all at once. As we talked about in the section about Wonder, it’s an existentialist’s dream and a journey into the sublime, to enter VR and feel part of another world, and to also feel completely present, with attention focused in the purest sense on the present time and place, a fantastical world designed and created with a user in mind. They are the Hero.
And, they usually enter the surround-scape with less inhibition, more curiosity, if we have framed the experience with some level of expectation and anticipation. They’ve said yes to an experience, and they are vulnerable because they don’t always know what’s coming. There’s something at stake. They might be bracing themselves; we’ve said they are more open, but this doesn’t make them unafraid. It makes them more… malleable. Plastic. They are curious and eager.
They fall down a rabbit hole into VR, and suddenly they’re surrounded by… what? What exactly? A snowy field? An expanse of stars and nothingness? A wide field? A science lab? A battleground? A love story? The environment can be anything, and it will inspire their first emotions and feelings in that space.
The user – our Hero! – feels a simultaneous combination of 3 key questions when they enter VR: “Where am I? / Why am I here? / Who am I?” as mentioned earlier in the Presence Pyramid.
These are powerful questions, intimidating and potentially causing a catatonic state if there’s no influence to disrupt and/or answer them in an immediate way. This is why playing the Mentor role makes such a difference! It’s one thing to prepare and set expectations for the experience, yet we also must plan for that moment that a user crosses the threshold into the VR space. As the Mentor, we find a way to meet them there, either in the environment we create, or in the embodiment of our avatar that welcomes and greets them, or through the story we design that gives clarity when they enter. There’s great intention and care involved.
When a Hero is asking (in their minds) “Why am I here?” they have clearly felt the Call to Adventure, yet they need a better sense of their Purpose in VR. They need us, as the Mentor, to make their Purpose, or Goal, clear, and to empower them by showing them they have agency in the experience.
In this way, we as the Mentor can engage them on the Journey. The first few minutes in VR can set a tone for how the experience will feel and flow for a user. At each step, our role as Mentor is to establish safety and trust, and also to let the Hero know that they are empowered. While we will encourage them to accept some challenges and explore new realms in this quest, we also give them ways that they can safely exit the experience (which includes physically removing the headset) if they are feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable. This is important, so that all feelings and needs are not just permitted but invited – it’s all honored, valid, and connected in VR.
The reason that every VR Hero needs a Mentor goes back to psychology and the nature of The Hero’s Journey. Considering the Spiral diagram again, it’s a critical role that a Mentor plays in guiding someone across the threshold from The Ordinary World (IRL) into the Special World of Virtual Reality. A Mentor can be someone who gives extra assurances that the user is having the experience as intended, and they are also there to quell any uncertainties about the technical details of the experience. What made a difference to me early on in my discovery of VR, AR and XR experiences, was due to the quality of mentoring above all else. I felt uplifted, empowered and inspired, and to echo Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.