When considering the place of virtual reality in the 21st century, it’s hard to picture anything short of an aggressively dystopian Black Mirror episode crowded with loneliness, crime, irreversible emotional damage or all of the above. Our relationship to technology these days is necessarily cynical—it’s fun, but it’s disastrously isolating, dangerously addicting, possibly carcinogenic and definitely mining our personal data. That is, unless you ask Joe Hunting, a documentarian who focuses entirely on virtual reality with a refreshingly optimistic outlook on technology. His first feature-length documentary, We Met in Virtual Reality, follows a number of different communities in a popular VR platform called VRChat as they weather the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown.
Included in the film is Jenny, a VR American Sign Language instructor, a dance teacher named Dust Bunny and her partner Toaster, and couple DragonHeart and IsYourBoy, who met in an exotic dance chatroom. Virtual Reality is the first feature documentary made entirely in VR, and when it comes to delving into the sublime nuances of the online world, Hunting doesn’t spare a single moment. Using a camera feature developed inside of VRChat, Hunting doesn’t simply capture what’s going on in various communities, he films it, switching focus, pivoting from character to character in tender close-ups and utilizing looming wide-shots to highlight divine and hyper-realistic backgrounds. This yields not only a complex emotional feast, but a visual one, too—though the VRChat interface is still a bit of an optical stew that comprises a mess of glitchy 2D avatars that layer on top of one another, and sometimes look like that stroke simulation that circulated the internet a couple years ago.
Nonetheless, Virtual Reality is a staggeringly original feat. In his immersion into the medium, Hunting approaches the VR space at face value. He interviews people like they’re sitting right in front of him, and delves unapologetically into the ambling minutiae of everyday life for his subjects. He also hardly includes the subjects’ lives outside of VR, which at first feels jarring and unfamiliar, but eventually helps the viewer become totally immersed in the film and look at it like it’s real life—as so many users do.
This gives way to a lot of genuinely beautiful moments: Jenny describes how her ASL community saved her from the trenches of depression; a subject whose avatar is a space-dog tells a hot dog and a Gremlin how, as a non-binary person, the endless possibilities of self-expression within VR finally helped them feel like themselves. The relationships featured, too, feel nothing short of genuine, and it doesn’t take long to actually buy the “I fell in love with their personality” angle. (In other words, VRChat is Love is Blind done right.)
Sometimes, though, the excessive optimism of Virtual Reality feels deceptive. Hunting steers clear of any of the negatives of VRChat, including harassment or sexism, the latter of which is clearly lurking just below the surface due to the staggering quantity of degrading female avatars present in the communities shown. There also doesn’t seem to be any bullying, nor sinister Dark Web-esque rooms, which you just know exist given the infinite scope and unrestrained potential of VR.
In sidestepping the subjects’ in-person lives, too, Hunting evades the significant and relevant question of whether VR could make us more isolated than we already are? Of course, it’s important to emphasize this medium’s ability to connect people when they cannot do so physically. But in choosing to only look at the positives, it seems that one has to necessarily forego a truly well-rounded picture of VR.
In its laser focus of wholesome VRChat communities, Virtual Reality also forgets that VR has a pretty steep learning curve. For non VR-pilled civilians like me, knowing how the complex machinery works isn’t a given. Does it mirror your every move, or do you punch in commands for your avatar? How do you create a VR community? Do you have to know coding? And how do you enter a community? How do you even find one to enter in the first place? More often than not, these questions are deferred to a Google search, while technical explanations might have made the viewing experience a little more relatable for newbies.
But these grievances shouldn’t undermine Virtual Reality’s status as a totally original and utterly groundbreaking endeavor. It’s a humble exploration of a fascinating and untapped community, reminiscent of great cinéma verité documentarians like Frederick Wiseman. Hunting is certainly a filmmaker to look out for, and I’ll be shocked if he’s not running the documentary medium in a couple years time—in the flesh or not.
Director: Joe Hunting
Writer: Joe Hunting
Stars: Dust Bunny, DragonHeart, IsYourBoi, Jenny, Toaster
Release Date: July 27, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.