Affordances, Alia Shawkat and Spatial Storytelling.

The Key, Oculus for Good

The Key is an award-winning 20-minute VR experience release as part of Oculus’s VR for Good programme. You find yourself in a dream world, hearing the voice of Alia Shawkat, who stars as your [unreliable] narrator, struggling to remember the story. Acclaimed for her lead role on Search Party, Alia lends a wavering note of vunerability to the character of Anna. At times reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s intimate vocal style, her humanity helps create depth within the experience, that toes the line of becoming thin outside of its emotive punches.

It’s a fixed-in-place narrative that coaxes you through a series of vignettes, at times to the disadvantage of the user’s illusion of agency. Rather than offering an open world environment, where the user is required to act, this is clearly signified so there’s no possiblity of veering off track. The way the experience employs stillness in the world to represent the fragmented memory makes for an incredibly unsettling ride – navigating around motionless figures can be very chilling, adding disjointment to the demonic figures you encounter. Colour, and the absence of colour in the background, help to creates a sense of foreboding before anything sinister occurs.

What is the theory of affordances?

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does.

- James Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979)

Gibson’s Theory of Affordances refers to considering everything we interact with, whether it be places, things or even other people, not by what they consist of but how we can interact with them. So the affordance of the ground is that you can walk on it, the affordance of a door handle is it allows you to open it, etc. In user experience fields, the term was popularised by Donald Norman in The Design of Everyday Things to refer more specifically to possible interactions that are easily perceivable to a user. However, for virtual reality, this narrowed scope is less relevant, as every affordance within the experience needs to be programmed by the creator.

The first affordance you encounter is that eponymous magical key you grab to transport you between the scenes. While a fairly tropey signifier, it works here due to the idea of unlocking doors and unlocking memories and [mild spoiler] has an undisclosed narrative significance, a sort of Chekov’s key.

Due to motion sickness induced by continuous motion, the affordance of the ground in VR is rarely to walk across, but to teleport. Unless you have an exceptionally large room scale set up. There were some sections where teleporting capabilities weren’t accessible for the whole room, with seemingly no narrative reason. Perhaps a technical hitch, which while frustrating, didn’t have too much of an effect on the overall flow through.

You are joined by some cute little floating ball companions, if you tap one it sings another dances around you in the air, all the while the controllers rumble pleasingly. You are tasked with protecting these little orbs, which grounds you as having a sense of purpose within the narrative. Its curious how instinctive this feels and is a great demonstration of physical characterisation.

The Key makes powerful use one of my favourite narrative devices, where things are Not Quite As They Seem. I won’t ruin the ending because its quite a powerful if anyone plans to watch it, but the final reveal reframes the meaning of everything that has happened and unpacks the metaphoric visual language of the experience in a series of devastating blows. Its impressive to see an idea this complex communicated in a short VR piece. In this case, the narrative is strong enough that its worth sacrificing the agency of the player to tell it succinctly.