Joe Hunting explores the freedoms offered and questions posed by virtual reality

We Met In Virtual Reality

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘We Met In Virtual Reality’

Dir/scr: Joe Hunting. UK. 2021. 91mins

British director Joe Hunting has made a tender, affecting documentary about love, friendship and people finding a place where they can be themselves. It just happens that those people are digitally-generated aliens, horned sex demons and other outré creations (even Kermit the Frog). Made entirely within the virtual environments of platform VRChat, using virtual camera app VRCLens, We Met In Virtual Reality is a beguiling singularity – an observational documentary that resembles an animation only insofar as it takes place in an animated world. The film comes across more as a partisan advert for the joys of VR living rather than any sort of critical investigation. Yet We Met… is at once bizarre, charming, perplexing and rich with philosophical implications, and, as the world prepares to come to terms with the new paradigms promised (or threatened) by phenomena such as Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, Hunting’s film is guaranteed to spark interest as it premieres in the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition.

You can see how virtual environments might be frontier territory in the current debate over gender and identity.

Hunting is very much a committed member of the VR community, having already made two shorts and a VOD series about life in the virtual world. This full-length film is about users of VRChat, seen in a variety of environments, enjoying a range of pleasures that present VR life on one level as an infinite theme park. We see characters explore a landscape with grazing dinosaurs; two young lovers enjoying romantic fairground rides; and a talent show where a giant eagle creature performs an ‘interpretative chicken dance’. 

There’s an immediate level of surreal comedy to be found in the discrepancy between these extravagant sci-fi entities and their very mundane everyday voices. But the film takes the strangeness for granted, and wants to get to the human presences within these forms. Hunting focuses on community-based environments, like clubs and parties, and the sign language class taught by Jenny, a vampish young woman with neon-pink hair. Habitues appear in a variety of shapes, some as Pokemon-style critters of various sizes, but there’s a predominance of heavily-codified types within a certain range. Anime style is a dominant reference, sometimes mixing hyper-sexualisation with asexual features: many female figures have cartoon pornstar bodies but childlike faces and animal ears, combining hardcore and kawaii cuteness.

Hunting’s key subjects are Jenny and her friend Ray, a deaf person who appears as a female but is referred to by male pronouns, and two couples who met in VRChat and claim to be in love; DustBunny and boyfriend Toaster, whose fox-eared avatars strangely resemble each other; and vampish female IsYourBoi and hairy-chested warrior hunk DragonHeart, both sporting formidable demon horns.

These unreal creations attest to very real feelings. They talk about emotional troubles, bereavement, alcohol issues; Jenny translates when Ray uses signing to tell the story of his brother’s death. Many discuss how VRChat has liberated them. “I can’t be myself in real life, so I’ll be myself in VRChat,” says IsYourBoi. That raises the question of what it means to ‘be yourself’ in a world where the visible self is manifestly a stylised invention – and one that can be remade at will. When IsYourBoi and DragonHeart marry in an elaborate ceremony in VRChat, she has her appearance totally refigured by her go-to avatar creator, who equips her with a lavish wedding dress, neon blue eyes and formidable cleavage (the Kardashian aesthetic run riot).

Elsewhere, One MooseStash, seen as a frankfurter with green hair, talks about the ethics of having a female avatar when you’re male, while Dylan P, non-binary with multiple avatars, says that VR gives you more fluidity and control over self-representation. Given the infinite possibilities VR offers in that respect, you can see how virtual environments might be frontier territory in the current debate over gender and identity.

Hunting wants to tell a positive story about VRChat. He seems to have chosen the nicest people, the most romantic, idealistic takes, and there must surely be darker, more nuanced stories to be told. But as the title suggests, he’s interested in people finding each other. To all appearances, IsYourBoi and DragonHeart are the real thing, their relationship “more than just VR,” as they insist – even if their digital hands do pass through each other’s faces when they caress; in reality, they live in the UK and US respectively and have never met physically. But the film, made during lockdown year, shows VR overcoming geographical distance: as someone says about the community, “Even if you can’t see your real-life family, you have a family here.”

With the film offers no commentary beyond the interviewees’ own, it’s left to the viewer to puzzle over the questions presented. When Jenny says about the VR world, “You see a person purely as who they are… People are so open and true to themselves,” the paradoxes are apparent. Does this mean that someone presents themselves more candidly in artificial, idealised form than when constrained by the contingent fact of their physical being? Could invented identities be more authentic than those in what we still just about call the ‘real world’?

Philosopher David Chalmers has argued that the VR worlds we may increasingly come to inhabit are demonstrably as real as the physical one, so these are enigmas we’ll all no doubt have to grapple with – or make a concerted choice not to. Meanwhile, while we furrow our real or virtual brows, Hunting’s film offers a vivid soundtrack including such modish names as Anna Meredith, Julianna Barwick, Perfume Genius… and Debussy, performed in a virtual nightclub amid tumbling digital snowflakes.  

Production company: Field of Vision

Sales: Cinetic

Producer: Joe Hunting

Cinematography: Joe Hunting

Editing: Joe Hunting

Music: Anna Meredith, Perfume Genius, Julianna Barwick