Come for the gimmick, stay for the poignance of Joe Hunting’s We Met in Virtual Reality, a documentary that starts out odd and ends up oddly sweet.
It’s a documentary that may shift your perceptions of the state of virtual reality in 2022, though it’s probably too superficial for that perception to make a full leap from “This seems silly!” to “This is a viable snapshot of the progressive future of social interaction.” But it’s a start!
We Met in Virtual Reality
The reality is virtual, the poignancy is real.
Hunting, making his first feature at 22, filmed the entirety of We Met in Virtual Reality on the VRChat platform, making this the rare documentary in which Kermit the Frog, Gizmo the Mogwai and countless anime characters I’m surely not cool enough to recognize by name are featured in supporting roles.
As necessary background: VRChat is an online platform designed to let users create, explore and interact within a variety of virtual worlds. Hunting mostly eschews explanations of the mechanics of the service, assuming either that his audience already knows or, at a certain point, will cease to ask questions. I never ceased to ask questions, particularly when it comes to unpacking the layers of financial and technological privilege required to participate in what is being presented as a near utopia. I’d say it’s a valid conversation to have, especially when your primary thesis is one of openness and inclusivity, along with conversations about moderation of the space and perhaps its less savory uses — but that’s really not what Hunting is about here.
Instead, he follows a small group of users and their evolving avatars through their chosen worlds. Our heroes include a pair of virtual couples — DustBunny & Toaster and DragonHeart & IsYourBoi — determined to extend their commitments into the physical world, as well as pink-haired Jenny, who teaches ASL in the Helping Hands community, intended for deaf or hard of hearing users, or those wishing to learn.
We meet these characters and people and follow them through an assortment of virtual environments and activities, including several of Jenny’s classes, a variety of dance classes led by DustBunny, holiday parties and celebrations and just general hangouts. Mostly for laughs, or to showcase more ambitious virtual spaces, we see driving simulations and even a visit to a virtual version of Jurassic Park that the property’s copyright holders may or may not have previously known about.
It’s all presented as extremely enriching and positive, so much so that even the virtual strip club is darn near sweet. The closest We Met in Virtual Reality comes to exposing whatever dark underbelly VRChat might have is attending a virtual improv comedy show, which definitely felt like a nightmare to me.
Two years ago, We Met in Virtual Reality probably would have played as a cute oddity, a chance for outsiders to find amusement in a rumba workshop where pixelated animals and aliens partner up and learn moves without ever quite looking like they’re making contact. It’s impossible for me to assess how the technology plays when you’re in the middle of it and equipped with the proper devices and whatnot, but from the outside the animation ranges from rather astonishing and immersive to silly and primitive.
It’s hard to underestimate the power We Met in Virtual Reality and virtual reality in general were able to accrue from nearly two years of pandemic restrictions. There were always restrictions that VR offered the ability to ease, whether for people with various physical disabilities or psychological conditions or geographic challenges. But in a world in which many people have been forced to spend long stretches in partial or total isolation, its capacity as a literal lifesaver has only grown.
Or maybe the non-VR world has just caught up to the attributes and opportunities of the virtual, which were always there for communities in need of a platform — especially communities valuing the freedom of identity offered by VR, including trans users who are mentioned, if not showcased, here.
Watching We Met in Virtual Reality, you very quickly forget that the two people cuddling have horns and a tail and that the airplane they seem to be sitting on doesn’t exist. The young woman with pink hair talking about her suicide attempt is laying underneath the stars, but until she laments that the clouds aren’t moving, you could almost forget that they’re virtual as well. And when the deaf ASL instructor talks about losing his brother during COVID and lights a virtual Japanese lantern in his honor, there’s nothing synthetic about the emotions you feel. No matter how many questions We Met in Virtual Reality leaves you asking, there’s real achievement in all of that.