The sci-fi anime Belle dreams of a far-out futureworld where all social & commercial activity online is ported to a Virtual Reality realm in which our external bodies & environments are just as fluid as our internal psyches. According to the documentary We Met in Virtual Reality, that future has already arrived, at least for a small number of tech-savvy übernerds. Billed as “the first feature-length documentary filmed entirely in VR,” it’s basically Belle except for “real” and without all those pesky trips back to the physical world. It’s a pixelated descent into the kind of niche nerd-culture subdungeons that the internet was built for but rarely achieves anymore. Right now, it’s unclear whether the Metaverse will succeed in replacing that psychedelic digi-realm with an infinite digi-Target, but this still feels like a vital, of-the-moment snapshot of what VR life looks like in the early 2020s. It’s the utopian counterpoint to the more sinister vision of Belle, and it’s somehow one with just as much anime imagery.
Users of the virtual reality platform VRChat explain how VR offers infinite possibilities in how they can interact and be perceived in a new, revolutionized social space that’s only limited by their own imaginations. Meanwhile, they’re speaking through digital avatars that can be neatly categorized into a few anime & furry subgenres, mostly made up of pre-existing IP. It turns out that given all the possibilities in all human creation, most people want to be seen as a hot lady with a tail. And who could blame them? Taken at face value, the interviewees would have you believe they’re creating a digital utopia that’s broken free from the cruelties & limitations of the physical world, but what’s onscreen is just a virtual simulation of real-world grind & commerce now populated by catbois, wolfsonas, and anime babes. The VRChat represented here is a glitchy, pixelated echo of pre-existing rituals under real-world capitalism: weddings, funerals, improv classes, lap dances, raves, etc. That tension between what the infinite possibilities of this digi-realm offers vs. what’s actually achieved within it pushes the film beyond initial, superficial reactions like “This looks weird,” and “Who are these people irl?”.
A large part of the utopian rhetoric posited here is a result of COVID, since most of its interviews were recorded in the pre-vaccine days of 2020 & 2021. Many of the subjects who flocked to VRChat in that time describe themselves as having been lonely, anxious, and suicidal before finding community there. Every bellydancing class, ASL instruction, and virtual driving lesson captured “on film” ends with a group photo, with all the hot, tailed, anime avatars crowding into a single frame to make cutesy faces at a virtual camera. It often feels like that group photo is more important than the activity it’s commemorating. These nerds really do love each other, just as much as they love the freedom to style their digital bodies to match their true personae (often with little regard for matching traditional gender presentations to the expected pronouns of the “real” world). I’m not yet convinced that Zuckerberg will lure your average normie into the VR lifestyle in the coming years, but it’s easy to see the appeal for this specific subset of very-online nerds, especially within the context of COVID-era isolation.
Beyond its introduction to a subculture most viewers don’t have access to otherwise, We Met in Virtual Reality is also an interesting advancement in documentary tech. It’s not simply screengrabbed from a livestream of virtual reality interactions. It’s traditionally directed, paying attention to coverage, “camera” placement, and narrative flow in an entirely simulated environment. While VRChat feels like an early step into a new realm of online interaction that hasn’t quite gotten its footing yet, the movie does the same for documentary filmmaking in that new, digital realm. Take a look at it now, while it’s still a rudimentary immersion in surreal images and far-out ideas; and fear the soon-to-come days of Belle when all significant social interactions are filtered through this exact lens. For better or for worse, this is the future of life & art.