Written, edited, and directed by Joe Hunting, We Met in Virtual Reality features Jenny VR, DustBunny VR, Toaster VR, IsYourBoi VR, and DragonHeart VR as participants in this documentary about life and connection in Virtual Reality. It’s part of the World Documentary section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
It’s true the pandemic created a new world of communication. Suddenly, we couldn’t go to happy hour, to a friend’s place, or chat around the water cooler at work about innocuous topics like the most recent episode of whatever prestige TV show has captured the world. But in virtual reality, life continued unencumbered for the most part.
In We Met in Virtual Reality, director Joe Hunting takes us through the virtual world of VRChat, a virtual reality videogame that allows players to create their own avatars, chat with people from across the world, sign up for classes, go to happy hour, or just hang out with friends. As the first documentary feature film to be exclusively filmed inside VR, Hunting captures a stirring look at how relationships, friendships, connections, and education can happen in the virtual space while also telling quite a few love stories.
Hunting began filming in December 2020, eight months into a global pandemic. The search for connection is the film’s central theme, but many of the film’s participants have been exploring VR since well before COVID-19. Still, there’s a strong sense of community shown throughout the film because of the larger real-world context of the pandemic. In one particularly sobering scene, a clock counts down the seconds until the new year—2021—by timezone, so there are many instances of people ringing in the new year in the film, and in each moment, hope springs eternal—everyone cheers for a new year free of COVID.
Beyond the pandemic, We Met in Virtual Reality sometimes rings too much as an advertisement for VR, and specifically for VRChat. While the stories Hunting shares through his interviews with participants are certainly the heart of the film, he never really dives into the drawbacks of VR, or even some of the more technical aspects that make VR happen.
Some interviews discuss the freeing reality VR presents when it comes to identity—inside VR, you get to express who you are and how you identify through the creation of your avatar. In another interview, one of our main couples is being fit for a wedding inside VRChat; an avatar creator helps design the new look for the wedding, yet we never get to chat directly with the avatar designer about what they do and how they do it.
In the post-Sundance premiere Q&A with Hunting and a few of the participants, the discussion around how VR can be improved came up and everyone had great answers, particularly Jenny, who teaches a sign language class inside VRChat. The current state of VR means the nuances that go into speaking in sign language get lost, and even though Jenny is one of the main interviewees in the documentary, this topic is never explored.
We Met in Virtual Reality’s core idea centers humanity at the heart of an ever-growing digital space. Whatever cynicism you have about what you thought VR was, this documentary film should be the case study for why VR is important on a strictly human level. The people we meet in the film all have wonderful experiences inside VR, there’s no discounting that. The film has the heart-warming glow of a rom-com but it’s missing the full picture of what else virtual reality can be, both the good, the costly, and the bad. In the end, it operates more like an advertisement than anything, although there’s little doubt that it’s a truly powerful examination of the universality of human connection.
For more of our film coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, click here.