We Met in Virtual Reality is a formally fascinating and emotionally rich documentary that proves far more humanist than its tech-centric tagline might suggest.
Joe Hunting’s debut feature film We Met in Virtual Reality is shot entirely inside VRChat, a social, virtual-reality world-building video game. His previous film, the compact 13-minute A Wider Screen, had a similar conceit but featured footage of people in real life: a major mistake. He rectifies that here, and the ultimate joy of this feature is how it never removes the viewer from the epistemological reality of those onscreen. We have no idea what any of these people look like, what age they are, or what their professions are in “real life”; they’re only represented by their 3D avatars, which range from robots and catgirls to Pokémon and a hotdog. This all may appear silly on the surface, but it becomes increasingly evident across the film’s 90 minutes that any distancing created via virtual spaces and self-chosen presentation allows for intimacy and authenticity; in the film’s most touching moments, the utter sincerity of everyone’s intentions feels utopian.
Such a claim can certainly sound nauseating in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, but the beauty of VRChat has been obvious for some time. It’s been three years since an emotional video of VRChat footage — one involving a boy sharing his experiences with bullying — went viral, and much of We Met in Virtual Reality feels like a feature-length exploration of such vulnerability and thoughtful listening. As viewers, we’re often meant to simply observe and hear their stories. As the film begins, we’re dropped in media res at a bar, indistinct chatter filling the room. Soon, we watch as a community meetup leads to people entering a new world someone has created, one that involves driving around a scenic landscape. As War’s “Low Rider” plays in the background, we watch as someone who can’t drive in real life enjoys the thrill of gallivanting alongside friends. The joy is palpable even secondhand.
Indeed, community is at the core of Hunting’s film, which is heightened by an understanding that this footage was captured during the pandemic. We learn about a group of people who teach sign language to others, and how actual classes are taught every day of the week. Later, a deaf person details their personal experiences with their disability and VRChat. These large-scale portraits are where the film is most successful: alongside sign language classes, there are belly dancing seminars and improv comedy performances. The more confined moments, like when we watch people detail their monogamous romances, are more rote, but even they prove stirring when the film extends a relationship outwards; in one scene, we hear a tears-filled Maid of Honor speech during an in-game wedding.
We Met in Virtual Reality is, importantly, nothing like a Twitch stream: the camera angles, zooms, and framing are always thoughtful, bringing legitimate filmic qualities to the proceedings. And in many ways, it’s more of a traditional documentary than anything else, even channeling a certain Wiseman quality at times; as Hunting moves between varying spaces, his editing creates connections between different sectors of the game world. Of course, VRChat itself is imperfect — avatars regularly overlap and movements aren’t always clean — but it’s this inexactitude that mirrors the film’s authenticity. It’s obvious to everyone that none of this is happening in the real world, and that some of this is even absurd, but that only highlights both the film and VRChat’s greatest quality: it allows for every emotion and conversation to have depth, where everything can feel more real than the performance of life outside VR.
You can stream Joe Hunting’s We Met in Virtual Reality on HBO Max beginning on July 27.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.