Stuck In Spheres

Drawing Distinctions

As we can see, what constitutes as "game" and as a "story" is murky. As drawing a line between "games" and "story" is already a conceptually flimsy exercise, finding a definition that slices through cleanly is a flawed task. Let's try anyway, as this will serve to help understand the space this work exists in - if not achieve actual taxonomical insight.

First, we must remember that the goal of games is to create an experience, as is the same goal of stories. A book is just a stack of paper and ink until it is read. Experiences take place in the mind of the audience (or player) through their perception, their input provided by the game or story.

So what is different between 'game' experiences and 'story' experiences. Easy! In games, one makes decisions. The user has actions. In a story, the only choice is to keep reading, and the tension of a [written] story resolves itself (hopefully) through the action of continued reading.

This may have been an effective dividing line for most, but as we previously mentioned, the middle space is murky. Consider a comic book or graphic novel. Certainly not a game, but decisions and actions by the reader affect the experience they have. They can skip or examine details differently, linger on pages, and understand the meaning of the story in different ways. Many who read comic books often flip back to previous pages frequently as they learn more about the story and ratify this with their new, current knowledge. What's more is creators are aware of this and capitalize on it. Many comic artists aren't afraid to fill their pages with dense details that are not immediately relevant, but on second readings - or while flipping back - enrich a story. Clues to a mystery, for example.

The audience has indirect control over the experience of the story, so merely having actions (and thus, decisions) is not an effective definition.

The Big Gap

I believe the most important distinction that needs to be made is about the experience the audience/player has. Do they understand that their decisions affect the experience? A video game tests players. There are win states and lose states. The player's decisions, where to go and what to do, affect their ability to achieve a win state or not, and so they consider options. Games often involve a system with rules (the world) that allow a player to make predictions on how their actions will affect their future experience.

In other words, the simplest and sharpest defining line I can create is this: a game tests the player, while a story does not.

In other words, by engaging in the world (with its rules), one plays a game. One does not play a story when they engage in this world.

Although, perhaps it may be better to say that a game has a player feel like they are being tested, as the experience is what matters - not the matter of fact presentation. If three choices lead to the same conclusion but the player doesn't know it, what matters is the experience of making this choice, of trying to solve a problem, of trying to leverage the rules of the world they are in to make predictions and make an appropriate decision.

The Leftover Space

This work does not deal with games or stories in the traditional sense, so I will move on from this (incomplete) discussion of definitions.

What about a story where the audience has choices to make but does not 'play'. They are not being tested, and they understand that they are not being tested, yet they still have actions and decisions. I call this space 'immersive storytelling', as it arises when stories are told in immersive mediums such as virtual reality or 360° video. The immersion of the medium gives rise to actions (and decisions to do or not do these actions). Because of this, it is difficult to tell stories - a story is a finely controlled and directed experience, and now the audience has the ability to mess it all up!

360 video, for example, the audience can choose not to watch. Never before has a director had to worry that the audience was facing the wrong direction.

How do stories work in this space? How do we tell stories where we can 1) effectively deliver a story experience to an audience while 2) leveraging the immersion, engagement, and decision-making to enrich the audience's experience?

That is, at its heart, what this work aims to understand.

The Method

To get to that understanding, I will use two approaches: a top-down analysis of immersive storytelling, and a bottom-up breakdown of spherical video storytelling methods and approaches. Taking both an analytical and pragmatic approach to this core problem allows for greater insight. Some concepts and ideas are better accessed by one approach versus the other.

[^1] See Scott Mcloud's understanding comics and the work by e-merl. [[make this a citation]]