Before we get into just why we might want to tell stories this way, as well as before we start to analyze 360° video through a pragmatic, bottom-up approach, let us take a moment to consider more deeply the effort of deemphasizing decisions from a decision influenced narrative experience.
I am using 'decisions' in a very broad sense. I really am talking about all of the interactivity that the audience has. The short version is that we want this interactivity to be subconscious.
To tell immersive stories effectively, we must:
- Define the rules of the narrative experience
- Set the expectations for the audience
- Define a consistent role for the audience
- Teach and control the audience indirectly
- Keep the story coherent no matter the 'path'
- Never punish the audience
- Keep rewards built in narrative
- Leverage inherent human behavior
Define the rules of the narrative experience
The audience should know how the media works. There are two types of rules to define: implicit and explicit. Explicit rules would be literally telling the audience what to do. They also would include how the medium works. In 360 video, audiences should know that they can rotate, but not look around objects.
In VR, the audience should know what actions are not available to them due to technical limitations, space limitations, and safety concerns. These would be explicit rules.
Implicit rules are more complicated because they are probably more like implicit guidelines. Many behaviors we want the audience to participate we may be able to phrase in terms of a rule. "Follow shiny objects". Graphic novels and comics can be ambiguous about the order the panels go on, particularly as panel arrangement gets odd. They rely on audiences treating them like books, starting at the top left and going across before going down, to usually inform the audience what order to read the novel in. This is an implicit rule.
Set the expectations for the audience
Setting expectations are the same as defining the rules of the experience, except in terms of experience and not action.
We want the audience to know how long of a story they are in for, for example. We want them to know what genre, or what mood the story is in. Films can set these as quickly as the opening title text and music, using appropriate genre cues.
Every medium poses certain risks from an audience coming in with the wrong expectation. 360 video risks audiences coming from the film world, confused as to where to look. They also risk audiences coming from the video game world, disappointed in the lack of interactivity.
Both of these criticisms can be blocked through appropriate expectation setting. How this is done can be as simple as reassuring audiences before getting them started with the experience.
Define a consistent role for the audience
In this case, a role can mean a great variety of things. The perspective of the media experience, the character the audience relates through, their objective motivating their actions, so on.
We need to keep the audience's relationship to the experience consistent. If their decisions are to look around a 360 video, then halfway through they shouldn't have to start interacting with things. If there is a narrator character speaking "in their head" at the start of the experience, we shouldn't switch bodies or become a fly-on-the-wall at the end.
Immersive stories must be as consistent in the relationship the audience has with the medium and the experience as possible.
Any exception to this is drawing on the audience noticing the change and using that intentionally for a specific effect.
Teach and control the audience indirectly
The more directly we try to guide the audience (where to look, in 360 video); the more the audience may rely on this, and - when we wish not to guide them, the audience could end up feeling lost, and they may consider that they have done something wrong - that they have made the wrong choice. Not ideal.
If the audience recognizes the direct control as direct control, they may feel babied and instinctively rebel, behave in a way not beneficial to the experience, or follow other curiosities. They may believe that, because of the hand-holding, they can't mess up the experience for themselves, and feel even more free to behave how they wish, which will ultimately lead to a negative experience.
Finally, direct control does usually directly make the audience think about their decisions and actions and the impact of these actions, which we do not want.
Keep the story coherent no matter the 'path'
Ie: no mistakes.
Never punish the audience
One would think that we want to discourage negative behavior indirectly.
Let's consider an active way to get the audience to look somewhere else in 360 video. We could put big pointing arrows, like how, in Mario Kart, a "you're driving the wrong way!"
Or, we could block out the 'bad' section with solid black.
In our case, the second method would be more effective. We assume that audiences are familiar with letterboxes, and they read this as an end to the content, a border, and look back to where the content is. The Lakitu approach, on the other hand, tells the audience to look elsewhere, but it also tells the audience that they have done something wrong. We do not want to tell the audience they have done something wrong! It makes the audience think about the something that they did wrong, their decision. It also feels bad for the audience, negatively affects the experience. Who want's to be told they are bad at watching a video? It is not ideal for a video to tell it's audience that they are bad at watching it.
Of course, we can guide the audience what not to do just as well as we can guide them with what to do through subtle, yet not completely indirect, discouragement. We can fade the unimportant section of a 360 video to greyscale, for example. The audience is still being told "this part is not important to the story" but also "look if you want to, you aren't at fault".
Even so, such an approach is possible but dangerous. If the audience "catches" or interprets this discouragement as a negative punishment for an action, the consequences for the narrative experience are drastic. The audience is immediately aware of the decisions that led them to this punishment or reward.
Keep rewards built in narrative
I am using the word 'reward' in a narrative sense. If we were thinking in a game design sense about rewards, then we must strike it from our toolbox for the same reasons discussed above. Just like we must never punish the audience for it immediately directs their attention to their decisions, we must not reward them in non-narrative ways.
We are not video game designers.
A way to think about rewards is in the narrative sense, and the better word may be "catharsis".
Reward = Catharsis.
A narrative asks dynamic questions which, as they always have, keep the audience engaged. In our case, we will channel that engagement to drive the audience to make a decision that best tells the story.
For 360 video, this means we show the audience the main character, define them as the main - important character, with a dynamic question ("what will happen next? What are they going to do?") and the audience now knows where to look during most scenes, generally: at that character. We directed their decision - where to look - through the narrative engagement. The same narrative engagement that has defined effective storytelling in all mediums. The same experience that keeps viewers "on the edge of their seats" or makes a book "a real page turner" or lets the makes a show "bingeable". The same tools that Hitchcock used to drive suspense, we will use to control active audience decisions - all while keeping the audience engaged.
In other words, effective stories can survive the audience's ability to experience them 'incorrectly' so long as the audience's decisions are positioned such that they, for the audience, become 'non-decisions'. The audience doesn't "choose which character to watch" so much as they "follow the story".
How to position decisions in this way is what this work will examine in the medium of 360 video, but is still the core goal to be done in any immersive storytelling medium.
Leverage inherent human behavior
This last category is a catch-all. In order to have somebody experience something in a way that feels passive, or 'natural', while making decisions, we have to operate on a level that deals with 'natural' decision-making behavior. One may call it the subconscious, but I prefer to think in terms of 'inherent human behavior'. The same types of cause/effect relationships that user interface and user experience designers (and, really, designers in general) deal with.
We designing a story experience.
This is where game design experience comes to play. This is the core of indirect control, but the knowledge of this domain extends past indirect control into other elements of, well, humans interacting with things.
We know how to influence people to look in certain areas, interact with certain objects, and establish a mood that influences their decisions. Video games take advantage of this in almost every element and every aspect of their design.