Make The Audience Work

A common criticism of immersive mediums is that it makes the audience work for the story without giving them the reward that, say, a video game does. This is a comment I heard frequently when speaking to others about 360° video at the 2016 Weird Reality conference.

This criticism is valid, but not inherent to any mediums.

There are two parts to this criticism. First is that the audience has to do work, and it is implied that this is an unpleasant or ungratifying effort. The second is that the audience does not feel accomplished or rewarded for their efforts.

Audiences don't enjoy feeling like they did the job of creators for them.

Neither of these critiques is inherent to any medium, but primarily in the expectations, the audience has; the way the audience approaches the story. If one puts on a headset already frustrated that they have to look around, then they are likely to see any head movement as work. Further, if the story isn't told well (it isn't engaging, it doesn't guide the user's decisions indirectly), then the audience is left playing a guess-and-check game. That is ungratifying work! Likely those raising the criticism have seen many 360 videos that fall into this category.

What's most frustrating is that when a 360 video creator (or any immersive media) does their job especially well, the audience is unlikely to notice at all. Their focus is the story, (at which point their critique may shift to poor acting or the camera resolution making facial expressions tough to parse). It's only when their focus switches to the medium around which their decisions are based do they feel like they are doing work.

It's a sign that the creator has done a poor job establishing the role of the audience, that the audience isn't engaged with the story, and that they are thinking too much about the decisions and interactions they are being asked to make.

While this is often presented as a criticism of immersive mediums as a conceptual barrier, an inherent flaw with asking audiences to put effort into the telling of the story, and not the actual story. This view, I believe, comes from viewing immersive storytelling in conversation with interactive fiction or normal storytelling, and not considering it as a medium or storytelling tool of its own.

I believe this view is flawed. This medium is not 'normal storytelling plus work' or 'interactive fiction minus interaction'.

To tackle this criticism, I aim to not just say "nuh uh" and move on1, but show that immersive storytelling does hold it's own unique 'space' in the world of storytelling to be considered as it's own medium, not in conversation with other genre's of storytelling, as well as that it has merit and potential, and it can tell great stories.

  1. For the record: Nuh-uh!