What Is Immersive Storytelling?

Let's get into detail about what immersive storytelling actually is.

Immersive storytelling: A mediated storytelling system such that the audience has an active role but does not influence the narrative directly.

An 'active role' means that the audience reception of the story is in some way performative. They make decisions and have actions (whether or not they realize it).

The audience thusly influences the experience of the narrative, but not the narrative itself.

In other words, if interactive fiction has the audience interact with the story being told, then immersive fiction has the audience interact with one (the medium) telling the story.

Where To Draw The Line

One might posit that many comics and novels could be then considered immersive, as the audience has control over the pacing, they control the page-turning and the amount of detail paid attention to. Would the audience having control over the volume of playback for a film count as immersive storytelling? How about the pause button on a remote control?

These attributes that the audience has control over are inherent in the mediums, but they do not influence the audience's perception of the experience of the story. Their influence is often 'written out' by the audience. This makes sense, audiences do not judge a movie's pacing with their bathroom break in mind. The audience understands that this bathroom break may have affected their experience of the film, but they do not interpret this altered experience as part of the experience of the film - if you ask them how the film was, they don't say "well, great except for that bathroom break".

The audience knows what the expectations from them are, for viewing a film. The filmmaker releasing a film on DVD expects that the audience has time to watching it, gives it their attention, and owns appropriate apparatus for viewing, etc. Further, the audience understands these expectations.

Expectations Matter

The key difference then is that the active role the audience has over the telling of the story is one that directly influences the audience's perceived experience of the story.

Elements that the audience disregards about the experience - that the audience does not consider as part of the experience such as the volume of their TV set, do not count as immersive storytelling.

I mention this in such detail because working with, fighting, and establishing expectations and the 'contract' that the audience accepts is key for immersive storytelling. The audience needs to understand what is part of the experience and what is not.

Whether or not something counts as immersive storytelling may be influenced by how the audience approaches the media itself, as we are more concerned with the audience's experience than the media object presented.

Thus, a media object alone may or may not count as immersive storytelling. It's context - the presentation and expectations established, influence this.

These definitions serve as important reminders about establishing expectations and always focusing on the audience experience, but to dive into semantic differences is not the best use of our time.

Examples of Immersive Storytelling

  • 360 video
  • VR
  • Post-game and Non-Game experiences
  • Certain presentations of hypertext, or other 'IF' forms presented in particular ways/mechanics
  • Immersive theater such as 'Sleep No More'
  • Interactive theater
    • Improv, Applied Theater of the Oppressed
  • Elements of video Games
  • Tabletop RPG's
  • Hypercomics
  • Experimental fiction (House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, The Harlequin and The Train by Paul G. Tremblay)