Why Tell Stories This Way
Now we have immersive storytelling is defined, and we understand it is a coherent medium that has at least the ability to pass some of the challenges that have faced interactive fiction.
In the introduction, I stated that this work was trying to answer the following question:
How do we tell stories while leveraging immersion, engagement, and decision-making to enrich the audience's experience?
This chapter focuses on the phrase "enrich the audience's experience". Immersive storytelling may be possible, sure, but we must consider: Are we just telling bad stories? Are we telling stories poorly? Are we just making bad video games?
The Criticism at hand
Is this effort all an attempt to circumvent or deal with inherent flaws in a medium where the audience interactivity is in the wrong place?
This is biting criticism, and I hope to tackle it analytically first.
So, why tell stories this way? If immersive storytelling does nothing better than traditional storytelling, if it brings nothing to the table in its own right, if it's a problem in need of a solution, as opposed to an opportunity; what are we left with?
To show that immersive storytelling is worthwhile, I will show how it is unique, and how this uniqueness can be utilized to effect.
Immersive Storytelling is a Unique Experience
Immersive storytelling involves the audience. It engages the audience in a new way, through their interactions. Effective video games have demonstrated how indirect control can be more powerful than directly telling the audience what to do. They take advantage of manipulating how the audience feels.
First, a note about storytelling
Storytelling is, largely, a job of manipulating audience feelings. Any tool one has to do this can be a beneficial element to telling stories. Not all stories are about feelings - consider stories meant to educate more than entertain.
"The wonderful thing about games and interactive experiences is the freedom that the player feels -- this freedom gives the player the wonderful feeling of control and makes it easy for them to project their imaginations into the world you have created."[^1]
Storytelling is fueled by tension, suspense, and curiosity; all of which relate together in the core human phenomenon that powers storytelling: human's think about the future.
Stories could not be told if humans did not predict if they did not learn if they did not discover. An old friend and writer, Austin Bonta, once told me something along the lines of "A story simulates an act of discovery".
A well-told story will have audiences asking themselves questions about what will happen, what's going to happen, what something is and what role it will play, and so on. A story cannot take place in a single instance, for example. One does not have a story in a single image2, but a story can exist in sequential images3.
If prediction is [at least an] underlying phenomenon that allows stories to work, then any tool that influences how an audience makes (or interacts with) predictions is worth understanding and utilizing to tell stories better. Consider 'genre'. Genre's work not simply because a bunch of stories happen to be told the same way. Genre pieces work by sharing various aesthetic and plot elements, the stories allow the viewer to understand character motivations better (character types), allows them to make more educated predictions about the plot (useful for suspense), and allows filmmakers to subvert trends to create surprises that wouldn't otherwise exist.
In the story grid:, every story needs a genre.5
So what does any of this have to do with immersive storytelling?
Why Tell Immersive Stories
First, let's remember that these story experiences are unique and involved with the audience. At the end of them, the audience may not merely feel like they were a witness to a story being told, but that they had a story told to them. This is significant. Think back to the time you first finished the video game Portal or a large RPG, or perhaps were involved in a well-told tabletop RPG campaign. At the end of it, such as when I finished Portal, I felt like I had been part of something special.
That hazy and poorly defined feeling? That feeling is what immersive storytelling is going after.
The interactions that immersive storytelling gives the user may not affect the plot, but they do affect the way audience feels about the world.
Consider an immersive storytelling system that allows an audience to pay attention to different elements in the medium to some degree. The story may introduce several questions, tensions, that revolve around these elements in different ways, and the audience's curiosity allows them to focus more on one than another - and because of this, they ask more questions (predictions) about this element, and it contributes more richly to the audience's experience of the story, as the story develops.
Because the audience had a choice of what to pay more or less attention to, they feel connected to that choice. They are invested in it. Thus, the audience is more invested in the story.
These tools that allow an audience to feel more invested in a story, or story-world, allow an audience to become invested faster than with traditional storytelling methods. Immersive storytelling tools don't replace traditional storytelling but augment and enhance it. Or dehance, if done poorly.
Getting audiences engaged faster allows not just for more concise storytelling, but for deeper storytelling, as involved and deep stories require many modals of communication, and simply put, these tools allow for another channel of communication.
More than just increasing audience investment, audience's want their choices to be the correct one, and they feel good when it is. "Ah! I knew that gun was going to come back later!"6. Immersive storytelling can manipulate audience decision to not just communicate feeling, but play a more direct hand in crafting these feelings in the audience.
Every audience member is different, and immersive storytelling can be flexible storytelling, creating more powerful experiences that are not tailored in production but tailored in their telling. This gives audiences a unique experience.
As they learn more, their predictions and the underlying nature of the tension that the story utilizes will be different for this audience member. The goal of immersive storytelling is not to create experiences that feel unique.
Immersive storytelling allows storytellers to leverage another channel of communication to tell their stories with. This communication channel principle involves manipulating the decision making psychology of audiences to support and enhance storytelling.
This is not an easy task. Video games have shown us that any medium that involves audiences are difficult to refine and produce, to say the least. Yet, something difficult is not impossible, and immersive storytelling holds enough potential to be well worth the effort.
What Else Immersive Storytelling Does
- New and Interesting
- Potential Multimodal/Transmedia advancements
- Knowledge gained supports interactive mediums
- Engage deeply and quickly - investment
- Advantage with the mediums interacting elements (cut out the fluff, add in the heart)
- Educational and documentary potential
- More feelings
Schell, Jesse. The Art Of Game Design. CRC Press, 2015. ↩
Stories that do take place in a single image either use slow discovery of multiple elements within the image, or implied, contextual, 'before' and 'after'. ↩
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Harper Perennial, 1994. ↩
Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2015. ↩
The gun belongs to Chekhov. ↩