Immersive Storytelling

From the Toverlandarn site, an example of a magic lantern image… immersive entertainment from the 1800s.

At its simplest level, immersive storytelling requires nothing more than a good book, or, in simpler form, a really good storyteller, preferably on a chilly night near a campfire.

Immersive storytelling is hardly a new idea. In the days of magic lantern shows (which preceded nickelodeons and movie theaters), a storyteller would captivate an audience in a dark room with his narration of projected images. (For more, here’s a wonderful web site about magic lantern shows that includes thousands of images.) As early as the 1700s, magic lantern shows were popular–and scary–entertainment. At about the same time (give or take a few decades), Daniel Defoe was concocting written tales in novel form, an art perfected by Charles Dickens, whose immersive tales of dreary London captured the attention of large audiences. As theater, and movies, and videogames, and other forms evolved, they have done by building on fundamentals established by these early immersion artists.

Today, the power of computing can provide spectacular realism and the promise of deeply interactive experience–in which the individual participant and the story framework become one. That’s the area that author Frank Rose explores in an interesting new-ish book entitled, appropriately, The Art of Immersion. The more I read, the more I realized that Rose’s interpretation of immersion is more closely aligned with internet communities than large-scale digital immersion on, say, a James Cameron scale.

For much of the book, Rose tells stories about commercial ventures into lite forms of community engagement related to media. These stories are fun to read, and in some cases, familiar, but the intensity of the immersive experience is, often, both minor and fleeting. For example, he tells of Dunder-Mifflin’s virtual employees, paid in Schrute bucks, over a quarter of a million people in all, many more if you count the YouTube video of JK Wedding Entrance Dance. Rose muses on the relative importance of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Quarterlife, and other early attempts at a web-based version of web-based TV shows with a twist. The discussion continues with various YouTube, Twitter, and, at last, interactive gaming experiences–and that’s where the immersive concept starts coming together. Viewing comedy or music on a modest screen doesn’t quite do it for me, not as immersive storytelling. Dr. Horrible is funny, but not immersive. Immersive takes me a different place, and alters my sense of reality in a convincing way.

My first dose of modern immersion was probably a cineplex viewing of James Cameron’s Titanic. Without the benefit of 3-D, I was on that ship, able to feel the motion, the king of the world freedom, the pull of the sinking ship. It was more than a motion picture. It was an experience that filled my senses. I was in awe. One member of my family were in the bathroom, overcoming a difficult-to-explain feeling which resembled seasickness.

As it turns out, immersion through dramatic audi0-visual presentation or community interaction is the least interesting part of Rose’s book… but it takes over 250 pages to reach the “good part.” The book takes off when immersion is defined not by the external experiences that are manufactured with technological trickery, but by the intense, simple manipulation of mental mechanics… the advanced psychology associated with addiction, game theory, decision science, and emotion–the domains of science fiction innovator Philip K. Dick, and twisted author Lewis Carroll, and, when at his very best, Alfred Hitchcock. Mastery matters. Authenticity overrules realism. Movies do it well. Videogames of the future will do it better than we ever thought possible. The combination of the two is on its way–probably preying more on emotion and psychology than the now-easier-to-achieve realist simulations of fantasy environments. It’s character that drives the narrative, and when you become that character, you won’t shake off the experience in an hour or two. It will take days, and maybe weeks. An immersion vacation.

And that brings us back ’round to the charlatans of the 1700s who could draw their victims into a dark cave, project an unexplainable ship on the wall, and wrap all sorts of spooky storytelling around the mysterious image. One image, perhaps four slides in sequence, not so different from the ocean-going graphic that has been distracting your attention since you started reading this article. We are drawn to these images, drawn in by the darkness and the storyteller’s inescapable magic. Twitter isn’t quite the same thing, and it’s difficult to imagine an internet community with this kind of intense power. Then again, we’ve only seen the start of massively multiple player games, and we’ve only begun to understand what happens when a community of LOST or Star Wars fans authors its own encyclopedia (the Lostpedia and the Wookiepedia, in case you didn’t know). As these worlds collide, as deep information, worlds of characters, movie-making magic, and gaming combine, the era of immersion shall begin to change the way we think about modern storytelling. But that’s the future. The present, sadly, is best represented by the likes of the new TV series, Revolution, and so, we’ve got a ways to go.

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