Bad Idea’s Future Human Club landed once again last Wednesday at the Book Club in Shoreditch, with their latest event, Immersion Drama.
Immersion drama is exactly that: an emerging form that looks for more immersive, interactive and personal experiences when telling stories. The night looked at the evolution of storytelling with the advent of new technology and that great resource called the World Wide Web, and how storytellers can actively engage their audience in new ways.
In typical Bad Idea fashion, web editor Ben Beaumont-Thomas kicked off the night with a round-up of how telling stories through books and films had evolved through the years, finishing with blockbuster smash Avatar. So, films and even newspapers (The Sun recently printed a 3D issue, complete with glasses and everything) are now turning to more and more advanced technology to get their message across. But is just being innovative enough? What about the fourth dimension, the one where the reader totally believes they’re involved with the story?
Let’s put immersive drama in context.
Stories are, at the moment, quite passive. We pick up book, read book, put down book. While we may feel engaged with the story, we are still sitting back in normal life and reading it. But, that World Wide Web may change all of this. With websites such as Completely Novel and Shelfari, readers have a real chance of immersing ourselves in storytelling – by interacting online.
Ben introduced a few ‘immersive’ ideas that have been bandied about. Transmedia, where creators tell the story across a range of media, is an attempt to immerse the reader. The example was of US smash show Lost. Slightly tenuous, but: in episode one, a minor character died on the plane. In the flashback, we saw that he had, that day, gone to send his manuscript to the publisher’s. Then, as fate would have it, he died in the fatal plane crash. The Lost guys found it on the beach and began to read it. In a piece of classic transmedia, the Lost creators decided to actually publish the book, in real life. Nothing to do with Lost, and probably quite boring. Readers and viewers are now interconnected in life and in art.
As Ben says, this type of storytelling is “nascent” rather than widespread. Basically, it’s all about audience participation, in whatever form. A panel of experts were on hand to discuss their ideas about how to immerse the audience in drama. Tim Jones from ‘adventure agency’ Coney; Jade Tidy, a producer from gaming company Relentless Software and Matt Wieteska from game production company Six to Start.
So what exactly is ‘immersion’?
Are you immersed by having power in deciding the ending, or by the story keeping your guessing? The immersive audience is a very niche one, and the main way to immerse is to give the reader agency, so that they can decide the ending.
Jade commented that games needed to capture the experience of guessing, whether it is the end of a book or a film. For her, immersion is an experience where you sit for an hour, you’ll enjoy it and be driven to come back again. Tim took a different approach and focused on the need for stories to work out the things that we cannot do ourselves, and that’s how we become immersed.
If stories are so focused on immersing the audience, can these stories still be artistic?
Jade believed yes. After all, games are always creative as there has to be something for the audience to interact with. “Art is subjective, painting is the framework,” she said. Matt argued that artistry in the design, not in the single voice storytelling. So, the design of can be artistic and still be immersive.
The issue arises of whether or not the immersion can be too real. When truly immersed in a book, film or video game, what’s to say that we don’t actually have murderous/adulterous/unlawful urges? This is how immersed we should be. Jade pointed out that it’s all about taking the tools that we’re used to in real life, and creating a drama that is so effective, you’ll start to forget your (very familiar) surroundings.
All three agree that however exciting, violent or immersive the stories may be, they come down to the basic ingredient: people. The panel all agreed that “potent” stories about people in communities and how they interact with each other are still the most important. Relentless’ games immersed viewers by testing the extremes of people’s emotions.
Jack Roberts, managing editor of Bad Idea, gives some advice for aspiring writers.
“Immersion drama brings into question the very purpose of narrative storytelling as we know it. Traditionally we have told stories to understand the world around us, but with these new immersive dramas, the primary purpose is to FEEL fictional worlds for ourselves. Meanwhile, the line dividing real and fictional spheres becomes ever more blurred. Writers should keep an open mind and see what they can learn from this new form of storytelling; prose is one medium of storytelling amongst a multiplying number of others, so they might consider how they could employ or embed innovative immersive techniques into the format of a novel. A good idea would be to incorporate digital and ‘living’ elements to enrichen the fictional world they construct in a book.”
What’s the future for immersion drama?
With new technology, the creator can now give the reader the tools to engage actively with the story. By giving the reader some form of decision-making, where the ending depends on how they interpret the story, then the true ‘fourth dimension’ – the illusion of total experience – can be achieved.
Matt aptly finished by saying that immersion is all about “the pyramid of participation”. It’s all about being a voyeur – the reader needs to FEEL part of the story. So, writers, if you want to truly engage your readers – give them some influence. Make it come literally alive, then you can achieve this phenomenal ‘fourth dimension’.