What makes a great storyteller? What is the essence of storytelling? And how can we approach these questions in the context of immersive storytelling? These are just some of the questions at the forefront of every virtual reality company’s mind.
Taking cues from traditional oral storytelling, we might say that the best storytellers modulate a story and its delivery based on the energy of the audience. Storytellers look for smiles, signs of awe, boredom; they simultaneously and skilfully read both the story and their audience.
In short, great storytellers react to their audience.
Creating Customized Narratives In Immersive Content
“Reactive Content” — that is, content that uses biometric technology and deep data gathering to read and react to users based on their body rhythms, emotions, preferences, and data points. Once this information is gathered, artificial intelligence algorithms are used to analyze user’s behavior or preferences in order to sculpt unique storylines and narratives. Essentially, this allows for a story that changes in real time based on who you are and how you feel.
For the first time in history, immersive storytellers have access to technology that will allow them to merge the reactive and affective elements of oral storytelling with the affordances of digital media. They can weave stunning visuals, rich soundtracks, and complex metanarratives in a story arena that has the capability to know a user. When you can utilize minor details from the immersant, the addition of those relevant visuals, music and characters become a highly effective way to elicit emotions and aid in visualizing narratives. These familiar details help create overwhelmingly engaging and emotionally-charged content that the viewer is automatically connected to because they already know what they’re seeing and hearing. Much like ad targeting, people might be initially weirded out by the way this data is being leveraged, but it will undoubtedly result in a better, more personalized experience.
This means being able to subtly incept minor personal details that have a specific meaning to the immersant; a highly effective way to elicit emotions and aid in visualizing narratives. When you can do this with the addition of visuals, music, and characters — all lifted from someone’s past — you have the potential for overwhelmingly engaging and emotionally charged content.
The development of reactive content will also afford a renewed exploration of diverging, dynamic storylines and multi-narratives. The idea of a story that changes and mutates is captivating, largely as a result of our love affair with unpredictability, our fascination with chance encounters, and the poetic beauty of serendipitous juxtapositions. In theory, a film that has elements of interactivity and the option of multiple narrative branches should give the piece greater replay value, however, in reality it’s fair to say that so far this hasn’t really caught on in mainstream entertainment.
Put Down The Controllers; Doing Away With Disruption
One of the main problems with diverging narrative films has been the stop-start nature of the interactive element. When I’m immersed in a story, I don’t want to have to pick up a controller or remote to select what’s going to happen next. It destroys the flow of the film and any attention to the hardware or medium in itself will radically jeopardise my immersion and emotional investment in the content.
Every time the audience is given the option to take a new path (“press this button”, “vote on X, Y, Z”) the narrative — and immersion within that narrative — is temporarily halted. As the literary critic and theorist Marie-Laure Ryan reminds us, “Immersion wants fluidity, wholeness, and a space-time continuum that unfolds smoothly as the imaginary body moves around the fictional world.” So far we’ve been offered a limited sense of choice and control at the cost of the annihilation of this fluidity and immersion.
The implementation of Reactive Content has the potential to resolve these issues by enabling a “Passive Interactivity,” i.e. input and output without having to pause and actively make decisions or engage with the hardware. This will result in diverging, dynamic narratives that will unfold seamlessly whilst being dependant on, and unique to, the specific user and their emotions.
Users will never need to disrupt the immersive state for the story to progress, meaning that emotional investment can be maintained throughout the experience, something which is obviously a major benefit if you’re trying to tell a compelling story.