On telling immersive stories

Neil Gaiman

I joined a packed house at the Barbican last Friday, to listen to the words and voice of Neil Gaiman [@neilhimself]. The audience sat in rapture for several hours, listening as he read his stories out loud, and I was reminded that storytelling is not only a powerful art, it is a furiously popular one. Gaiman’s darkish genre is not immediately appealing to me, but his performance, billed as ‘A revolutionary new concept of multi-media storytelling’, certainly was.

The multi-media component of the evening comprised a blending of the author’s mellifluous narrative, with projected drawings by the artist Eddie Campbell, and the ethereal acoustics of string quartet FourPlay. This seems rather low key when we are bombarded with announcements of increasingly realistic virtual reality applications all day, but it was effective enough to draw me into the world inhabited by the characters within the story ‘The truth is a cave in the black mountains’.

Good stories have always been immersive. Whilst the grading of a story as good or not is somewhat subjective, the aim of the writer is surely to draw the reader as close as possible to perceiving the tale as reality; to suspend disbelief, if only for a while.

I often refer to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series to illustrate what is meant by ‘immersive’, as many readers easily agree the world depicted in the mind solely by the text persuades the reader that Harry and his chums really exist. Artwork pushes this further, giving the reader something concrete to imagine. Many stories, have achieved this, possibly since the earliest narratives were written down. It is arguable that even earlier, oral documents, stories told by telling or singing, are an effective mechanism by which to deliver the feeling of immersion.

The level of immersion offered by oral documents, or those consisting of text and drawings, is limited, however. The reader takes the role of a passive observer in the fictional world. The cinematic experience, film and video, provides a richer environment from which to fuel our feeling of immersion – but still we are unable to participate in any way.

If we add contemporary interactive technology to multimedia’s sound and vision, we are granted permission to enter the unreal world and perform actions which influence the outcome. With video games for example, we are able to contribute in some way to the world loaded into computer memory.

I have written previously, that the combination of pervasive networked computing, multi-sensory, rather than merely multimedia communication, plus participatory interaction, will eventually allow us to experience unreality as reality – to experience a story, a game, a film or any other scripted device as reality. Our disbelief will be suspended to the extent that we cannot distinguish between reality and the virtual world. Documents will offer us truly immersive experiences.

Immersive documents then, are the containers for a story, experience, fantasy, game, memory or idea, which allow the reader to perceive unreality as reality. As technology progresses, we creep closer and closer to the worlds portrayed in science fiction. The world of the holosuite for example.

It is not however, merely the enabling technologies which carry us along on the quest for ever more believable stories. It is something also of human nature. The desire to suspend reality, the willingness to enter fully into the unreal world is popular. We, as readers or users of immersive documents,  wish to participate in, or interact with the story, often in a way which allows us to  influence the sequence of events or the final outcome. In unreality, we may be offered a level of control unimaginable in real life.

The legacy of immersive documents undoubtedly stems from the pleasure of reading a good book. Before the spread of digital technologies some authors attempted to allow the reader a modicum of interactivity – to choose an ending to the story, either by selecting from pre-written options, or by voting by post. As technology advanced, more realistic interaction has been supported by interactive video or online gaming and by web 2.0 technologies leading to dynamic web pages and applications such as Second Life. In the cultural sector we witness the popularity of immersive exhibitions such as the recent David Bowie is shown at the V & A, immersive theatre, 3D cinema and the astonishing outpouring of content created by cultmedia fans, including simulated worlds and real-life cosplay.

The possibilities here are endless, and immersive stories can move beyond fiction and entertainment to include teaching and learning in realistic, yet safe environments. There is a dark side too, though. The unreal world may be somewhere we prefer to stay. Whilst Neil Gaiman came to end of his excellent dark reading and we all went home, the immersive documents just around the corner may be harder to switch off.