Immersive Storytelling

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately.  Particularly the many ways of telling stories and what separates a story from…that which is not a story.

While the most recent installment of Sherlock was on, I was struck by their use of fictional websites like John Watson’s blog and faux twitter profiles such as Irene Adler’s @TheWhipHand to create an immersive experience for viewers (or perhaps more acurately, for storytellees.)  These are not just websites about the TV show, with information on characters and message boards for fans to connect and so on–they are fragments of story sneaking out of their usual bounds and taking up in points new.

What I mean is that there aren’t any of the normal markers a storytellee would encounter to say “Hey, this is part of a cohesive narrative now! Not just a random collection of fictional objects!”  Of course not all stories are fictional, but there are still conventions that separate a story from other sorts of communication.  Things as simple as opening a book, for example, or entering a theatre or even the conversational cues of a tale recounted in person–all of these provide a sort of basket in which a story resides.  We are accustomed to thinking of stories in this way, as single packages delivered in discrete chunks.  (What about TV shows and other serial tales?  I hear you asking.  Well, each episode is a distinct story in itself, even if there is an overarching narrative to the series.)  But there are other ways of providing bits of story, ways that mean the storytellee has to work more carefully to put the narrative together.

Immersive storytelling also alters things from the storyteller’s perspective.  The scale is much grander, and there must be a corresponding greater amount of effort on the part of the storyteller or tellers, both in the products used to tell the story, and in the timing with which these are disseminated.  (Somebody has to write all those fictional blogs and update all those twitter accounts, after all.)

I remember visiting the Donnie Darko website shortly after I saw it for the first time, with its strange little alleyways and dead-ends and marginalia related to the film.  That was only a small taste of what could, and has, come.  Whole fake corporations, fake products, imagined lives.  Doing things outside the bounds of their stories.  There are lots of fictional profiles on twitter, of course, and fake blogs abound in the vast seas of the internet.  But I’m specifically speaking about the ones designed to forward an existing story, designed to draw new storytellees in–or to enrich the experience of those already devoted.  These create whole new realms outside the straightforward narrative to for storytellees to explore, becoming a two-way exchange instead of a one-way experience of receiving.

There are other types of immersive storytelling, of course: Agusto Boal’s invisible theater, while not necessarily concerned with the idea of story, certainly describes a model for a more immersive theatrical experience.  In such an experience, audience members can never be sure whether whether that which they are witnessing is a deliberate part of the theatrical experience or not.  When the realization that they’ve encountered a bit of theater occurs they have to revise their opinions of prior events, reimagining that which took place as part of a cohesive narrative where before it seemed random.

Instead of the story being contained in a basket, it is we, the storytellees, now so ensconced.  The story–the basket–encompasses us, and we must make the effort to find its edges.