From Storytelling to Storyliving: The Struggle to Define Agency in Immersive Entertainment
As legend has it, in 1896, when the Lumière Brothers premiered their short film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, audiences were so shocked by the locomotive moving towards them on the screen that they screamed and leapt out of their seats. Whether this is entirely true or not, Auguste and Louis Lumière must have been pleased with the effect they had on their viewers. The invention of the moving picture represented a next step in the quest of bringing a story to life, one which started millennia ago with the first known live theatre performances in Ancient Greece.
Unlike the audience in 1896, however, modern viewers watching a film would not bat an eye at such an antiquated spectacle. After all, in our short lives, we have seen cartoon trains, fights in trains, fights on top of trains, trains getting blown up, entire movies on trains, ad infinitum. Yet, we understand how those viewers felt in 1896. It would have been an experience akin to putting on a VR headset for the first time: the chill-inducing sensation of witnessing life reflected in itself. To our grandchildren, today’s VR headsets may be as dated as grainy, silent film. But the aim of the artists behind them will be no different. The Lumière Brothers, ancient thespians, future makers, dreamers of today: We’re all trying to create life in motion.
As a child, I first started imagining what it would be like to live my favorite stories. When I was ten, I expected to be able to choose my first Pokémon; at eleven, I was disappointed not to receive my letter from Headmaster Dumbledore; and by thirteen, no Greek God had claimed me to ship me off to Camp Half-Blood. I was not alone — children of my generation were constantly disappointed when they weren’t able to be a part of the worlds of their heroes. I did not know it then, but this disappointment was the beginning of an eight-year journey in pursuit of a yet-to-be-defined concept.
Cut to almost a decade later: At age 19, I debuted my first immersive entertainment experience. At Alohomora: Unlock the Magic, guests were able to experience the wizarding world of Harry Potter as witches and wizards attending an international “Tri-Wizard Tournament.” We had over 25 actors portraying wizarding shop-keepers, bankers and school faculty, along with an escape room, live performances, animatronics, a Goblet of Fire, a life-size puppet of William the pukwudgie (a magical creature), a wizarding government, and an in-experience economy, dealing in dragots. The results blew me away: participants made new friends, challenged themselves, expanded their perspectives, and propelled the overall experience forward with their unique contributions. Entirely improvised — and guest-created — elements became integral pieces of the narrative and world. In a word, it was storyliving.
The term “storyliving” was first publicly used in a 2017 paper by Google News Lab, with the aim of exploring how journalists tell stories using VR. That’s changed. It now encompasses a wider range of material: that in which users are not talked at but rather invited to engage with and impact a story. It has also received significant backlash, though I believe this is due to its unclear definition and indiscriminate usage in advertising. As a result, it has yet to catch on in the immersive entertainment industry. The 2019 industry annual report included a survey of the 38 words most commonly used to describe immersive entertainment. In 2020, the list expanded to 50. Neither one mentioned storyliving.
This is interesting because the term provides an elegant solution to a glaring problem in the industry: that of nomenclature. The author of the 2019 report, Ricky Brigante , best sum it up as follows: “In recent years, the ‘immersive’ buzzword has been used to describe everything from wildly imaginative live experiences to high-tech toilets.”
The problem with immersive is that it has become an umbrella term, a catch-all for cool, hip, fun experiences. Though flashy on the surface, “immersive” is too broad and undefined to provide value. The 2020 report, Authored by Brigante and Sarah Elger,found that survey respondents considered “immersive” to be by far the most effective marketing word. They also considered it to be by far the least.
Clearly, not all forms of immersion are created equal. In the 2019 report, Veteran Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde provides the best explanation of the distinction: “There’s a way in which immersion is a very primal concept, something that happens to us regardless, even if a good storyteller is just telling you a story with his mouth. If that story is well told, you’re gone. You’re in it.” Now, either toilets have changed dramatically or “immersive” only applies to a specific subset of the experiences it currently describes.
So, how to differentiate? Addressing this problem, the 2020 industry report proposed the creation of a new, standardized nomenclature, including the categorization of immersive types, interaction levels, age-appropriateness, and team/resource size. It also described five types of agency found in the immersive industry:
- Narrative (Power to change story)
- Investigative (Power to reveal, but not change story)
- Emotional (Power to influence performance, but not change story)
- Traversal (Freedom to move through space)
- Co-Creation (Active Improvisation) (See 2020 Report)
The move to implement standardized language across the industry is a significant step forward. However, we’re no closer to a term that captures why many believe completely immersive events are the future of entertainment. Which brings me back to storyliving.
Storyliving is complete immersion. It’s life in motion. It’s what the Lumière Brothers were on to when they sent a train rumbling toward their unsuspecting audience. I propose we use “storyliving” as this missing piece: a filter, if you will, to separate the partially immersive events from the truly immersive experiences.
Evaluating whether an experience constitutes “storyliving” necessitates a set of criteria. The following four criteria — World, Agent, Narrative, and Co-Authorship — go beyond delineations of agency to assess the overall experience. For an experience to qualify as “storyliving,” all four must be met.
- World: A set of rules that work together to create an environment capable of simultaneously supporting multiple, unrelated Narratives; the Agents acting upon those rules and the Narratives they create. While a World is both its rules and components, for the sake of this criterion, a World need only allow for the possibility of components to qualify. Additionally, the set of rules may be different from those that apply in the ‘real world’, but need not be. For example, a mist-shrouded swamp is a World, complete with its rules (water, mist, etc.) and components (journeying ducks, dam-building beavers, nesting geese, etc.). If the ducks, beavers and geese were not there, the swamp would still be a World.
- Agent: A component of the World, whether native or non-native, that can manifest change. The Agent is not obligated to influence change, but must be capable of doing so. Crucially, agents must possess all five types of participant agency: narrative, investigative, emotional, traversal, and co-creative. A passive observer in traditional literature or theatre is not an Agent. Neither is an audience member at an improv show, who may shout out the occasional prompt but never leaves his seat. A duck living in our example swamp world, however, is one.
- Narrative: A series of related events — planned or unplanned — resulting from Agents acting in and interacting with the World. Multiple Narratives are not required to satisfy this criterion, but at least one Narrative must incorporate an emotional arc and eventually approach a thematic conclusion. Narratives are necessarily part of the world as a result of their occurring in it. A duck journeying downriver to visit her goose friend is a Narrative. The duck, the goose, and their Narrative are all elements of the swamp World.
- Co-Authorship: The reciprocal consequences of multiple Agent-driven Narratives in the World and their demonstrable impact on the collectively-experienced Narrative. The mark of a truly living world, Co-Authorship cannot occur unless the previous three criteria have been satisfied. However, Co-Authorship is not the same as storyliving. While Co-Authorship requires World, Agent, and Narrative in order to exist, storyliving is World, Agent, Narrative, and Co-Authorship. To continue the example, a beaver’s dam blocks the duck’s arrival. The duck takes the long way through the woods and is eaten by an alligator. Upon hearing of her friend’s untimely death, the goose starts collecting signatures on a petition for duck justice.
- Storyliving is much easier to achieve in “real life” than it is in immersive experiences. This is to be expected. Immersive experiences are prototypes of the real world, with many more constraints and limitations.
- Certain experiences Joe Rohde calls “immersive,” such as aural stories, don’t make the cut. I would still consider these immersive, just not storyliving.
- Our criteria are not necessarily predictors of experience enjoyment, but rather the degree of immersion. Being a duck in a swamp is far less interesting than riding a roller coaster, yet riding a roller coaster fails our storyliving test. No one would argue that being a duck is not a thoroughly immersive experience. I believe that as immersive experiences mature, storyliving and enjoyment will come closer together, until roller coasters of the future are as immersive as being a duck is.
In order to better understand the usefulness of the storyliving criteria, I’ve taken a number of well-known experiences and applied it to them, with the results listed in the table below.
|Experiences||World||All Participants as Agents||Narrative||Co-Authorship||Storyliving?|
|Percy Jackson series
|Choose Your Own Adventure books||✓||✓||No|
(Interactive TV episode)
|Improvised One-Act Plays||✓||✓||No|
in Creative Mode
(Open world video game)
in Survival Mode
(Open world video game)
|Star Wars VR: Secrets of the Empire | The Void
(Virtual Reality experience)
|Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge||✓||✓||✓||No|
|New World Magischola
(Nordic live-action role-playing game)
|Knott’s Berry Farm Ghost Town Alive!||✓||✓||✓||✓||Yes!|
A number of experiences don’t make the cut for obvious reasons. Books and movies/TV, whether standard form or choose-your-own-adventure, don’t provide enough reciprocal user interaction. Escape rooms don’t provide worlds and therefore can’t sustain the multitude of improvisational and adaptive interactions required for storyliving. One-act plays, though improvisational, don’t allow for full audience agency.
One myth I hope to dispel with this article is that the addition of cutting-edge technology always takes an experience to the next level. Star Wars in VR turns out to be a mild disappointment. The Void is based on the Star Wars world, but does not contain the same depth of rules, and cannot support multiple, unrelated narratives in the experience itself. Its emotional and plot arc satisfies our Narrative requirement, but the shallow world does not allow for investigative, emotional, or narrative agency. Though an experience many would call immersive, The Void is far from storyliving, achieving only one out of four criteria.
Even meeting the first three requirements is not enough to achieve storyliving. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was Disney’s much-hyped, never-before-seen immersive experience, and while it certainly achieved more than The Void in terms of participant agency, it failed to bring the world to life. There are multiple explanations for why this happened, but the most common is that many crucial character interactions and agency moments got the axe during budget cuts. While guests were able to influence the experience at an individual, linear level, they were not able to change the collectively-experienced narrative.
Yet, the criteria are not impossible to achieve. In fact, a number of experiences successfully emerge from the gauntlet unscathed. Ghost Town Alive, an aptly-named experience run by Knott’s Berry Farm, is a great example of storyliving. A wild west town inside the theme park, Ghost Town Alive is a seasonal experience that continues telling its story each time it reopens. Featuring many different narrative possibilities and a high degree of improvisation, guests have full agency and co-authorship and are able to impact the collective experience, including the ending of the event, through their actions.
There are three things this storyliving definition does well. First, it passes the eye test. Of the experiences tested, each that qualifies is a living, breathing world, and each that does not is missing something. Second, it filters. Using these criteria, “immersive” experiences can be separated into a binary of “have it” or “don’t.” They can also be further analyzed along the lines of “almost have it, and here is what’s missing.” Third, it directs. The immersive industry wants to take entertainment to the next level. These are the features it needs.
By putting the audience in the middle of the story, storyliving enables us to facilitate interactions that push people out of their comfort zone to make difficult decisions. Due to the temporally bound nature of storyliving events, participants see the consequences of their actions play out, allowing for experimentation with causality. Storyliving is incredibly transformative not just because it is fun but because it is also empowering.
With storyliving, participants are invited to dive into a moldable space: They’re encouraged to explore it with all their senses, select some experiences over others, create paths that a single author could not have planned for, and essentially make their own way from beginning to end.
This is a singular moment in entertainment. Over 100 years ago, the Lumière brothers sent a train hurtling towards their unsuspecting audience. Despite the alarm it caused, the train was nothing more than a lifeless image, a cinematic automaton. Today, the ability to imbue experiences with life of their own is within our grasp.
What living wonders will we unleash now?