How can technology benefit storytelling?
In his last chapter, Andy Orrick explores how we engage with story, and both the potential and danger of handing over directorial control to the audience.
Before we get stuck in, it’s good to understand how we lose ourselves in story. Psychologists refer to it as ‘Narrative Transportation Theory’. Without getting bogged down in detail, it’s basically the experience of going beyond the screen, page or spoken word, and forgetting the conscious process of watching, reading or listening. Forgetting reality itself for those periods. It’s when we enter a world evoked by the narrative because of our empathy for the characters and the imagination of the plot. It’s what happened to me with Blue is the Warmest Colour - I forgot I was watching a film. Narrative Transportation Theory provides both a watch out and a challenge for immersive and interactive story…
Jonathan Gottschall, author of ‘The Storytelling Animal’, argues that one of the most interactive forms of story is the book. It expects the most of its audience as we all create the characters and worlds in our own imagination. It’s perhaps why we often feel disappointed seeing our favourite book translated to screen: it never lives up to our own versions.
Imagine when the book first came along, when people marvelled at this new technology. For a brief period they were probably very conscious they were reading a book - “Look Genghis, it’s a book!” - much like a baby is as impressed with the object as what’s in it. Before too long though, the object, the form, is normalised and becomes irrelevant, it’s the story that matters. The same is true for any new technology.
Once we get over the initial excitement at the form of, for example, online interactive story, or VR, AR, 3D, 4D, 5D, or even ‘smell-o-vision’, the same rules for why story works and why we tell it kick in immediately. It moves from a sensorial theme park ride to an empathetic and emotional story experience. If we’re too conscious of the form, if we aren’t able to bond with characters, if we can’t achieve narrative transportation, then it leaves us wanting. Wonder fades, empathy sustains.
Interactive story on the whole is still in the phase of ‘wonder at the form’, it’s in a sensorial rather than empathetic space, but that’s not to say it won’t get there. The job of great storytellers is to bring these two things together: that’s when it will break new ground – full immersion, full emotional connection.
When people talk about this kind of interactive story, they often refer to ‘making the user the director’. Some even say that the role of a director is going to die; we’ll all be directors in this new universe. I say that is absolute baloney. Directors, storytellers, need to work harder than ever to try to create compelling 360 worlds, so wherever you turn, whatever thread you follow, you can empathise with characters and lose yourself in story, be transported. If they don’t achieve that, that story is dead; it’s just spectacle. In effect, you’re not turning the user into the director, you’re turning them into the editor, and I for one am a pretty awful editor.
Think about David Brent in The Office. Think about his little looks to camera, his asides, perfectly timed in the edit. That’s where the cringe-worthy humour, the emotion, comes from, the cutaway. If I was in a VR version of it, I might look at him for too long, missing the resonance of the selected moment, missing what he’s reacting to, he would slip into parody and lose his power as a subtle character.
“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” Henry Green, Author
Interactive storytelling then is a hugely exciting space but it has a long way to travel before we actually start to really care about the experiences it delivers, until we are allowed to forget about the technology and relish the story. (And remember that Dungeons & Dragons books didn’t really ever break out of their geek-niche!)
Technology benefits the capturing of story most definitely. The typewriter became the laptop, the film camera became the digital camera, in-camera experimentation became visual effects; all of these tools brought down barriers in the realising of what’s in our imaginations without doubt. But it all starts with imagination and things like books are still one of the best stimuli for the imagination for any budding storyteller.
Also the internet, the greatest communication and distribution platform ever invented, has enabled all of us to create, produce and distribute story ourselves, which is amazing. But we must always remember that we still live in a meritocracy too; just because we can doesn’t mean we should. We still gravitate to the best storytellers, even though there are now more to choose from. We crave narrative transportation and are frustrated when we can’t achieve it. We crave the empathetic emotional power of story far beyond any new sensorial experience, and it might be argued that ‘the biggest casualty of the Digital Age is empathy.’
But to ignore and not try to evolve any new story creation and distribution tools at our disposal is pure folly.
“The minute you feel you are on safe ground, you’re dead.” David Bowie