Immersive Storytelling Experiences

August 12, 2019

Stories can be powerful things. A well-told story has the potential to pull on our heartstrings, make us howl with laughter or leave us in floods of tears. Great stories stay with us, so it makes perfect sense to use story narratives to make our work more memorable and connect with our audience. But we are not all gifted storytellers, and it can be difficult to know what will resonate with people - sometimes, this can produce surprising and unexpected results!

Liverpool Screen School are now running an MA in Immersive Arts, and I was lucky enough to attend a research symposium all about immersive storytelling experiences. With some great speakers, it explored how researchers, developers and practitioners are approaching the emerging mediums of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. Here are a few takeaways from the day, covering narrative mechanisms and approaches to engaging audiences in experiential media, and a few things in between.

Immersive Storytelling Experiences Research Symposium. Image credit – Liverpool Screen School
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Immersive Storytelling Experiences Research Symposium. Image credit – Liverpool Screen School                                


When building digital products, how do we enable a lifeless computer to tell stories in ways that are naturally responsive?

As the BBC’s R&D team suggested in their talk, we can look at the example of a tour guide to demonstrate responsive narratives. A tour guide uses a repertoire of memorised stories relating to key parts of a place - a historic building, an important statue, an ancient tree - and the stories are told in relation to a walking route taken. Characters and events are introduced along the way, and the in-real-life guide can directly respond to questions asked.  

A popular mechanism for translating this in the digital world is the game narrative - these are usually mysteries that unfold as you travel around in a virtual world, or even a physical world if we think about puzzle/escape rooms and immersive theatre. They use video, audio and objects which allow the brain to piece together scenarios as you discover them. The viewer is able to become completely immersed in the story - a tangible experience that can be an escape from reality.

A scene from Hebron: One Street, Two Sides , BBC Taster 2019
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       A scene from Hebron: One Street, Two Sides , BBC Taster 2019                                

However well we tell our story though, we can’t control how the audience receives and reacts to it. People naturally like to debate, make up their own minds and find out things on their own. In the case of games, players can ignore the rules to create new challenges, and of course the stories are always open to interpretation.

There are ways we can try to guide people through an intended narrative route. We can put in place navigation and onboarding to show people how to use our product, or use “Story conductors” to guide and prompt, such as an audio layer that invites people to explore in certain ways. You can also block progress until certain milestones are complete - in a game the obvious one is a locked door.

In summary, using gamified narratives are a great way to bring digital products to life, but it’s always a good idea to test out your ideas with a range of people to ensure they will be used and interpreted as intended. 

Emotional connection

The Virtual Hole in the Road, 2016. Image credit – HumanVR
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The Virtual Hole in the Road, 2016. Image credit – HumanVR                                

What will resonate with people is something you can’t always predict, as Sheffield-based HumanVR found out. When they built a VR experience of a lost Sheffield underpass, known as “Ole in t’road” (translation: The Hole in the Road), they were inundated with messages from people who wanted to share their memories. You wouldn’t think that a gloomy crater underneath a roundabout would provoke such a reaction, but it seemed that every Sheffielder had a story to tell about this place that was filled in 25 years ago. Not an ancient monument, incredible architecture or awe-inspiring artwork - an underpass. Being a local myself, I have such tales that would probably sound insignificant to anyone not from round ‘ere, but it makes you think about what heritage means in a city and what’s important to people: it’s more often than not personal memories. An experience that lets you travel back in time and gives you a glimpse into a moment that was maybe forgotten - a human, family story. 

When thinking up themes and concepts for a project, look for things that could tap into your intended audience’s collective memory. Typically, a time period or event in the past along with places, music, smells and objects can be strong triggers for nostalgia and sentimentality, especially if they evoke happy personal associations.

Mixed reality

It is often said that technology distracts us away from places, other people and real-world experiences, but augmented reality has the potential to re-connect us through shared experiences and moments within a narrative.

Secret Coast, 2018. Image Credit – Immersive Storylab
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Secret Coast, 2018. Image Credit – Immersive Storylab                                

AR is genuinely mixed reality and involves other factors that make it harder to control the story - outdoor experiences, for example, have added sensations, smells and of course weather that can change someone's experience on any given day. Apps like Secret Coast and Fantasia Express tell linear stories with GPS triggered content that bring to life myths, cultures and histories, almost as though the real word has become the virtual world as seen through a screen. With AR, it’s difficult to tell if people are looking where they should be, so it can be important to use spatial sound or audio and visual prompts to draw the person's attention.

We Live in An Ocean of Air, 2018. Photo Credit – Barnaby Steel – Marshmallow Laser Feast
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       We Live in An Ocean of Air, 2018. Photo Credit – Barnaby Steel – Marshmallow Laser Feast                                

In the world of virtual reality, Marshmallow Laser Feast has been working to help people rediscover reality and connect with nature. In the multi-sensory immersive installation We live in an Ocean of Air, you are transported to an ancient forest and invited to explore a magical world where the invisible exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is brought to life. Untethered VR technology, breath and heart rate sensors track your real-time breathing and encourages you to reflect on our dependence and responsibility to the organisms we share our planet with.

Tell your story

It was great to spend some time learning about some of the theory behind immersive storytelling experiences, and how narrative and emotional connection are so important to digital products. Here at Furthermore, we are super-excited to embark on our own AR experiments with our walking app Go Jauntly, and as always we love to help our clients discover ideas for new and exciting products. If you’d like us to help you tell a story and create a product that really connects with your audience, get in touch.

This article was brought to you by Sarah Hodges, visual designer at Furthermore.

Main photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

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