Narrative immersion: the next challenge

Mireia Manjón

16 January 2018

Increasingly more narrative formats are opting for immersion. At Kosmopolis 2017 we explored this tendency, which puts people’s experience at the centre of the experience and grants us decision-making power. The three Alpha Channel chats that we are offering investigated virtual reality and other immersive experiences, pioneers of what can be glimpsed as the next great language.

Stories transport us to worlds of fiction and enable us to experience adventures that would otherwise be impossible, to the point of believing ourselves to possess the bodies of the characters. But if one of these stories attacked its protagonist, would we get out of the way in a reflex action to avoid that harm? In virtual reality narratives, it probably would happen. Profound immersion in the story, the result of adjusting to the real scale and to multisensorial activation, would ultimately come to deceive the most rational part of the brain and one could reach the point of not differentiating the virtual from the real. Thus, with a pair of goggles and a computer we can expand all the possibilities for suspension of disbelief as referred to by Coleridge.

Interest in developing immersive narratives with screens as a support has increased in recent years with a clear objective: promoting the active participation of users in stories. Artists such as Björk have experimented with the possibilities offered by technological innovation, to encourage this leap from spectators to protagonists. But involving the audience at this level is not easy. Creators must provide decision-making spaces for users to strengthen their emotional link with the story, so that this way they can achieve one of the main human aspirations: living new experiences.

This new perspective that situates people at the centre of the stories has been the subject of three sessions of Alpha Channel, the Kosmopolis space dedicated to relations between literature and the audiovisual world. In the following lectures, the speakers talk about the virtues of immersive narratives; but also of their great challenges. We also see that, in a narrative tradition that began with reading and continued with audiovisual adaptations, some creators are contemplating immersive experimentation as the next big step forwards.

A portrayal of virtual reality based on fictional tales

Despite its popularity, Black Mirror is not the only work that has caused surprise by venturing to predict technology problems through science fiction. In the discussion Give me VR and call me stupid José Luis Farias, Francisco Asensi and Flavio Escribano talk about virtual reality without using virtual reality: they propose audiovisual and literary references that talk about the problems of a world that has normalised this technology. From feature films such as Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man, through literature with the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and even the anime of SAO directed by Tomohiko Ito.

Although science-fiction works started to explore the possibilities of virtual reality over two decades back, it was not until a few years ago that there was a breeding ground generated that was adequate for its implementation in everyday life. The current complexity of storytelling, the maturity of users, and technical sophistication have made virtual reality a format that is adequate and accessible for homes. But behind the apparent interest in democratising virtual reality, companies that back developing this technology could control narrative contents in an absolute way. It is for this reason that the speakers underline the importance of the hacker movement, to avoid the imposition of determined moral codes in VR that are considered profitable by the corporations.

Empathy machine, hate machine

What makes us perceive VR as something real? More than the perfection of the pixels, Jose Valenzuela tells us which factors strengthen the narrative illusion to the point of needing to move away to avoid suffering harm. This virtual reality and neuroscience researcher from the UB points out as basic elements the sensation of depth and multisensorial activation, stimulated by using other senses apart from sight. But he also highlights something that could seem secondary and that must not be forgotten: the importance of narrative coherence to manage to submerge us in virtual worlds and favour the suspension of conscious disbelief. “If we want to create the real sensation of an environment, we have to worry as much about the perception as the emotion”.

A decade back it would have been impossible to conceive the experiential level that virtual reality has reached. But despite the clearly visible emotional potential, Valenzuela also believes it is important to stress the improvements pending: “There is still much work to be done on a technical, narrative and social level alike”. For him, the social risks of VR are critical, because instead of being an empathy machine as intended, its contents can achieve the opposite: reaffirming prejudices towards vulnerable social groups and becoming a hate machine. Creators will have the responsibility of whether people adopt one perspective or another.

Play as a form of immersion

Immersion in worlds through screens can also be designed in such a way that they do not include virtual reality glasses. In the discussion From the book to the screen and beyond, five local producers explain their interactive narrative projects, and show how interactivity can be applied in different ways. Included among their proposals are: comics with alternative endings, interactive books that work around mental illnesses, interactive video games based on life experiences, immersive transmedia journalism projects, and narrative games in real time where the user loses control.

Despite the differences, all the projects exhibited have something in common: play. Gamification does not only refer to leisure, but is also a form of empowering people and putting the spectator at the centre of the narrative. Eva Domínguez, creator of Nushu, says that “the videogame is the textbook of this century. We are the society that plays. So, let’s apply it to any register”.

In accordance with these virtues, some of the participants in the talks are confident that interactive language is here to stay, although the technological development could surprise us with another twist in the plot. What is clear is that the next experiments in audiovisual narratives are moving towards interaction and the ceding of decision-making spaces to users. And not only through proposals from local users like these, but also because major VoD platforms have started to explore this pathway.