The Lab’s VR, Games & Storytelling project is interested in the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling, and the principles and frameworks for developing narrative material for immersive experiences. The project team brings together academic expertise in gaming (Richard Cole) and immersive theatre (Harry Wilson) with creative practitioners working in XR (Ruth Mariner and Eirini Lampiri). The project emerged following discussions at the Metaverse workshop, hosted by the Centre for Creative Technologies at the PM Studio, and was generously funded by the Centre’s seed corn initiative.
On Tuesday 25 July, the project team were delighted to collaborate with Jacqueline Ristola on her ‘Platform Cultures’ event and offer the keynote address. The keynote brought together two specialists, both XR Storytellers from different backgrounds:
- Jo Mangan, a director coming to XR through a background in immersive theatre
- Rob Morgan, who comes to XR from a background in video games.
Jo and Rob were asked to consider the following prompts:
- How do the rules of environmental storytelling change when we move from a gaming or immersive theatre environment to a headset?
- How do you use interactivity to increase immersion within a story? And, how might approaches to interactivity be different between a VR game, and VR theatre piece?
Our intention was to compare and contrast the different approaches to XR storytelling, and how each form influenced the approach to interweaving story and interactivity. Our ‘North Star’ was to work towards a set of ‘rules’ or principles for telling stories using XR. And although we didn’t reach a full framework, there was agreement around specific themes and issues.
Both speakers touched on the importance of narrative integration in different contexts. Rob spoke about how failure to integrate an audience member’s self-conscious feelings when participating in an immersive experience can be a barrier to immersion. Although a common perspective within the immersive sector is that self-consciousness itself is a barrier to immersion, Rob argued that the player is always aware, and that by emphasising the notion that self-consciousness is permitted, and weaving this into the narrative fabric, audiences can accept the ‘gap’ between how they feel and the role of the character within an immersive experience.
Jo spoke about the need for narrative integration to signpost the audience around the space, and how it is important to let the environment guide the audience in a way that is integrated into the narrative, rather than asking the player to move directly. Referring to immersive theatre, she touched on the example of bad spatial design, where audiences do not know how to inhabit the space, but are moved from one spot to another by stewards. In the virtual space, audiences should be given enough information from the environmental storytelling to know how to interact with the space.
Both speakers also touched on the subject of how to create meaningful choice, as well as feedback systems that immerse the audience by enabling them to feel they can impact the environment. This operates on multiple levels of the experience, from the ‘core’ of the piece and the narrative dramatic structure, to individual audience choices on how to view and experience the work at any given moment.
It was agreed that by making choices within a narrative framework, audience members need to feel that the consequence of their decision has an impact on the narrative. For example, if audience members are presented with a decision that feels serious, they will expect for there to be consequences which impact significantly on the direction of the narrative. If the consequence of their decision is minimised, or doesn’t impact the plot fully, they can feel let down.
On the ‘surface’ layer of the experience, where the audience choose how they experience the work, there is still a lot of agency that can be afforded. In Jo’s production for Irish National Opera, audience members could follow different sonic layers by changing the way that they tilted their head, leading them to explore and experiment with the way that they experienced the work, on a sensory level.
Finally, immersive experiences are closely linked to the 3D avatars of the audiences and/or players. Circling back to the initial theme of the audience’s feeling of self-consciousness, Rob spoke about the construction of the audience’s character in AR experiences, describing it as ‘a light, pliable character, like a silhouette’ instead of a fully fleshed out role. He went on: ‘often, being a protagonist in AR is more like an extra dimension that you augment on to the player’s own identity.’ This gives more freedom to the player, enabling them to enact in ways that are perhaps more dangerous or risky than they would opt for in everyday life.
Our sincere thanks to Jo and Rob, as well as to Jacqueline for the simulating discussions that followed the keynote and carried on throughout the ‘Platform Cultures’ event.
Catch the full recording of the keynote address.