Immersive Storytelling's Future

Narrative imagining — story — is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, or predicting, of planning, and of explaining. — Mark Turner
We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality. — Lisa Cron, Story Genius (2016)

The future of storytelling is one of immersion. The present and the past of storytelling have been oriented toward immersion as well — if we’re going to be totally honest with ourselves. So, what makes us so sure that immersion is key to the future of storytelling?

In order to address what I have talked about above, I need to answer the following question first: What does immersive storytelling mean anyways? This is a good deal harder to tackle, and something that I want to talk about here and now. To deal with something as nebulous or convoluted as immersion, one needs to visit the dictionary and build upon that definition, in order to do anything constructive.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers some insight into this tricky word immersion:

The action of immerging or immersing.

If we delve deeper in the OED, we find the following revelations concerning the nature of immersion:

Transitive: To dip, plunge, put under the surface of a liquid; to immerse.
Transferred and figurative: To plunge into a state of action or thought, way of living, etc.

If we take the OED’s definition and build upon it, we find that immersion is a regular experience within the realm of storytelling, especially now. In fact, one of the many fears of storytelling in its many forms has been its ability to blur the lines between reality and fiction. One of the earlier fears of “silent reading” was that it allowed one to stay inside one’s head and frolic in one’s imagination unchecked by those who supposedly knew better. The same fears have been pasted onto video games, role-playing games (Think: Dungeons & Dragons), and even some forms of music. The imagination is seen as dangerous, and, over and over again, we find messages concerning the dangers of the imagination and the supposed escape from baseline reality. For example, the repeated exploration of the holodeck in the Star Trek franchise, shows that the anxieties concerning the immersive nature of storytelling are still prevalent in our society today (and will continue to be at the forefront in the future as well). However, if we’re honest with ourselves, immersion has always been the key to storytelling.

Lisa Cron’s work on storytelling suggests that the nature of story is indeed hardwired into the brains of humans. Storytelling, immersive in all of its forms, has always been what made humans unique. Storytelling’s what separates us from the other animals scratching out an existence on this planet. Moreover, if we look to the religious and historical writings of human kind, storytelling plays an important role in passing down knowledge about the gods or immortalizing those heroes of the past. Storytelling requires the ability to move outside of one’s skull kingdom, outside of one’s surroundings, and travel into the future, into another realm, or into the lives of others. Storytelling, at a fundamental level, requires some form of immersion.

Why will future stories be more immersive than those we have now?

The future of storytelling is to push the envelope of what is acceptable in terms of blurring reality and fiction. In other words, future stories will challenge our notions of immersion and what it means to be engaged within the trappings of one’s imagination. The advent of virtual and augmented realities have already pushed futurists and storytellers to reconsider our relationship with storytelling.

Storytelling of the future won’t necessarily be throwing away the tricks, tropes, and hard-learned lessons of the past. Instead, the future of storytelling is likely to stand on the shoulders of past storytellers, pushing us past what we’re currently experimenting with now. The future of storytelling is immersion on a level that we cannot fathom today, even with our television shows and their holodecks. The immersive capabilities of storytelling in the future will surpass anything we can imagine or do now. With that said, we are left wondering, what can we do now?

The future of storytelling requires a push from the present. We need to look past the traditional modes of storytelling. Moreover, we need to build storytelling experiences that are far more immersive than we see now. How do we do this? That is where things get complicated, as we look through the murky lenses we have now at our disposal.

The future of storytelling will be one in which immersion feels natural or almost natural. The immersive nature of future storytelling will build not single-framed sets, but, instead, will rely on developing rich worlds or universes that can be interacted with and explored by participants. In other words, full immersion will require a good deal of agency on behalf of the participants. This renewed sense of agency could be guided along with powerful software like artificial intelligence, acting as narrator, gamemaster, or both. Further, the immersion of future storytelling will go beyond a single medium. Consumers will be able to watch movies, television shows, and explore wikis, blogs, or vlogs that add to their knowledge, understanding, and experience of their favorite storytelling worlds/universes.

Future franchises, if they are wise, will readily support this transmedia exploration by fans of their worlds/universes. We are already seeing early examples of this with franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, and even the short-lived Defiance universe. However, creators could encourage and facilitate transmedia exploration more than they already are. To help fans become engaged with their favorite worlds or universes, creators could encourage fan-fiction, world-building projects, and fan-created products that use open-source and inexpensive licensing, allowing for fans to become joint stakeholders in their favorite franchise. In other words, creators could do more than create stories. They could be creating immersive experiences that are so enticing to fans that they refuse to leave behind their favorite worlds or universes. That means the expansiveness of a storytelling universe or world will be its greatest asset.

Going back to my original question: what makes us so sure that immersion is key to the future of storytelling? Immersion is key to all storytelling — past, present, and future. Without the immersive capabilities of storytelling, it wouldn’t have its power to draw in readers/participants. Full immersion within a storytelling universe or world requires more than just a simple story. It requires multiple stories, a story landscape, and participant agency. These things are already in place now; however, if we are to actualize the future of storytelling, we will need to bring these things together into a tighter package that can be offered to participants/readers.

Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico