What do the Dark Knight, Chevy's Tahoe SUV, a dancing chicken and the dog of a guy named Peter Molyneux have in common? According to Wired contributing editor Frank Rose, they're all stars in a constellation of new storytelling techniques that stand out in their ability to engage an audience, an audience radically transformed in the last 30 years.
Rose chronicles the decline and fall of traditional forms of cinema and advertising at the turn of the new century alongside the surprising innovations in what's being called transmedia storytelling in his captivating new book, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories.
According to Rose, contemporary viewers who deftly - or distractedly - juggle a dozen digital tasks, connect with friends via rampant text messaging and cheerfully scatter personal information across the Web seek not complete, linear stories but total immersion in hyperconnected worlds. Thanks to the Internet, he says, "a new type of narrative is emerging - one that's told through many media at once in a way that's nonlinear, that's participatory and often gamelike, and that's designed above all to be immersive."
Rose calls this "deep media," explaining that at its best, new forms of storytelling yield dense, complex story worlds ready to be mined for infinite detail, while simultaneously oozing horizontally across many different media platforms, propelled by the active imagination and participation of the audience. Filmmaking has become worldbuilding, advertising creates systems, and you and I help build it all out. His examples are convincing: Lost is described as a story world shaped like an iceberg; its creators offered the tip, and the audience built the rest. Mad Men's characters were developed and extended via Twitter not by the show's producers but by fans. And games like The Sims and Grand Theft Auto aren't stories told by authors so much as settings within which an array of stories driven by participants can take place.
The book's best chapters trace the impact of social media on storytelling. "Chapter One: The Dyslexic Storyteller," for example, centers on Jordan Weisman and the advent of alternate reality games that blur the boundary between the real world and fictional scenarios by inviting viewers to forage for clues across multiple media forms, from mobile devices to the Internet to clues found in public restrooms. Weisman describes being intrigued by "deconstructed narratives," and imagines creating a project in which he would write the story, fabricate and disseminate its evidence, and then throw away the story and let the audience reconstruct it.
"Chapter Six: Open Worlds" explores systems thinking, focusing on the game worlds created by Will Wright. Wright, who's known for designing games such as The Sims and Spore, says that he is intrigued by emergence, and the idea of creating a few simple rules that allow a complex system to arise. Systems thinking is employed by Nike, too, in a lengthy campaign called Nike+ that builds on sensor data collected from the shoes of runners; the information is shared on a website, which becomes not simply a story, and certainly not any kind of advertising that we recognize, but a platform. As Nick Law of R/GA, the company that helped create the campaign, explains, "You could argue that Nike+ is a story about running told through data." He continues, "It's a matrix of stories. It's your own story, and it's brand stories. People jump from one to another, and the doorway to it is your own data."
Overall, The Art of Immersion surveys a broad territory, traipsing across cinema, game design and advertising with clarity and cohesiveness. There are some gaps: Rose might have included an emerging form called locative media art, for example, showcased last fall in the Big Games section of IndieCade in Culver City; curated by Jeff Watson and Colleen Macklin, the section included a bevy of projects in which stories are told to people in real space often using mobile devices, in a sense overlaying the real world with fictional narratives. Similarly, the fractured narratives projected onto buildings by artists such as LA's own Doug Aitken also bear scrutiny in this context. Aitken's Sleepwalkers at MOMA a couple of years ago, for example, crafted a massive, participatory story of and in the city.
While there are a few weak spots - the chapter on otaku feels half-hearted, for example - the book covers the key words, including participation, linking, systems thinking, and connectivity, and offers introductions to many of the central players in a still nascent field. To his credit, too, Rose situates the book within a broader historical context, finding connections to the past, as in the serialized novels of Charles Dickens, which were deemed dangerously immersive more than a century ago.
Indeed, Rose's invocation of "immersion" recalls prior instances of technological change, such as the turn of the last century, which, according to Scott Bukatman, also saw evocations of delirium and immersion. Bukatman describes the US of the late 1890s as a culture hurtling like a freight train along the tracks of "progress" in a world that had become "enveloping, inescapable, and incomprehensible, literally overwhelming." Other writers - film scholars Anna Munster and Timothy Murray, for example - characterize our digital experience as baroque, connecting the present's sense of excess, serial connectivity and fractured subjectivity to similar qualities inspired by baroque artworks of the past. This is all simply to underscore that moments of cultural transformation are scary and overwhelming, and our analysis should push beyond immersion as the unifying characteristic of 21st century storytelling. The unique qualities now seem to stem from the experience of an accelerated pace of change, a data deluge, and a growing awareness of a world defined by systems and computation.
We also have to dismiss the idea that technology determines our stories. Rose writes that "every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative." But isn't it really that every new narrative has given rise to a new medium? We're not determined by our tools as much as we're woven into a Mobius strip of cause and effect. Obviously, this isn't to say that storytellers aren't scrambling to tell stories using these new tools. They are, and they're sliding between fact and fiction, artifice and authenticity, and blurring the boundaries of categories - like cinema, gaming and advertising - that have been distinct for decades. Indeed, we're in the midst of a fascinating - and delirious, often overwhelming - cultural moment, one that Rose, with his important new book, astutely helps us to understand.