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The past, present & future of interactive narrative storytelling: part 1

In part one of this new series, Louis Alfieri and Tim Madison will explore the rise of the audience

Many doors

Louis Alfieri and Tim Madison sit down to discuss interactive narrative storytelling – its origins, evolution, and critical role in the future of experience design.

by Louis Alfieri of Raven Sun Creative 

Louis Alfieri Raven Sun
Louis Alfieri

Choose your own adventure. That’s long been the dream: the ability to step into a fictional world and live it according to your own rules, to control your own fate within a story of your own creation. 

The rapid advance of technology is opening up new realms of interactive storytelling possibility, moving us closer to a realization of that dream. The lines between story and experience, physical and digital, destination and virtual space, creator and user are blurring. The audience is being elevated to the roles of active participants and co-creators. 

What is the future of interactive storytelling? What is interactive storytelling and what’s the real promise of the medium? How do storytellers, experience designers, destinations, and attractions navigate the multitude of diverging pathways ahead? 

I sat down with Tim Madison, Senior Writer at Raven Sun Creative, to dig into these questions and more.

The future of interactive narrative storytelling

Tim Madison
Tim Madison

Louis Alfieri: You and I have talked quite a bit about where we see narrative storytelling—interactive storytelling, specifically—heading in the future. Technology is changing everything. Game engines, AI, cloud computing, data capture, and a whole array of other advances are transforming story and storytelling. 

At the heart of it all is the increasingly active role of the audience in the creation of story experience. The audience is going to have more and more power to author their own experiences.    

Tim Madison: Right. You, the team, and I have been talking a lot about the coming evolution in experiential storytelling being the changing relationship between creator, story, and audience. We’ve entered an era where all of those elements can interact and influence one another as part of a complete ecosystem. 

LA: That ecosystem encompasses both the physical and digital worlds. They are blending together in a variety of forms, giving rise to whole new categories of “phygital” experiences: Pokemon Go, Amazon Go stores, the collaboration between Fornite and the Havaianas footwear brand, Lionsgate’s recent announcement that it will support and engage with User-Generated Content (UGC). 

Lionsgate Dorian Blair Witch
Lionsgate recently announced its partnership with Dorian, the interactive storytelling platform, to create user-generated games based on IP starting with Blair Witch (Image: Lionsgate)

Those examples are just glimpses of what’s to come. What we think of as “gaming” is going to spill over into new spaces and verticals. The future of experiences will go well beyond that previous buzzword “transmedia” into an all-new territory to eventually become boundary-less.

What is interactive narrative?

TM: Maybe we should probably start this conversation by defining our terms. What is an interactive narrative? 

LA: I’d begin to answer that by looking at the interactive part first. What is interactivity? The most common current applications, reduced to their simplest form, are that a person pushes a button, pulls a lever, scans a QR code, moves a hand in front of an array, and something happens. Action-reaction.

Linear and non linear narrative storytelling
Graphs: Chris Stone

You are a participant in a function of cause and effect, resulting in some form of change or resulting action. Those are very simple, function-based examples of interactivity.

From my own perspective, truly meaningful interactivity goes beyond that. It’s a real-time two-way dialogue between participant and whatever or whomever they’re interacting with.  It is possible to have an interactive environment, both simple and complex, and for that matter a whole interactive world, without a narrative. For example, a series of puzzles, sports, or performance-based achievements. 

An interactive narrative is a chain of those interactive nodes—a branching network of chains—that is organized into the larger shape of a story. Or a structure that can yield multiple potential stories depending on the user’s choices.

You make a choice that sets off a new series of events. So, multiple pathways for an emotional journey have been laid out where the payoff for audience participation is far more extended, multidimensional, and meaningful than just pushing a button and getting a reaction. 

A sense of forward motion

TM: I’d also add that a requirement would be a sense of narrative progress or forward motion, an evolving meaning as you go.

There’s a much larger and more complex cause-and-effect logic to how things develop and evolve. They add up to something more than the sum of their parts. And there are all the elements of story that an audience can invest in emotionally – the foundational idea, the settings, characters, themes, conflicts, reveals, twists, backstory, lore, and so on.

An interactive narrative can actually be quite linear. Countless video games, probably the vast majority, use predominantly linear storytelling narratives. The player may need to overcome a set of challenges to unlock the next cutscene, the next level, the next piece of the story. The story still follows a set path, though; it doesn’t branch into a tree with many different outcomes.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many gamers are interested in being able to play through and “beat” the narrative portion of the game. Progressing through a set series of storybeats and arriving at one set outcome is not a drawback.

Arkham Asylum narrative storytelling
In autumn 202l in London, Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum will open its doors for an immersive theatre production. The experience is being created by Department Studios, Myriad Entertainment and Warner Bros Themed Entertainment, in association with DC

Look at a game like Batman: Arkham Asylum, which kicked off the whole Arkham game series in 2009. That game follows what some game designers call “the string of pearls” or “wide linear” structure. So, the plot is linear but along the way the players enter areas where they have space to roam, explore, and achieve certain objectives. The enduring pleasure of that game is the combination of wider-ranging play with a linear plot to playthrough. 

Advances in technology

LA: Those types of stories will always have an appeal. As technology advances, though, we are going to see more and more experiences that elevate player agency and open up a far wider range of story possibilities.

As an experience designer, I’m particularly interested in how technology is going to enable us to deliver more sophisticated narrative experiences.

One of the things we’re going to see is the role-playing video game experience – gameplay with a lot of narrative storytelling expansiveness like Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim – also crossing over into the phygital realm. The conceptual holy grails often spoken about are Westworld, the Matrix, the Oasis, the memory implantation in Total Recall, the Holodeck…

HBO Westworld Experience SXSW narrative storytelling
HBO’s Westworld experience at SXSW in 2018 provided guests with a 90-minute excursion into an immersive recreation of the fictional Delos theme park. Image: HBO

TM: Hopefully with all the dystopian nightmares and something-goes-terribly-wrong bugs worked out. 

LA: I’m assuming the holy grail versions come with more rigorous software testing. If you look past the need for these premises to generate narrative conflict,  the thing all these science-fiction examples share is the fantasy of being able to enter a seemingly unlimited world that we understand to be fictitious but is so real to our senses to be indistinguishable from real life. In many cases, it’s perhaps better than real life. Because we can curate this reality to our exact desires and likings.

Waders, swimmers and divers

TM: There’s no question in my mind that RPG-style hybrid experiences are going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. The big question for me is: when you bring an out-of-home dimension to an RPG experience, what sort of interactivity is the most fulfilling for your audience? I don’t think it’s a dodge to answer that it depends on the person. 

When you bring an out-of-home dimension to an RPG experience, what sort of interactivity is the most fulfilling for your audience?

LA: Sure, that’s always true. Anything creative and involving multiple people is going to be subjective. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

When Amy [Kole] and I were discussing Eastern and Western storytelling conventions for blooloop, we touched on the idea that the LBE audience is composed of waders, swimmers, and divers. Each group has its own preferences, desires, and comfort levels when it comes to how deeply they’re going to go into an immersive experience. 

TM: In addition, I’d add the category of sunbather. This is for the people who only want to see the ocean from a comfortable spot on the beach. 

Not everything needs to be interactive

LA: I agree totally. I’ve been championing the idea that not everything has to be interactive. There are a great many people who simply want to enjoy having a story told to them. They want to be able to observe and experience without having to perform a function or be forced to make choices throughout. 

However you break it down, any guest destination needs to consider and accommodate the varying needs and motivations of their audience. This includes those people who would rather sit on the beach. The interesting challenge with an immersive interactive narrative is making it accessible and fulfilling for the waders, swimmers, and divers. What will give them good stories to share with the sunbathers when they get back? 

Skyscape HQ New York
SPYSCAPE HQ in New York City combines an espionage museum with an interactive roleplaying experience. Guests can to test their mettle as an intelligence operative

When we talk about the rise of the audience, we’re speaking in terms of both the rise of the collective and the individual and how increasingly, we’ll be able to offer experiences that meet the needs of both in more nuanced ways. There will be aspects of personalization, customization, and choice in experiences where previously there was only mass-market storytelling.   

Changing demographics

TM: There is one thing that I think is really important to note when talking about narrative storytelling. The segment of immersive narrative divers in the audience is growing all the time.

Millennials and Gen Z were raised on video games. So, there’s a growing audience of savvy gamers with an appetite for deeper narrative immersion. Being able to disappear for hours into the open worlds of Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, or GTA V is the current high bar for immersion for them. Not the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort

Not that I think that the future of interactive entertainment is only about narrative.

LA: No, neither do I. There will be a huge market for it, though. 

TM: Right, and that audience is also going to be a lot more critical of experiences that don’t scratch that deep narrative immersion itch.

LA: Yes, audience expectations are going to change dramatically. The phenomenon is not just generational either; it’s also regional. Asian consumers, particularly Chinese mainlanders, are much more digitally savvy than westerners. These groups are going to be accustomed to dynamic nonlinear stories where they have real agency.

Experience designers have to become adept at creating branching non-linear narratives where audience choice shapes the experience. Both designers and brands are going to have to become adept at allowing participation through User-Generated Content and real-time adaptation based on that participation. That’s also going to become a requisite part of the design and brand skillset. 

Hybrid experiences and narrative storytelling

LA: When we create hybrid experiences, we need to understand we aren’t just transplanting a video game experience to physical environments or offering a mobile variation of something that already exists.

We’re creating something distinctly new. Something that leverages the strengths of digital and physical storytelling platforms to do things we haven’t seen before, things we can’t achieve in a single medium.  This is especially hard to address or communicate in environments where short-term thinking dominates.

We’re creating something distinctly new. Something that leverages the strengths of digital and physical storytelling platforms to do things we haven’t seen before, things we can’t achieve in a single medium

There is a tendency to ask to see things quickly. Or the expectation that a new feature can be readily described in terms the stakeholders already know and understand. However, that’s not a path that leads to transcendent experiences.

TM: I agree. In those cases, you’re likely creating watered-down versions of experiences that can be done better elsewhere. There are certainly going to be some intermediary steps— and missteps—before we see a truly transcendent interactive narrative. One that bridges both the physical and the digital worlds.

The pace of change

LA:  That’s the nature of the discovery process. Those steps are going to come faster than a lot of people realize. Even the apparent dead-ends, cul-de-sacs, and stumbles aren’t going to slow it down. The pace of technological change and the hunger for deeper, more immersive narrative experiences are going to drive an experiential entertainment and cultural storytelling arms race. 

The boundaries between disciplines and mediums are becoming more and more dynamic. The destinations and attractions industry is a part of a larger human experience industry. For all of recorded history, we have basically employed the same types of narrative structures.

star-wars-galactic-starcruiser-sublight-lounge narrative storytelling
Renderings for Disney’s Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser experience

Now the centre of gravity is shifting towards the audience. It is putting them within the orbit of the story rather than observers on the outside. 

Today we stand on the doorstep of a world of unlimited new opportunities and possibilities. The future of storytelling is going to touch every person and place on the planet, and from here forward. It is an amazing time to be alive and also to be a contributor to this transition in the world. 

Alfieri and Madison will go on to discuss the roots of interactive storytelling in Part 2 of The Past, Present, and Future of Interactive Narrative Storytelling.

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Louis Alfieri Raven Sun

Louis Alfieri

For over 30 years, Louis has worked with global brands as an authority in leading, designing, and building experiential entertainment destinations, mixed-use developments, immersive media-based attractions, retail locations, cultural sites, and experiential events. He has a long track record of success collaborating with large multidisciplinary teams on the conceptualization, design, and implementation of location-based entertainment mixed-use resorts, theme parks, waterparks, museums, and cultural destinations.

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