Wired ⎢ March 7, 2011
Not long ago we were spectators, passive consumers of mass media. Today, we are media. And after centuries of linear storytelling, we’re witnessing the emergence of a form of narrative that’s native to the Internet in the same way the novel is native to print. Told through multiple media in a nonlinear fashion, these new narratives are not just entertaining but immersive, taking us deeper than an hour-long TV show or a two-hour movie or a 30-second spot will permit.
This is hardly the first time the way we tell stories has changed. Every major advance in communications technology, from the printing press to motion pictures to television, has given rise to a new form of narrative. What’s happening now is as surprising as it is inevitable. Stories are becoming games, and games are becoming stories. Boundaries that once seemed clear—between storyteller and audience, content and marketing, illusion and reality—are starting to blur.
In The Art of Immersion, just published by Norton, Frank Rose explains what’s happening and why.
For the next three days, Wired sits in, with excerpts written by the author:
Wired ⎢ March 8, 2011
WHAT IS IT ABOUT STORIES, anyway?
Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener — an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.
Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.
So powerful is our impulse to detect story patterns that we see them even when they’re not there.
In a landmark 1944 study, 34 humans — Massachusetts college students actually, though subsequent research suggests they could have been just about anyone — were shown a short film and asked what was happening in it. The film showed two triangles and a circle moving across a two-dimensional surface. The only other object onscreen was a stationary rectangle, partially open on one side.
Only one of the test subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane. Everyone else came up with elaborate narratives to explain what the movements were about. Typically, the participants viewed the triangles as two men fighting and the circle as a woman trying to escape the bigger, bullying triangle. Instead of registering inanimate shapes, they imagined humans with vivid inner lives. The circle was “worried.” The circle and the little triangle were “innocent young things.” The big triangle was “blinded by rage and frustration.”
But if stories themselves are universal, the way we tell them changes with the technology at hand. Every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative. In Europe, the invention of the printing press and movable type around 1450 led to the emergence of periodicals and the novel. The invention of the motion picture camera around 1890 set off an era of feverish experimentation that led to the development of feature films by 1910. Television, invented around 1925, gave rise a quarter-century later to I Love Lucy and the highly stylized form of comedy that became known as the sitcom.
As each of these media achieved production and distribution on an industrial scale, we saw the emergence of 20th-century mass media: newspapers, magazines, movies, music, TV. And with that, there was no role left for the consumer except to consume.
Then, just as we’d gotten used to consuming sequential narratives in a carefully prescribed, point-by-point fashion, came the internet. The internet is the first medium that can act like all media — it can be text, or audio or video, or all of the above. It’s nonlinear, thanks to the world wide web and the revolutionary convention of hyperlinking. It’s inherently participatory — not just interactive, in the sense that it responds to your commands, but an instigator constantly encouraging you to comment, to contribute, to join in.
And it is immersive — meaning that you can use it to drill down as deeply as you like about anything you want to know about.
At first, like film and television in their earliest days, the internet served mainly as a way of retransmitting familiar formats. For all the talk of “new media,” it functioned as little more than a new delivery mechanism for old media: newspapers, magazines, music. The emergence of P2P file-sharing networks encouraged a lot of people to get their deliveries for free. But as disruptive as the net has been to media businesses, it’s only now having an impact on media forms.
Under its influence, a new type of narrative is emerging, one that’s told through many media at once in a way that’s nonlinear, participatory and above all, immersive. This is “deep media”: stories that take you deeper than an hour-long TV drama or a two-hour movie or a 30-second spot will permit.
The most talked-about ad campaign of the past year involved a former football player who took questions about Old Spice on Twitter for two days and responded to the best of them minutes later on YouTube. Nike+, a web service that doubles as a marketing platform, functions as a branded corner of cyberspace where runners can keep their stats and tell their own stories.
Tron: Legacy was preceded by Flynn Lives, an alternate reality game that engaged millions of people worldwide in the 18 months before the movie came out. The 2010 season of the BBC’s Doctor Who was made up of 13 television episodes and four that came in the form of downloadable videogames. Lost told a story so convoluted that the audience had little choice but to work together to decipher it communally online.
“An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming,” David Shields writes in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a book whose truth to its time is underscored by the gleeful way it samples from other sources. “What are its key components?” Shields names several: randomness, spontaneity and emotional urgency; reader/viewer participation and involvement; anthropological autobiography; a thirst for authenticity coupled with a love of artifice; “a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.”
We stand now at the intersection of lure and blur. The future beckons, but we’re only partway through inventing it. We can see the outlines of a new art form, but its grammar is as tenuous and elusive as the grammar of cinema a century ago.
We know this much: People want to be immersed. They want to get involved in a story, to carve out a role for themselves, to make it their own. But how is the author supposed to accommodate them? What if the audience runs away with the story? And how do we handle the blur — not just between fiction and fact, but between author and audience, entertainment and advertising, story and game? A lot of smart people — in film, in television, in videogames, in advertising, in technology, even in neuroscience — are trying to sort these questions out. The Art of Immersion is their story. ■
Wired ⎢ March 9, 2011
Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof, and Jimmy Fallon at Comic-Con, July 25, 2009.
ADAM HOROWITZ BLAMES the whole thing on Star Wars.
Horowitz — who with his writing partner, Eddy Kitsis, was an executive producer on Lost and a screenwriter for Tron: Legacy — remembers seeing Star Wars in Times Square with his mom when he was five. As soon as it was over, he wanted to go right back in.
“But there’s no bigger Star Wars geek than Damon Lindelof,” he admits.
Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost with J.J. Abrams, was only four when he saw the picture. Years later, when ABC’s Lloyd Braun paired him with Abrams as the show was in development, Lindelof showed up for their first meeting wearing an original Star Wars T-shirt he’d gotten when he and his dad joined the Star Wars Fan Club. Abrams was wowed.
Lindelof, Abrams, Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Fireﬂy) — for a whole generation of Hollywood writers in their 30s and 40s, Horowitz quips, “Star Wars was a gateway drug.”
It was also a precursor to what we’re coming to expect in movies and TV. Shows in the past, Lindelof points out, went to great lengths to avoid unanswered questions. Lost was deliberately ambiguous.
“The show became an excuse to develop a community” online, says Carlton Cuse, who headed the production with Lindelof. “And the basis of it was that people were able to debate open-ended questions — questions that we insisted be open-ended, and that would get fans engaged in the show.”
Years before the web, with its boundless connectivity and its endless cascade of hyperlinks turned entertainment into a spelunking expedition, Star Wars was a saga you could immerse yourself in at will.
But it wasn’t actually meant to be that. In the mid-’70s, when the original picture was released, it didn’t occur to anyone to create a deep-media universe for fans to dive into. Star Wars was accompanied by a cascade of merchandise, but much of it had only a tenuous connection with the movie.
The novel from Del Rey, purportedly written by Lucas himself, was in fact ghosted by a science fiction writer whose only guide was an early draft of the script. The Marvel comics series began veering off in weird directions as early as Episode 8, when Han Solo and his Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca encounter Jaxxon, a giant rabbit the writers dreamed up as an homage to Bugs Bunny.
And neither the fans nor George Lucas himself seemed to think this was odd. It was just the way things worked at the time.
“The difference between then and now,” says Howard Roffman, the Lucasﬁlm executive in charge of what is now known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe, “is that we didn’t know what we had."
Roffman was put in charge of licensing in 1986, three years after the last of the original trilogy came out. At that point, as he puts it, “you couldn’t give the toys away” — or the comics or anything else. Friends said he should start looking for another job. Instead, he took it as an opportunity to introduce the concept of canonicity.
The saga by this time had become a confused jumble. If it wasn’t Marvel conjuring up a giant bunny, it was Luke Skywalker in the 1978 novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye getting affectionate with Princess Leia — who five years later, in Return of the Jedi, would turn out to be his twin sister.
So Roffman set a new ground rule: From now on, any new installment in the Star Wars saga would have to respect what had come before. (Another new ground rule, which was set by Lucas himself, said that Lucas didn’t have to obey any rules.)
“It just seemed the logical thing,” Roffman says now. “If you’re going to tell stories beyond what you see in the films, the minute they contradict each other your house falls apart. If you kill off a character and then try to revive him, it’s going to be bogus.
Of course, no one would have cared without a quality inherent in Star Wars from the beginning. “George created a very well-defined universe,” Roffman says — a universe of fractal-like complexity. “But the movies tell a narrow slice of the story. You can engage on a simplistic level — but if you want to drill down, it’s infinitely deep.”
This complexity would be key. Lucas called it “immaculate reality” — digitally conceived, spun out of charged electrons, and yet with such a level of detail that it would feel instantly familiar. Every single utensil in the kitchen of Owen and Beru Lars, the humble moisture farmers who sheltered young Luke Skywalker on the arid planet Tatooine after his father became Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. The fully realized interior of the Death Star, the moon-sized Imperial battle station armed with a superlaser capable of destroying an entire planet.
“You could zoom in on any section of any frame and have a hundred stories to tell,” Roffman says. “But it wasn’t because George ever imagined anybody would zoom in like that — he just wanted to make it feel real.”
With Roffman’s decree, Lucasfilm not only found the instrument that would help reinvigorate the Star Wars franchise; it also created the prototype for the kind of deep, multilayered storytelling that’s increasingly becoming the norm today.
Star Wars references proliferated on Lost. But more significant are the similarities in the way stories like Lost and Star Wars are structured: To provide overwhelming amounts of information, but in a time-release fashion that creates maximum anticipation. Eddy Kitsis calls this the Boba Fett effect, after the bounty hunter who has a passionate following among Star Wars fanatics, even though he had only a minor role in the movies.
“You’d see these glimpses,” he says. Boba Fett didn’t even appear in the original movie, but not long after his initial TV appearance he was made available as a toy. “You had to send in four proofs of purchase. Then, in The Empire Strikes Back, he had four lines. But he made you think about bounty hunters. Lost owes a lot to that.”
This is the kind of thing that made Star Wars so influential. “Star Wars wasn’t just science ﬁction,” says Kitsis. “What was cool about it was, it was a whole world. And it was about a kid in a small town [Luke Skywalker, on the podunk planet Tatooine] who longs for adventure.”
“It tells you anybody can do anything,” Horowitz adds. “It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are. That’s a very powerful message for a kid.
“Luke lives on a desert planet in the far reaches of the galaxy, and he becomes a hero of the universe. It’s like in Hollywood — if you believe in yourself, you can do it.” ■
Wired ⎢ March 10, 2011
"A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination."
Plate 1 (detail) from The History of Don Quixote, by Cervantes (London: 1867).
Engraving by Gustave Doré
TWO YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, as editors worldwide were beginning to debate whether anyone would actually go see Avatar, the $200 million-plus, 3-D movie extravaganza that James Cameron was making, Josh Quittner wrote in Time about getting an advance look. “I couldn’t tell what was real and what was animated,” he gushed. “The following morning, I had the peculiar sensation of wanting to return there, as if Pandora were real.”
It was not the first time someone found an entertainment experience to be weirdly immersive. For all the cutting-edge technology that went into the making of Avatar, in that sense there was nothing new about it all
Some four centuries earlier, Miguel de Cervantes reported in his satirical novel that Don Quixote went tilting at windmills because he’d lost his mind from too much reading.
He read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity. . . . He decided to turn himself into a knight errant, traveling all over the world with his horse and his weapons, seeking adventures and doing everything that, according to his books, earlier knights had done.
As Janet Murray of Georgia Tech observed in her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, every new medium that’s been invented, from print to ﬁlm to television to cyberspace, has increased the transporting power of narrative. And every new medium has aroused fear and even hostility as a result.
Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the early ’50s — the dawn of the television era. It’s about a man whose job is burning books, a medium that by this time had long since ceased to cause alarm.
The man’s wife, like her friends, is mesmerized by the video transmissions on the giant “televisors” on her living room walls. “My wife says books aren’t ‘real,’” he tells Faber, the former English professor who gradually transforms him into a savior of books.
“Thank God for that,” Faber replies. “You can shut them and say, ‘Hold on a moment!’ But who has ever torn himself from . . . a TV parlor? . . . It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth.”
That was Bradbury’s beef with television — it was just too immersive. Logical, linear thought was no match for its seductively phosphorescent glow. It became and was the truth.
Before television, the same danger could be found in the movies. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — published in 1932, ﬁve years after the birth of talkies — young John the Savage is taken to the “feelies,” where he is revolted by the sensation of phantom lips grazing his own as the actors kiss.
“Suddenly, dazzling and incomparably more solid-looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood, far more real than reality, there stood the stereoscopic images, locked in one another’s arms. . . . The Savage started. That sensation on his lips!”
Too real. Dangerously, immersively, more-real-than-reality real. Better to curl up with a good book.
But even after books gained acceptance, novels could still seem dangerously immersive in other formats.
A century before talkies, there was serialization. England in the 1830s was being radically transformed by technology. Industrialization was drawing people to the cities in unimaginable numbers, crowding them together in appalling conditions but also producing a dramatic rise in literacy.
At the same time, improvements in paper, printing, and transportation were making it possible to print and distribute periodicals on a much greater scale. Book publishers, being young and scrappy, saw a market for serial fiction — books released a few chapters at a time in flimsy paperback editions that sold for pennies.
Many authors were published in this manner, but one became identified with it above all. As a young boy, Charles Dickens had imbibed Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe; at 25 he was writing Oliver Twist in monthly installments for a new literary journal he’d been hired to edit.
The tale of an indigent boy forced into the miasma of crime and despair that was contemporary London, Oliver Twist spoke directly to the new audience that cheap serials had created. The same technological upheaval that gave rise to the workhouses Dickens described also created a readership for his story, and a way of reaching them that was cheap enough to be practicable.
From our perspective, Dickens is a literary master, an icon of a now-threatened culture. But at the time, he represented the threat of what was coming. Novels themselves were only beginning to find acceptance in polite society; for upper-class commentators, serialization was entirely too much.
In 1845, a critic for the patrician North British Review railed against the multiplying effects of serialization on the already hallucinatory powers of the novel:
Useful as a certain amount of novel reading may be, this is not the right way to indulge in it. It is not a mere healthy recreation like a match at cricket, a lively conversation, or a game at backgammon. It throws us into a state of unreal excitement, a trance, a dream, which we should be allowed to dream out, and then be sent back to the atmosphere of reality again, cured . . . of the desire to indulge again soon in the same delirium of feverish interest. But now our dreams are mingled with our daily business.
Novels, in other words, were not yet on a par with more acceptable pursuits, like games and social networking. But if you had to indulge in them, best to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Now it’s the Internet that seems new and dangerously immersive. Three decades after William Gibson introduced the concept of cyberspace (“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions. . . . Clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding”), the Internet has redefined our expectations from stories.
It’s no coincidence that we are beset by questions of authenticity. Value is a function of scarcity, and in a time of scripted reality TV and Photoshop everywhere, authenticity is a scarce commodity.
But though we live in a world in which identity is always in question, we also have the media savvy to sniff out fakery and the tools to spread the word. Technology makes authenticity suspect, and technology gives us the wherewithal to demand it — if that’s what we really want.
Except that it’s not what we want. It’s what we think we want. What we really want is to go back to Pandora, even though we’ve never been there in the first place. We want to be sucked inside the computer like Jeff Bridges in Tron. We want to be immersed in something that’s not real at all.
Just like Don Quixote. ■