Arguably interactive storytelling can trace back it’s origins to the 1970s when games like the Colossal Cave Adventure hit TV screens. As a text-based game, Colossal Cave Adventure provided an opportunity for its players to take a narrative journey in such a manner as to control the evolution of the narrative. In this sense therefore, the game player became part of the story creation. From the 1970s to date however, a lot of technological advancement have happened that have allowed computer hardware to handle more visually heavy and complicated storylines to be part of the game play. Today, games such as Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Final Fantasy IX, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Dragon Age: Origins, among many others, offer millions of gamers from across the globe the ability to actively interact with a storyline, thereby having them be part of the story creation.
Over the last few years, story developers and film producers have been considering to incorporate the interactivity of narrative based game play in traditional movies and TV series thanks largely to advancement in digital technologies. The shift where interactive storytelling is taking a leap from video games to films and TV series has helped redefine the meaning of interactive storytelling, to a point where today interactive storytelling is being considered as a broader phenomenon that involves digital display technologies – and demands input from the consumer (game player or film viewer) of the story.
The types of inputs that is required from the story consumer range widely depending on the type of technology at play. Simple digital technologies with visual outputs and point and click inputs e.g. from mouse clicks, may require the user to select from a few options, as is seen in Bandersnatch. Though basic, this type of demand forces the content consumer to actively interact with the story, thereby elevating the level of engagement he or she must have with the story as the story evolves.
In the universe of all possible interactive storytelling, Bandersnatch may be considered one of the very basic. This is because Bandersnatch was produced for a 2-dimension digital screen, where the user is mostly given two options of a possible storyline to choose from at a time. Other than during the ending of the story, most of the options a user chooses are options that do not actually change the storyline. However, as interactive storytelling continues to develop within the realm of filmmaking, more complicated interactive options are bound to emerge, particularly as films get made for virtual and augmented reality technologies.
Bandersnatch’s interactivity is limited because it is experienced through a 2D digital environment; a computer, TV, or phone screen. But what if a user was able to interact with a narrative in the full and complete 3D real world environment? For example, the user’s living room? Or outdoors in the streets? Such real-world environments expand the scope of interactions almost infinitely. An environment where characters in a narrative may appear and move around in the real world, and if the narrative is a game setup, the consumer of the narrative be enabled to decide the paths in the real-world taken by the characters, will greatly magnify the user engagement with the story.
There are two main a viewer of digital content can be made to experience a narrative in a real-world setup. One is through Augmented Reality and the other is through Virtual Reality, both of which are already possible technologies. Augmented Reality (AR) is a projection of digital images and objects onto the real-world, so that from the perception of the viewer, the images and objects are seen as existing in the real world. Capabilities of the AR can already be experienced via standard Android and iOS handheld smartphones through mobile applications such as HP Reveal, Shapes 3D, Google Expeditions, and Wonderscope. Wonderscope for example is an iOS app that allows kids to enjoy stories projected on the floor, bed, walls, and other real-world environments.
The other technology that allows creation of real-world like environments for interacting with digital content is Virtual Reality (VR). As opposed to AR that projects digital objects onto real-world environments, VR creates a digital environment of its own that can look exactly like a real-world environment, then offers the content consumer the ability to interact with that virtual environment as though the viewer is part of the digital environment. Generally, VR can be said to be a technology that teleports a viewer from the physical environment to a virtual one. In instant communication VR can allow users of the technology to have a seemingly real-life meeting in a generated virtual location that is or is not a location where either of those communicating is in physically. An example would be two people having an experience of meeting Pari when in actual sense one of them is in Washington DC and the other is in Los Angeles California.
AR and VR offer content consumers a totally new way of experiencing and interacting with content. Already game developers have taken advantage of the technologies to create interactive games such as the Temple Treasure Hunt, Zombies Run, AR Sports Basketball, Pokémon Go and many others for AR, and Epic Roller Coasters, Google Earth, Star Wars, and Accounting for VR. Given that these are games, they require gamers to be hyper interactive hence fully engaged with the content.
Just as is with the case of 2D interactive content, filmmakers are already developing films for both AR and VR. For viewing experience only, there are several movies that are already available for AR and VR screening; where in this aspect it can be argued that traditional projectors are part of AR which would make every movie and TV series available for AR screening. The only challenge that movie makers must deal with right now is how to incorporate interactive storytelling within AR and VR environments.
Technologies such as The AuraRing developed by the University of Washington early last year can help filmmakers incorporate interactive storytelling in AR. The technology would enable viewers to “touch” digital objects and by doing so prompt the objects to respond according to the intentions of the content consumer.
Creation of interactive stories for AR and VR technologies is poised to alter the way the audience experience stories. Right now, stories are mostly experienced from a third-party perspective where the narrative exist in fictional worlds that have little to do with an actual first hand real-life interactive experience of the viewer. Attempts have been made to bridge the gap between the story and the viewer through technologies such as 3D screens and content, but such technologies still keep the viewer outside the story. AR and VR tech on the other hand is capable of bringing the viewer inside an interactive narrative such that the viewer becomes part and parcel of the content.
An example of a narrative for AR environment, if created, that incorporates viewer interaction would be a story where the viewer is allowed to project characters within his/her 360 surrounding, watch the characters perform their acts, then every now and then is allowed to approach a character of choice and interact with them, to thereafter cause the entire storyline to branch into a different path – same way making a choice in Bandersnatch enables a viewer to experience an ending different from that which was experienced by a viewer that made a different choice.
Such interactivity with AR or VR environments will generate a type of viewer engagement with the story – the type that has not been experienced ever before, not even by gamers. One can only imagine that such types of storytelling techniques will only work to blur the line between the real and the unreal – between the physical and the virtual. When a viewer will not be able to distinguish between the real world and the virtual world, it is envisioned that such a viewer will be tempted to treat virtual objects as though they are real objects; treatments that will generate extremely intense reactions to the stories being experienced.
The impacts real-life like engagement viewers will have with interactive stories are yet to be investigated. It can be speculated that viewers will not experience emotions ranging from love to hate, fear to excitement, terror to pleasure in the same manner they experience when consuming standard 2D non-interactive stories, will experience those emotions as though they are interacting with actual people in the real world. Thus, it can be expected that people will fall in love, in the real sense of the phrase, with virtual characters and objects – and likewise may develop hateful or depressing emotions that might impair their ability to live healthily in the physical world.