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Immersive Entertainment, New Media, and Storytelling

As a fiction writer (a.k.a. story-teller), I want to take a moment to remind us all of that (hopefully) familiar feeling of immersion when reading a great book. I’m not being a luddite. Just take a second and think back to that experience. The writing was so good you lost track of time. The fictional characters were real people, perhaps just like you or your neighbor down the street. You could hardly wait to turn the page. Your foot was tapping. Your heart rate went up. You let yourself be whisked away, and that was the point. Remember? Good.

Now ask yourself, what could make that better? Perhaps being a part of the story yourself?

“Immersive Entertainment” is a term being thrown around by everyone from plasma screen TV manufacturers to mom-and-pop podcasters. Like the term “new media,” there is no solid, agreed-upon definition of the term, but the buzzword still peaks interest in the media-worn consumer.

Any sci-fi fan worth their salt can name a dozen hedonistic planets, solid holograms, or pleasure robots that portray our human fantasies of virtual reality. I call these ‘entertainment realities,’ and they seem to be our goal. We take small steps toward these entertainment edens. Today’s developers are concentrating on previously ignored senses in order to make the story experience seem “more real.”

Storytelling, the mother of all entertainment, first relied on sound. Printed media came, relying on sight. The vistas and the music became enveloping, whisking us away further into the story. Now there are high-definition flat screens that add special backlighting to supposedly increase depth perception, which the manufacturers boast will make you feel “like you’re there” more than ever before. Movement and touch are being added; Your chair or at the very least your game controller can vibrate when your avatar takes a hit or there is an explosion in a TV show. Smell-o-vision will probably soon emerge, and every show will have code that activates certain chemicals in the connected surround-smell modules in the room. Turn it up to superblast and you’ll be able to taste it too. Most of the top Googles on “Immersive Entertainment” are about these mock virtual reality video gaming or extra bells and whistles (lights, sounds, chair buzzing) added to your living room.

Entertainment has moved far beyond the lonely one-hour-a-week episode on TV or console game. Now, you can read blogs “written by” the fictional characters in that TV show, you can watch extra footage on websites, you can join in discussions and post video tributes on YouTube or Viddler, you can game on-line with strangers. Just recently I noticed that members of Twitter, a free on-line instant-message type of service, can now follow Chuck Bartowski, the main character of this season’s break-out hit “Chuck.” Chuck is a mild-mannered tech support guy who is forced into international spying.

I follow Chuck on Twitter.

I don’t know what I’m expecting out of it. Chuck doesn’t reply to any messages, he just puts them out, and infrequently at that. He doesn’t read anyone else’s messages. Basically, the writers of the show are using social networking media to promote the show. I know this. But I have to admit, when I was browsing the Twitter site and I found “Chuck Bartowski” listed as if he were a living, breathing person and not just a character with an actor’s face, I was excited. I love that show. Plus, Chuck is exactly my type of guy: geeky, yet handsome; masculine, but empathetic (he’s a bit of an underachiever, but I could work on that!) It excited me that I could be exposed to this quirkily dreamy anti-hero in an extra, seemingly more personal way than just watching him on my DVR or reading a fake blog post. I can pretend that Chuck is in my small social network, that Chuck is messaging me personally, that we used to work together but now live in separate states but we keep in touch. I know the instant messages, called “Tweets” on Twitter, are just as fake as a fictional character blog post, but somehow Twitter and tweets as social media are still so new and fresh that Chuck’s messages just seem more real. This makes my heart speed up.

I’m sure it will get old. My heart will slow down. Reading a thriller is a lot different the second time around. Chuck is the lucky character to be the first to send me all a-Twitter. My first fictional love was Phineas of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace; he stole my teenage soul. Phineas still holds a special place in my heart. But A Separate Peace was one of “those” books for me, an entertainment reality that I will never forget. Will instant messages and a silly TV show compare to that experience? Only time will tell. But I intend to keep my mind and eyes open to Chuck, to keep my preferences for the printed novel in check, and give the new social media world a chance to whisk me away.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Marina @ Sufficient Thrust 13 October 2007, 11:41 pm

    My first love was Amory Blaine from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise.” I could read that book forever and not notice the years passing by. Kazuo Ishiguro’s books, particularly “The Remains of the Day,” are also like that. I call them *sumptuous* books.

    I don’t know if I’d want to be immersed in them, though. Reading about a butler driving through the English countryside contemplating what it means to be a good butler made for good reading, but would probably be a bore IRL. Per usual, fantasy is (far) better than the reality.

  • Marina @ Sufficient Thrust 13 October 2007, 11:44 pm

    (Damn. I hit Enter before I finished typing…)

    I have been an on-again, off-again fan of the soap opera “General Hospital” for almost 13 years now. There is a blog “written” by one of the veteran characters on the show. Problem is, I think ABC always puts *just* enough effort into these endeavors, and it falls short. Soap opera fans in particular are VERY loyal and passionate about the show, staging campaigns over love matches and such. When you write a half-assed blog that doesn’t sound like it’s from the character at all (not to mention their INCORRECT story summaries), I think it’s a bigger turnoff than not doing anything at all.

  • PurpleCar 14 October 2007, 10:44 am

    Marina, thanks for commenting. And I agree, I would think ABC would use the blog to create more intrigue, e.g. dropping foreshadowing hints and such, inner monologue like “He doesn’t know it yet, but I’m pregnant,” etc, and that in turn would get more viewers and more consistent viewership. With soap operas, a viewer can skip a few episodes and still catch up quickly. If I were on the writing and/or advertising team, I would go after that new generation of viewers that are on-line longer than they watch TV.

    I tuned into Steve Garfield’s live feed the other day – I followed his Tweet to a conference he was at – and the social media experts were mentioning examples of artists and filmmakers who had made work available “for free” on-line; instead of this devaluing their work, prices for it actually went up. In the new media market, the old adages about “giving it away” aren’t relevant in today’s world.

    I wish storytelling media outlets like the major networks would hire more writers (with a technical bent, like me!) to write Tweets, character blogs, and other immersive new media. Perhaps the job title could be “Staff Internet Writer” and the writer’s sole duty would be to keep up the on-line presence of the character in order to enhance the story experience. When will the stodgy old boardroom members wake up?

  • Michael Bailey 14 October 2007, 12:11 pm

    I really think that it will still be awhile before the large media places actually understand this new media space –

    The reason that I think that is because if you take a look around at some of the conversations taking place by the people who are creating this space, things like semantics are still being discussed –

    There are still conversations taking place as to whether or not we should call it “podcasting” and there are other conversations happening where the validity of social networks are being discussed and mostly emotional responses can be found – nothing statistical for the most part.

    So, if the people creating the space cannot even seem to understand things, who “out there” can possibly begin to understand it for themselves.

    I love speaking in an open, tongue-in-cheek way, mostly because I realize that there aren’t any real answers at this point – that may not really be a problem, as it seems that some people have already been able to capitalize on this space by only focusing on one or two elements of the big picture – that’s a good thing, and really makes a lot of sense.

    example, A race car driver doesn’t need to know how the engine works, as long as he can drive and win races.

  • PurpleCar 14 October 2007, 1:56 pm

    Hey Michael, thanks for commenting! your points reminded me of what it is really like on the business side of things: very conservative, not experimental. It will be a while for statistics to be gathered or even identified, before the old fogies spend their hard-stolen dollars on a $30,000/year position like Internet Writer. It’s a shame, though, because the shelf-life on the “immersion’ storytelling fun is short, and they are gonna miss it.

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