Drug of Storytelling: Immersion
It’s addictive. But once you’ve experienced it, you want to experience it over and over again. And it does work. Because this stuff is not easy to get. It’s called immersion. The very essence of storytelling that makes a story a really good story.
Is the “immersion” into a narrative world, the going along with the main character, the getting lost in an environment, that makes storytelling a real pleasure. It is an experience that we longingly await with every new story, and which also disappoints us immensely when it doesn’t happen. Bad stories are like cold turkey.
Starter drug: Fairy tale
Early on we are introduced to this drug: Bedtime stories and fairy tales lay the groundwork for a lifetime of addiction in infancy. The addiction to immersion.
The word is derived from the Latin “immersio”, which means “to immerse” and also “to submerge”. A wonderful semantic coincidence, because a good story — whether in a book, a movie, a series or a computer game — lets us immerse, but also submerge and submerge for hours.
Writers, scriptwriters and game designers are working towards this very moment: to lure the audience, draw them into the story and then keep them there as long as possible. Storytellers in advertising and corporate communications also want to benefit from the momentum of immersion: they want to attract the attention of the target group, draw them into the product or company story and then retain the customer for as long as possible. Retention is the term used in marketing jargon. So immersion and submersion is also the ideal here.
Learning a foreign language
Linguists use the term immersion to describe the learning of a foreign language in an environment where only the language to be learned is spoken. The learner is thus immersed in the world of the new language in order to understand it better.
This definition can also be applied excellently to the way a good story works: because in every story the audience is presented with a world in which certain rules prevail. Either a story takes place in the real world, where our everyday rules rule — starting with gravity and ending with legal laws and Christian values such as “Thou shalt not kill”. But the story can also take place in a fictional world like the magic world of Harry Potter: there the rules of magic as well as the rules of the “normal world” apply, because Harry and his friends switch between both worlds. Or you can dive into fantastic worlds, like in “Game of Thrones”, where dragons exist, or in “Zoomania”, the animated film, where animals have jobs like policeman or mayor.
At the beginning of each story the rules of the respective world are explained. Immersion only happens — and this is what makes a good story — if the rules of this narrative world are constantly observed. The more complex and detailed this world is presented, the stronger the immersion effect. Gamers probably know best what we are talking about here.
For short formats such as Insta Stories and mini-videos this can become a problem. This is because the “narrative world” of these so-called “stories” can only be introduced in tiny moments at the beginning and the path of “immersion” is also extremely shortened. Quite the opposite of streaming series, which can use several episodes of a season to introduce different protagonists and their surroundings.
This shortened time is one of the reasons why the immersion effect of individual Insta Stories is far less. And why many short formats therefore build on existing “worlds”. It is no coincidence that most Super Bowl 2020 commercials refer back to well-known, successful films and stories and use quotes from narrative worlds already known to the viewer.
Pretty new: Immersive Storytelling
But even though the concept of immersion is inseparably linked to the art of storytelling, and every storyteller has been striving to captivate his audience since the beginning of mankind — e.g. in the 18th century the lights in the theatre room have been dimmed that the audience can concentrate and immerse themselves more easily — today, “immersive storytelling” seems to be pretty “new”. By this they mean a very special kind of storytelling, a new form that meets two criteria:
First: The audience is interactively involved in the narrative. The author may retain the power to shape the narrative world, but the audience is actively involved in the plot and determines what happens in this world. There are computer games based on this principle that the audience builds the world itself, such as Minecraft or Clash of Clans.
Second: The “fourth” wall falls. The separation between audience and stage is removed. The “disenchantment of the illusion of theater” was already demanded by Berthold Brecht. The epic theatre he founded abolishes the boundary between audience and stage. Brecht would never have dreamed that a technology like “Virtual Reality” would so consistently implement his vision of modern theatre. With the help of VR glasses, the “spectator” is now right in the middle of the narrative world and — just as Brecht demanded — he is both recipient and actor at the same time.
But even without technological support, classical theatre today is transforming into “immersive theatre”. Punchdrunk, the British performance group, is a pioneer in this field. In unbelievably elaborate productions, they transform entire houses, factories and underground stations in order to put spectators in the midst of actors and let them act together.
Secret Cinema are the pioneers of the “immersive experience” in film. Here, rooms are also built for “immersion” — not as a theatre or film backdrop — but as a space for experience. These are installations that retell feelings and narrative worlds such as “Blade Runner” or “Stranger Things” and in which the visitor can experience the film. They are experiences that are both enchanting and disturbing. And: you have to have been there.
“We often see different narratives that no longer function linearly,”
Thomas Oberender, director of the Berliner Festspiele, describes immersive works of art such as the installation “Nachlass — Pièces sans personnes”, which shows eight rooms representing eight people whose lives are coming to an end and which represent what remains of these people after their death. One can immerse oneself in these rooms, wander through them and research and experience the stories oneself. One is the director, actor and audience of these stories — all in one.
Immersive storytelling is thus also when Ikea recreates a bombed-out apartment from Syria in one of its furniture markets and lets customers feel what it feels like to live in the middle of a war. Or when Edeka empties a supermarket completely to show how fatal discrimination and nationalism alone would have a fatal effect on our food supply. In Edeka#Vielfalt, customers experience empty shelves that tell how diverse our lives are due to open borders and international goods.
“Immersion can be an intellectually stimulating process; yet in most cases, past and present, immersion is spiritually absorbing and a process, a change, a passage from one state of mind to another. It is characterized by shrinking critical distance to what is shown and increasing emotional involvement in what happens”
says media theorist Oliver Grau in his book “Virtual Art. From Illusion to Immersion.”
This is exactly where it becomes particularly interesting for marketing and corporate communications, because immersion is a drug we just can’t get enough of.
(this blog post is inspired by Mounia Meiborg’s article “Dive in, please!”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 26.7.2017)
One final tips:
Wonderful examples of what VR and AR already make possible today can be seen in the video of the Immersive Storytelling Symposium of “The New School” with the title: “Exploration Narrative: Agency and VR experience” — be sure to watch it.