Can you recall the last time you were engrossed in a novel or a movie or a TV series? Was the story compelling enough to keep you hooked until the very end? If so, what you experienced there was a willingness to lose yourself in the world of fiction (or non-fiction) while the storyteller carefully wove a fabric of the grand narrative around you. Notice how you had no control on the nature of experience you were willingly having apart from the option of stopping altogether. In other words you were at a safe distance from the narrative as it unfolded; the outcome of which would have no relation with you whatsoever.
Going a bit further, lets assume you meet a friend who has also read the same book or watched the same movie/TV series recently. Outside of some missed minor details, will your recollections of the common story be the same?
Lets refer to this form of experience as observatory experience.
The Herald by the fire
This was typical of humans in the pre-media days where one storyteller enjoyed total control of the narrative while the audience allowed themselves to be immersed in what the storyteller had to say. (Image credits: Pinterest via Google search)
Keep these answers in mind for now as we explore a different experience next.
Now can you think of the last time you were involved in a fight? Maybe you were the one who initiated it? Maybe the one who fought back? Maybe the one who tried to stop it? Maybe a spectator who talked about it later? Was that fight a highlight for your day? Something that was constantly on your mind for quite a while? If so, then what you experienced was an immersion in a narrative that you were a part of. There was no master storyteller pulling strings here, however, your participation could have very well defined the direction and outcome of the narrative. Here you were no longer at a distance from the narrative; you were right in the middle of it.
Now assume you meet a friend who was also there as a participant in the same fight. Will the recollections of the two of you be the same or at the least similar? What are the odds that they stories will be biased and different?
Lets refer to this experience as participatory experience.
A sports person at a decision point
Field sports are a good example of how participant interaction can effect a narrative within a set of rules and constraints. (Image credits: Kaapeli Sports photos via Google search)
These are the two extreme forms of narrative experiences that an audience member can have. One talks of linear one way reception of a story which always has a common conclusion; the likes of which we have had for centuries - heralds, plays, paintings, books, movies, comics etc. The other experience is analogous to real life experiences; a context within a time bound scenario that defines a series of actions and asks for decisions with multiple possibilities and varied outcomes. An apt examples is sports where the starting context is defined by the rules of the game and the boundaries to be adhered by the participant. Beyond that, each player builds his/her own personal narrative that is engaging because he/she is in the story.
Having said all that, what I want to put forth now is a third form of story experience. Imagine I took the best parts of both the observatory and the participatory experiences.
The observatory experience offers the thrill of a grand setup; an ideal combination of well designed circumstances and characters that make the story more entertaining and engaging. The participatory experience offers the freedom of audience interaction; the intimate connection between the participant's decisions and the outcome of the narrative. The one genre that is capable of approximating this hybrid form of story experience is Digital Games.
We know that games can be found to provide one experience over the other (participatory or observatory) based on the audience for which it has been designed and developed. So the region between the two extremes of an experience like movies and a game like pong isn't exactly a distinct slot. Rather, it is a spectrum of experiences that a participant can have and contemporary games tend to populate this spectrum mostly closer to the opposite ends. My interest in this write-up lies right in the middle of this spectrum.
The Ludo-Narrative Experiential Spectrum.
I have placed five entertainment mediums on a strip that is measured by two parameters - 'context/story' and 'participant interaction'. The two parameters run in an inverse relation with respect to one another along the same axis. The purpose of this graph is to depict the extent of ground games can cover as a medium to not only tell stories and create recreational games, but also to do both in the from of an context driven interactive experience.
A game might not necessarily need a story to be enjoyable. People can send the pong ball back and forth all day without any context requirement. Likewise, a story doesn't necessarily need any form of interaction to be sufficiently engaging. The movie industry has revolutionized the entertainment industry in the past century.
However, what digital games possess, is the right features and characteristics for creators to move beyond just narratives and game-play. A perfect blend of the two can pave the way for amazing interactive experiences that we have not had access to up until now.
With that said, it is a safe prediction to make that the game industry's notion of what to create will shift from 'just products' (story or game-mechanics) to 'experiences' (immersion and emotional engagement).