Courtesy Yale Arts Calendar

The 1960s media philosopher Marshall McLuhan said that “societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media with which individuals communicate than by the apparent content of communication.” In this world of virtual realities, new forms of storytelling not only shape society, but also redefine the content of stories told.

On Tuesday, Sept. 26, the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media hosted Stephanie Riggs, a visiting lecturer and pioneer in virtual reality and graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama and School of Computer Science. Riggs presented her lecture entitled: “The End of Storytelling.” While the title of this lecture may resemble click-bait, Riggs did not call for the demise of all storytelling, merely a different approach to it.

“Immersive technology” is a term less familiar to us than “virtual reality.” While both concepts are related, there are some important distinctions. Riggs defined immersive technology as a continuum — this continuum goes from the real world to a completely virtual world, where everything is immersive.

“In the space in between, you have augmented and mixed reality,” Riggs said. “The idea is that you can still see the real world in augmented reality. You and I can see each other, but if I want to grow a tree right here, the tree grows. If we all want to interact with the tree, say I want to take a branch off and grow another three, that’s when we’re getting into mixed reality.”

Riggs said that classical storytelling methods cannot be applied to stories told through immersive technology. But what exactly is classical storytelling? Riggs defined classical storytelling as the linear progression of a story, from its creation to its dispersal. A story conventionally begins with a writer, an artist, a director or any creator working within some artistic medium to construct a narrative. Riggs’ argument centered on the idea that classical storytelling exists in frames. This frame could be a page’s confines, the space of a theatre or, literally, a picture frame. “This process has been ingrained in our storytelling psyche for tens of thousands of years,” Riggs said. “When we start talking about immersive technology, things start changing.”

The “things” in question are the existence of frames around a story. Riggs described virtual reality as a space spherical and all-encompassing; it is frameless. “Sleep No More,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is an example of artists combining spherical mediums and classical storytelling. “Sleep No More” allows audiences to walk around, dictate the story’s pace and interact with the setting. However, Riggs argued that this play was unsuccessful in giving audiences the agency to decide their own narrative.

Riggs said that classical storytelling rarely allows for audience agency. While narratives are open to audience interpretation, audiences often do not have the power to influence the story’s course. Yet, Riggs acknowledged that there are modes of entertainment which allow for full agency. For example, the life simulation video game “The Sims” has no preconstructed narrative. Instead, players create their own stories.

An integral part of virtual realities is direct audience participation. As such, immersive technology specialists face a challenge: How does a creator construct a narrative while giving audiences agency? This is why, Riggs said, “the end of storytelling” must arise. Riggs argued that storytelling must diverge from classical methods.

“When we switch to the spherical medium, we shift away from the audiovisual,” Riggs said. “To me, spherical mediums are not audiovisual, they are psychological mediums. It’s important to start with what the psychology of this experience is.”

This begs the question: How much agency does an audience member really have when psychological tactics are used to influence that person’s decision-making? Storytellers need to strike a balance between creating compelling storylines and giving audience members authentic senses of agency.

Even as immersive technology gains traction, classical modes of storytelling still have value. Elements of classical storytelling, such as exposition and plot development, are instrumental to all stories. It makes sense that storytelling is evolving to suit new mediums, but it is unnecessary to assert that it’s the End of Storytelling as We Know It. It will be interesting, however, to anticipate further refinements of storytelling through immersive technology and to see how machine learning might evolve to allow for greater audience agency.

Rianna Turner | rianna.turner@yale.edu .