This month in Florida, the team at Walt Disney Imagineering detailed their plans for the company’s upcoming Star Wars-themed lands. It was described as an opportunity for guests to walk into a fully realized planet full of smugglers and rogues where they could fly the Millennium Falcon and catch the unwanted attention of residents if they didn’t bring the ship back in one piece. It wasn’t a traditional theme park as much as it was a living world, one that would allow guests to move off of the carefully curated Disney rails, and become the lead in their own free-ranging stories — whether that meant working for some bounty hunters or becoming pivotal players in a galactic civil war. Time and again, the experience was described the same way: “immersive.”
The concept of interactive, all-encompassing worlds that swallow up the participant has been evolving for years now across multiple disciplines, ranging from immersive theater and escape rooms, to virtual and mixed reality projects. It's a vast sandbox, rich with storytelling potential. But if immersive entertainment has been percolating just out of sight of most consumers, then the 2019 opening of Star Wars land may be the moment it all goes mainstream.
That makes right now the perfect opportunity to catch up on the achievements thus far and to document the innovative work creators are doing to build an entirely new kind of storytelling experience. So to kick off my new column, I’m starting with a simple question: what the hell is immersive entertainment, anyway?
Inside the sandbox
“One of our goals is to have people step inside the worlds of our stories,” Vicki Dobbs Beck, executive in charge at ILMxLab, tells me over the phone. xLab is Industrial Light & Magic’s experiential think tank, the division dedicated to building immersive experiences like Trials on Tatooine, the in-the-works Darth Vader VR experience from writer David S. Goyer, or even the virtual camera rig Gareth Edwards used to shoot his space battles in Rogue One.
“One of our goals is to have people step inside the worlds of our stories.”
Immersive entertainment, she says, is a way to describe any medium that lets an audience member walk into a fictional world. It could be virtual reality. It could be augmented reality. It could even be a haunted house. “One of the things that, for me, defines immersive entertainment and makes it somewhat unique, is the absolute importance of place, and that sense of presence,” she says. “It's place, and then it's characters with which you engage in that place, in a way that isn't possible in any other medium, like film or television.”
For decades, visual entertainment like film and television has worked the same way: a fixed storyline is presented to an audience, who then consumes it through some sort of screen. Immersive work represents a fundamental break from that tradition. “A story-based destination is more or less the center line,” says John Gaeta, xLab’s creative director of new media and experiences. “It's the thing that we use to tie all the different types of experiential pieces together.” It’s a simple concept, and perhaps the easiest way to define what all of these experiences share.
Whether you’re talking about an immersive theater show like Sleep No More, where audiences are able to freely roam several floors of a fictional hotel while a live performance unfolds around them, or a VR piece like Chris Milk’s Life of Us, where audiences adopt the role of an amoeba as it evolves through the millennia, these are creative works that let audiences actually enter a fictional world that they then interact with using multiple senses.
It may sound a little futuristic, like the world of gaming bleeding into our waking life, but audiences have already been enjoying immersive entertainment for decades under a different name: theme parks. The connection has helped inform the way xLab thinks about its own audience. “We don't use the word ‘users’ here. We don't use the word ‘players’ here,” Gaeta says. “You're leaving your reality, and you're coming to this place. ‘Visitor’ is much more appropriate, in our thinking.”
The power of immersion
The grand potential is laid out right there in the Star Wars land plans, or even an episode of HBO’s Westworld. The opportunity for audiences to step into their favorite story or movie, interact with characters, and have adventures that would never be available in reality, is in many ways the ultimate form of escapist entertainment. There’s a reason the utopian vision for VR often seems to be the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But like any developing art form, getting there is a series of starts and stops. Modern-day VR rigs are expensive, and site-specific productions require travel and time. But despite that, the field is filled with pieces that demonstrate the fundamental power of being immersed into another world.
I realized I was in my own personal ‘70s-style paranoid thriller
When it comes to emotional investment or a sense of stakes, immersive entertainment has the unique ability to make an audience member feel that it is actually them — not a character they’re observing from a distance — that’s in jeopardy. I encountered that recently when taking part in Lust, the sequel to last year’s The Tension Experience. After being lured to a Los Angeles motel for a business meeting, I instead found myself the victim of a surprise blackmail campaign, with a character threatening to spread lies to my wife, whose name he somehow knew. Now, that’s an extreme example in a show that likes to push boundaries, but the sense of adrenaline and panic that hit when I realized I was in my own personal ‘70s-style paranoid thriller was remarkable, and left me shaken.
And while things like haunted houses have been using immersive techniques to thrill and scare, being immersed in a narrative also has an incredible ability to foster empathy, encouraging audiences to become far more vulnerable than perhaps they would in their daily life. A recent Southern California project called Have You Seen Jake? explored the lasting effects of trauma, mixing online interactions with immersive theater to take participants on a months-long search for a missing boy. In that case, the project became so interactive that each participant had their own storyline written and tailored expressly for them, based upon whatever personal information they shared with the characters.
“That willingness to engage, and that willingness to be vulnerable, spanned the entire gamut,” says show creator Jason Davidson. “From folks who shared very little personally, but really came back and said that they had transformative experiences, all the way to folks who shared deeply personal things. We were then able to craft interactions, and craft their kind of engagement with us, on a day-to-day basis.”
The quality of intimacy is different than what movies, TV shows, and games provide, and the storytelling potential these experiences hint at is mind-boggling. On the digital side, it reveals what creators will be able to do years from now when technology and AI reaches the point where authentic interactions can be digitally replicated. For physical, real-world experiences like theater or escape rooms, it’s a demonstration of the raw power immersive entertainment already has today.
What’s in a name
If there’s a problem, it’s not whether audiences are receptive to this kind of work. The ongoing success of Sleep No More in New York and the meteoric growth of escape rooms alone demonstrates the interest. But it can be difficult to explain these mediums to those who aren’t already familiar with them. Something like a haunted house is straightforward; audiences know what they’ll be getting the moment they buy their ticket. But step outside the narrow subgenres, and the picture becomes muddied. What is an immersive theater show that incorporates alternate reality game elements? What should we call an interactive storyline in a Star Wars park? And without that framework, how can anybody know if they’ll be interested in the first place?
The interest is there, even if audiences don’t know what it is
These are growing pains that face any new medium as it works to refine and define itself. It’s a version of the same problem that virtual reality — itself a form of immersive entertainment — is having, with room-scale experiences and 360-degree Facebook videos all casually labeled “virtual reality” in the name of marketing. In the end, the names cease to mean anything at all.
The SXSW conference took its own stab at defining the space this year with a track focused on “experiential storytelling,” another popular (if less user-friendly) label. “Experiential storytelling was an organic name that came to mind, partly born out of addressing how the content has changed,” festival film programmer Jim Kolmar told me during the festival. “I don’t think we’ve developed an apt way to describe it yet, but I'm starting to think that maybe we don't even need one. We’re just providing a space for these different communities to develop and expand on their ideas.”
While there obviously needs to be a general term to describe these experiences, it’s hard to disagree with Kolmar’s sentiment when it comes to the minds of consumers. Audiences are much more interested in characters and stories than the technologies and techniques that deliver them. Pokémon Go didn’t break records because people stood up en masse and said, “I must try this exciting new augmented reality app”; it took off because people wanted to play a game that let them catch pokémon in the real world.
Audiences care about characters and story, not the technology used to deliver them
That’s what makes the potential of Disney’s Star Wars expansion so thrilling: it’s the first time that mainstream audiences will have the opportunity to try an immersive narrative experience firsthand at such a grand scale, wrapped in a world and mythology they already love. If Disney is successful, what visitors walk away with won’t be a buzzword or a descriptor; it’ll simply be that they entered the world of Star Wars and added their own story to the saga’s legacy. And that same principle will work no matter what style of immersive entertainment we happen to be talking about.
“I don't think that the general audience is gonna gravitate towards these distinctions in hardware terminology. I think they're just gonna gravitate towards some experience that they think they want,” Gaeta says, bringing it back around to VR. “I think it's gonna be as simple as that: be inside Vader's castle. ‘Okay, I want to do that.’”
“I still believe that the idea that you can step inside a fantasy location, and find characters and stories, is gonna drive many people,” he says. “Now, for us, the operative verb in that sentence is, ‘step.’ Step inside. To actually be active, be mobile. To participate in a reactive world. I think that's a high level. That's the gold standard.”