In the world of immersive entertainment, high-end activations like HBO’s sprawling, real-world re-creation of Westworld or Disney’s upcoming Star Wars expansion lands get most of the attention. But at this year’s South by Southwest, one of the most exciting and forward-thinking pieces of immersive work wasn’t there to promote a movie or TV show. It was an interactive story experience called OpenMind, which played out in hotel rooms, office buildings, and public locations across Austin, Texas, over a period of four days.
OpenMind told the story of a protagonist — in this case, me — leaping between two parallel dimensions, tasked with stopping a nefarious tech genius from overtaking both worlds with an insidious thought-reading technology. It was an example of what its creators, the creative lab Interactive Deep Dive, call a “SimuLife” — an experience that uses live actors and real locations to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, mapping a fictional narrative onto the real world.
In David Fincher’s 1997 movie The Game, Michael Douglas plays a wealthy banker who enrolls in a real-world game that’s so realistic, he rapidly loses track of what’s real and what’s fantasy. That film is regularly cited as a model for immersive entertainment, and it’s an open inspiration for the SimuLife experience. OpenMind was a tailored immersive narrative — and just one possible application for Interactive Deep Dive’s new wave of groundbreaking, interactive storytelling.
“The reason Interactive Deep Dive happened was because I wanted there to be a group of next-generation leaders in the field of applied interactive performance,” Deep Dive director Jeff Wirth tells me. Wirth is an innovator in the field. He’s been working in interactive performance — where actors can engage directly with their audience — since the 1970s, and he brought the work into an academic context for nearly a decade at the University of Central Florida. While training performers in New York, he decided to put together a pop-up creative workshop that would give a small team the ability to go heads down and study all aspects of immersive work, from virtual reality and simulations to educational applications and pure entertainment.
“As you can imagine, this skill set is not one you acquire quickly, so if you’re truly going to cultivate leaders, you need a substantial amount of time,” he tells me, with the nine-month project — dubbed the Interactive Deep Dive — kicking off in Austin last August. “The Deep Dive came out of a desire for more people who have this skill set and understanding in their bones, so they can apply it in different ways.”
The group is composed of eight artists and performers with backgrounds in a variety of disciplines: VR, education simulation, dance, traditional theater, and improv. The Deep Dive program itself calls on its members to merge those disciplines through public shows and interactive experiments where audience members are able to jump in, play, and co-create a story alongside the performers. The training for that last kind of work — the engine that makes something like my SimuLife experience possible — begins with what they call a “StoryBox.”
StoryBox, SimuLife, and The Game
“I had been doing stage interactives, like an interactive musical where the two romantic leads are played by members of the audience, or an interactive adaptation of A Christmas Carol,” Wirth says. “And one of the things I really noticed is how self-conscious people were when they were playing on the stage. You could get them past it, but it was definitely a hiccup.”
As a response, he created the StoryBox: a 14-foot square with fabric walls, outfitted with lights, cameras, and microphones. By removing the anxiety of being up on a stage in front of a watching audience, it allows participants — or “spectactors,” a portmanteau of spectator and actor — to be less self-conscious when they walk into the space and improvise a scene alongside the trained interactive actors (“interactors”). Lighting cues and sound design can be generated in real time in conjunction with the performances, while the cameras and microphones allow the whole thing to be monitored live.
The concept allows the actors and audience participants to co-create a narrative in real time, either working from an established premise or inventing something on the fly. “The team is trained to understand story flow and structure, and recognize genre or character types,” explains Ken Ingraham, Wirth’s producing partner. “They are using those tools in the moment, and the team is recognizing it and supporting that — and sometimes contrasting that, and creating foils — such that the spectactor is carried through the story. It truly is a collaborative improvisation.”
Taking that core idea — non-trained participants working with actors to co-author a story experience — and setting it outside a theater environment was the next logical step. “I remember Jeff and I talking in his office, and saying we’d both seen the movie The Game, starring Michael Douglas,” Ingraham recalls. “We knew how that connected to what we were doing. And I’m pretty sure Jeff was the one that suggested, ‘What if we were to do this?’”
“I remember Jeff and I talking in his office, and we’d both seen the movie ‘The Game.’”
That led to Wirth’s first SimuLife, which they simply called The Game. That project featured a single participant thrust into a thriller narrative. Ingraham, who played the villain in the piece, recounts how they orchestrated a “murder” that the protagonist witnessed. “I brought him over to the window, and we looked down onto the deck of a parking garage, probably 10 floors down, and he could see his friend in the story being yanked into a stairwell from behind a door,” he smiles. “We had a phone call with his friend at the same time. He then heard the rest of the scene, which was, ‘No, no, I don’t… There’s no reason for that!’ Bang — and then dead silence.”
Immersive vs. Interactive
The experience of being inside a SimuLife can actually be surprisingly difficult to articulate. (I chronicled my entire journey in our series The SimuLife Diaries.) Unlike passively watching a television show or movie and empathizing with a character’s struggles, you’re experiencing those struggles yourself and making real-time decisions about how to respond. It’s also different from narrative-based gaming or even most alternate reality games because there’s no safe detachment to be found in familiar mechanics, quest structures, or branching narrative paths. Instead, it’s an emotional experience, as the participant develops what feels like authentic relationships with different characters over the course of the story.
That distinction also illuminates the difference between the catch-all term “immersive entertainment,” and the interactive work Wirth and his team are pursuing. Deep Dive member Joanna Harmon, who played the character of Faith in OpenMind, describes it as the difference between giving an audience agency to explore a story world from a voyeuristic point of view, and the specific feeling that the story itself is responding to a participant’s actions.
The long-running New York production Sleep No More, which gives audience members masks and asks them to explore a creepy hotel while a production of Macbeth unfolds around them, is a classic example of immersive theater. Guests can roam, dig through desks and wardrobes, and witness any story moment they like at any given time, but they can’t actually change anything that happens. An interactive piece like OpenMind, however, is driven by the participant on a much more fundamental level. What they say or do in a given moment determines how the performers will respond next. When I decided to fire an executive at a high-level board meeting, for example, that became part of the fabric of the story — paying off with a dramatic public resignation the following day. There is overlap between immersive and interactive entertainment, but the emotional investment that’s possible in interactive work is striking.
OpenMind began as a joint effort between Interactive Deep Dive and the immersive art collective Meow Wolf, which had a broad presence at this year’s SXSW. A documentary about the group’s origins premiered at the conference, alongside a VR piece called The Atrium, and a sprawling, conference-wide scavenger hunt. “There were a couple of people who were part of that organization, who heard from people who had come and played with the Interactive Deep Dive,” Wirth explains. “They said, ‘It sounds like you’re doing some really interesting stuff with story, and we’d be interested in some kind of collaboration.’”
“What is something that would allow someone to play the imposter?”
Wirth began writing OpenMind in December, working with Deep Dive members Carlo D’Amore and Christy Casey. (D’Amore also directed the project.) “I started from a standpoint of, ‘What would allow someone to play the imposter?’” Wirth says. In past SimuLife experiences, spectactors have been given fictional personas as a way of encouraging them to take risks they might not be willing to take in their ordinary lives. OpenMind’s conceit gave me the opportunity to do that while also playing myself. Some scenes took place in the “real world,” but when I entered the alternate dimension, where people thought I was the villain, Bishop, I could play along with their expectations or reveal the actual truth.
That approach, along with nimble performances from the Deep Dive members playing characters like Bishop’s wife, Faith (Harmon), anti-technology activist Max (Kevin Percival), obnoxious business-bro Blake (Benjamin Nathan-Serio), and an aspiring Verge intern (Paige Keane), successfully created the illusion of a world that operated as a parallel to our own, blurring the lines between fiction and reality until it became difficult to parse the difference emotionally.
That experiential sleight of hand was so effective due to the writing approach and the performance techniques the Deep Dive team has been exploring. OpenMind’s script wasn’t filled with carefully crafted monologues or alternate scenes that could be unlocked depending on what action I took. Instead, it was a structural outline, detailing specific beats or story objectives that had to be reached in a given scene. On my first day, Faith had to convince me to reveal my true identity, for example, but it was up to Harmon to get me to that revelation by playing off my responses and actions in the moment.
It’s improvisation with intent, and while I found it seamless in practice, it requires interactors to not only be active listeners but deft readers of a participant’s tone and mood. One of the best examples in OpenMind came when I walked into my hotel room in Austin — only to discover that I had actually jumped dimensions and was in the villain’s room, where his wife was getting ready for a night out.
“In the hotel room, that scene is written that Faith appears in a towel,” Harmon explains. “Now when I appear in a towel, which is kind of shocking — it’s meant to be shocking — I’m going to see, well, how is this person reacting to this? Is this person turning away? Is this person looking embarrassed? Is this person finding something else to fidget with? Is this person being respectful?”
“I’m going to see, well, how is this person reacting to this?”
Those interpretations aren’t about judging a scene partner, she says; it’s about using the reactions to get a baseline read on the participant that can then inform the ensuing interactions. “Based on that, now I can slowly add in something to the relationship that I’m building [based on] how I’m reading how the spectactor is wanting to play the scene.”
It’s a healthy dose of social psychology, deployed to create a stronger dramatic experience. Throughout OpenMind, our scenes were monitored and recorded for analysis, and any reads or insights would be shared with the rest of the Deep Dive team in the form of nightly debriefs. The way I reacted to certain characters on one day could inform how other interactors would approach me the next, and any unexpected twists — like that surprise firing — could be worked into the storyline moving forward. When all these elements combined, they really did create the sensation of being inside a fully realized fictional world shaped by my actions.
Two Participants Are Better Than One
It may seem counterintuitive that an interactive experience can work when an untrained, unprepared participant is playing such an integral role. We tend to think of “storytelling” in the context of fixed works like novels and TV shows, where a strong authorial voice dictates everything. When participants’ improvisation is helping drive the action, the experience could fall apart if they’re not able to invest or pull their weight. Even members of the Deep Dive team confess they were skeptical prior to working with Wirth. “I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I want more interactive, but I think I want immersive that’s more interactive,” acknowledges Christy Casey, who played a resistance fighter named Jules. “Now, I’m a total convert. Kool-Aid has been drunk.”
That response is likely because the group’s techniques are so effective in empowering spectactors. In OpenMind, one of my favorite characters was Nikita, a calm-under-pressure anti-technology activist who brought reason to the table when her group’s hothead leader, Max, flew off the rails. Nikita was so persuasive that she changed my mind on key decisions, and I assumed she was another member of the Deep Dive team. After the show was over, however, I learned that she was actually another participant like myself.
Before my story even began, Imani Dabney was taken to a secret resistance recruiting meeting and told to throw darts at my picture. (In her dimension, I was the villain, Bishop.) When she called me on the final day, saying she had some leaked documents to share, I had no idea that she had played a scene that morning where she’d stolen those documents. It was an example not only of the impressive stage managing and wrangling that the Deep Dive team was able to pull off, orchestrating multiple participants in multiple locations across the city, but it was also an indicator of just how effective the group was in executing Wirth’s core mission. Dabney and I were both interacting with trained performers and untrained participants, and we couldn’t tell one from the other.
“That’s the most exciting moment — when the interactors aren’t a factor anymore,” Percival tells me. “When they can sit back, and just kind of keep an eye on the process, but let two participants actually work together and play together. Those are, for me, the most fulfilling moments of this work.”
Paying it Forward
The inevitable question about the Deep Dive experience is how it scales to wider audiences or translates into a profitable business venture. But Wirth doesn’t seem particularly interested in that question. (At one point, Ingraham tells me, they did consider offering SimuLife experience to the extremely affluent through the Neiman Marcus “Fantasy Gifts” catalog, though the plan never moved forward.) Instead, Wirth points out that a think tank like Interactive Deep Dive isn’t necessarily about the work it will produce today. It’s about laying the groundwork for the immersive and interactive storytelling that will be made decades from now.
“It’s important to know when you win and lose. It’s also important to allow yourself to be transformed.”
“If there is not a body of knowledge related to interactive story creation, then [once] the technology is doing more than just [showing] things on screens, more than just wearing VR headsets and being tethered or untethered. But where you actually can be living inside a world. If we don’t have that interactive story body of knowledge, what will be created will be primarily interactive games,” he says. “I’m not against interactive games. It’s just that they serve a particular kind of purpose. But there’s another purpose that story serves that is equally important, and it matters to me that we have a balance moving forward. Yeah, it’s important to know when you win and when you lose. It’s also important to allow yourself to be transformed, and that to me is the duality of game and story.”
That statement could be controversial in some quarters, particularly with the way modern games like Gone Home, Tacoma, and Florence are exploring non-traditional frameworks and more interactive, experiential storytelling. But even in those contexts, players still often have a hardwired sense of modern game mechanics. In contrast, when I received my first (and only) instructions for OpenMind, I was specifically told there would be no game mechanics, clues, or puzzles to be solved — and to the project’s credit, that was entirely accurate. This wasn’t a game about unlocking doors or winning a scenario. It was an experience about forming relationships and the impact that had.
But Wirth’s long-term vision requires teaching his particular flavor of interactive performance to as many people as possible — the ultimate mission of the Interactive Deep Dive. And as the group heads toward its final month, that’s where the focus will continue to be. This week, the team will be remounting its show Spirit of the Torch, a five-hour, horror-themed production that will pair seven spectactors with nine interactors. Then, it will be time for the group’s individual members to put up their own projects before parting ways and taking what they’ve learned into the rest of the world.
“We’re developing a program for the re-entry services program here in Austin.”
Harmon will be directing an interactive dance project called Unset, in which audience members will be invited onstage to become lead dancers in improvised movement pieces, supported by a troupe of trained dancers. Kevin Percival and Olivia Jimenez, who both stage-managed OpenMind in addition to playing roles, have education backgrounds and have been developing ways to use interactive performance techniques in learning programs. “Currently, we’re developing a program for the re-entry services program here in Austin,” Percival tells me, with a focus on better equipping those who help former prison inmates transition back into society. “We’re going to do different interview skills trainings, and different ways to practice speaking with someone — actively listening with someone and being on their level when you’re talking to someone — who may have a vastly different background experience from what you’re used to.”
Others, like Casey, see incredible potential not just in the work’s ability to foster empathy, but also in entertainment applications — like adding more personalized, interactive elements to installations like HBO and Giant Spoon’s massive Westworld build, or adding a real-life, interactor element to virtual reality experiences that could give audiences the experience of connecting with living, breathing characters inside virtual worlds. In a very real way, interactive performance as a technique starts sounding like VR, AR, or any other developing immersive technology: it can be applied anywhere, in almost any context, with benefits that even its originators are only now beginning to uncover.
“In every field, we’ve worked with this in, I see people understand how we’re making interactive work that adapts to each person who does it. And it feels very much like, ‘Oh. Of course, that’s where things are going,’” Percival says. “And so my biggest takeaway is how this work isn’t going to stay just in things like a SimuLife. It won’t just be in avant-garde theater. I feel like this work really can be plugged into just about anything. And where you have human interaction, these techniques can be very valuable. It just takes a little bit of code-switching, and a little bit of seeing how interactive you can make things.”