Review: The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, by Frank Rose

>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

Hyperlink films, like hyperlinks themselves, are really about simultaneity—the sense that you can be seeing one thing and instantly switch to something else that’s occurring at the same time. At some basic level, the implication is that we exist in a multiverse. Simultaneity as the salient fact of our culture long predates the Internet. It was television that got people acclimated to the idea—especially after remote controls started to proliferate in the seventies. But simultaneity predates even broadcasting. It began with the nineteenth-century inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, who gave us the telephone; and Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the development of alternating current.

“The greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, “that ended sequence by making things instant.” That ended sequence: from that point on, McLuhan was saying, the demise of sequential narrative was inevitable.

***

Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion occupies an interesting cross-section between marketing and art—more specifically, the production of art. Throughout history, the two have not always been so intimately entwined, but we live now in an age where they are, in fact, inseparable.

The water cooler concept is at the heart of Rose’s argument—the understanding that as individuals, we (a broad percentage of us, at least) want to somehow participate in our world and the narratives constructed therein. Often that participation is passive (watching television, reading a book), but Rose’s thesis shows that passive role turning active. Through things like Alternate/Augmented Reality gaming (real-world treasure hunts), Web 2.0-based social immersion (Twitter, Facebook, and blogging), and the crossing of mediums in ways that have not before been achieved, storytelling has changed, and is still changing, dramatically.

In many cases, the narrative implications are minimal, and it is the social element—the marketing language, distribution, and social delineation—that is seeing the largest push. Using the Why So Serious? alternate reality game that led to participants, after jumping through a series of real-world hoops, to being given a glimpse of 2008’s The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s Joker before anyone else was an early successful example of the sort of event posited by Jane McGonigal in her 2011 book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Games (video games, specifically), though often lacking in terms of narrative construction and development, offer a feeling of accomplishment that few other artistic mediums do—a sense that, as a player, the individual has played a part in the telling of a narrative. Whether or not that narrative was decided in full prior to the gamer’s involvement changes depending on the type of game being played—an open-world role-playing game versus a platformer, for example—but the rewards, to a large degree, remain the same: a heightened sense of immersion in the story being told. In the case of The Dark Knight, individuals participating in the Why So Serious? game did not, of course, have any direct impact on the film’s actual narrative, but their actions involved them in what eventually became a blockbuster cultural experience—and their voices, from that initial screening, bled into the cultural hive mind, playing part and parcel with the film’s marketing message regarding Ledger’s final performance and its cinematic impact.

While alternate reality games involve human interaction on a grand physical scale, smaller digital pushes are also being made. Twitter, for example, played host during Mad Men’s infancy to individuals writing as its main characters—in their voices, in their time period. This was an unexpected event: free detailed marketing, of a sort, by fans of the show. Offering individuals both the chance to be creative as well as to extend their preferred cultural and narrative sandbox, several companies and studios have learned to encourage these types of viewer interactions, seeing them as a means of drawing in a larger crowd by allowing for the infinite expansion, sometimes beyond their control, of their initial creative concept.

Going even further are the cultural touchstones like Lost, which have adopted the Easter egg approach: hiding extra content within the program itself, encouraging (but not demanding) audience participation. By seeking out and researching seemingly innocuous clues, such as a specific book seen in one shot, or a piece of art or a statue seen in another, and by telling their story in a non-linear manner, the creators and writers of Lost courted audience sleuthing on a grand scale, without ever making the extra material necessary for the casual viewer to understand the larger narrative. In the process they created a narrative of differing dimensions: a surface-level battle between good and evil on an island of mystery for the casual audience; and a deeper, semiotic-laced discussion for those wanting to dive in to attempt to discover the hidden meanings and mysteries yet revealed.

In The Art of Immersion, Rose posits this level of immersion, be it for creative desires or for the needs of a marketing department, as the future of narratives. What isn’t covered to the same extent, unfortunately, is the possibility that, for some, employment of too many devices in too many different ways might in fact damage the sense of immersion—case in point, a television show or a book holding key details from the audience in an effort to shepherd them to a website or online resource to fill in the blanks. It’s one thing to encourage a deeper level of immersion by offering these as possible but inessential elements, but another thing altogether to provide only a partial to a larger narrative, leaving firm details, or possibly even a conclusion, to another medium altogether. Though the possibilities that stem from the immersive activities Rose outlines are incredible, there is also the chance that some may feel left out in the cold, not wanting to divide their attention from the one thing they hoped would provide a fulfilling experience—it would be as if the climax of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows cut off mid-sentence with the final resolution available online or as a downloadable video or PDF… one cannot sacrifice narrative momentum and integrity for the sake of the multiverse-based marketing push. It is a bit of a slippery slope, which, admittedly, we are still figuring out. However, the potential for greatness—for using people, not non-interactive advertising, to encourage, examine, and accentuate narrative going forward—is there.

What we are entering into with respect to artistic and narrative expression, what Rose sees as our future going forward, is an accelerated form of the thesis given in Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art—not only is art made and given meaning through society’s influence, but now it is being pushed, promoted, and generally affected and given additional weight—often while still in progress—by the very people for whom it is made. In this sense, the creators are looking more and more like instigators, setting forth a plate of ideas for relentless consumption and redistribution.

The Art of Immersion is essential reading for anyone in a creative field. It’s a strong first step to gaining a better understanding of where society and culture is taking our art, whether we want to accept it or not.

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