Writing Stories for XR

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I love location-based promenade theatre. I feel immersed in the narrative, surrounded by actors, music and lights. One of my favourite things to do is see if I can break my own suspension of disbelief. When I am aware that I’m not fully engaged with the theatre, and I am in that state of 4th wall curiosity, I actively explore the space and look for the cracks in the set and the gaps in the telling.

The best performances I’ve experienced have rewarded that exploration with small treasures for my wandering eyes. Well placed props, lighting and narrative hooks from eagle-eyed actors catch me exploring and successfully reel me back into the story.

VR Live performance: Tender Claws’ ‘The Under Presents Tempest’

Writing for XR requires writing a detail for every moment the audience exists within the narrative. It’s world-building for people like me who are always looking around, actively discovering their place in a story, instead of just watching it unfold. 

XR means ‘Extended Realities’. It’s a catch-all term that can describe experiences that use virtual or augmented technologies to extend our reality. It can also encompass experiences such as promenade theatre, which use various technologies and techniques to deepen our immersion. Writing for XR is still an experimental endeavour, rules are grafted from other industries and new lessons emerge with each new project.  

Here are 5 tips that may help you write stories for experiences where the audience is always present.

1. Build what feels like an entire world

Build a whole world, not necessarily in minute detail but in the sense of the audience’s perspective, their relationship to the space and characters around them and the wider contexts or laws of the world. The core narrative you’re writing for the experience is just a pathway into the story world for the audience and needs to feel like a living thing.

Ask yourself as many questions as you can about the world you’re building to help you.

For example; When the audience turns their head and they see a fridge behind them, are there any post-it notes on it? Can they open the fridge? Can they open it easily? How can you make the character and contents of the fridge a part of the narrative for the audience? Is there food in there or a penguin dimension? What does the penguin say if the audience prods him? 

2. Be present in the process

Just as your audience, who will be actively present in your story, you also need to be actively present in its creation. 

Narrative isn’t a silo in this production process and you shouldn’t expect the story you’re writing to be the only source material. XR is sometimes a full-body, multi-sensory experience where narrative will be processed by more than the audience’s eyes and ears.

Familiarise yourself with the delivery medium and the technology. Communicate with those in the project who are responsible for the UX or ‘user experience’; they’re the ones who will wrestle the technology to the will and whims of your narrative. Through their work, you’ll be able to understand the nuances of interactivity that will enable your story to be experienced. 

Make time to share perspectives and interpretations and decide how those experiences might influence the project. (Photo by Scott Graham)

3. Treat the interactivity as a scaffold for the narrative.

Once you understand how the audience will be encouraged to experience your story, then you can construct an effective narrative within that scaffold of interactivity. 

Be careful not to do the opposite and build the narrative around the interactivity as the best XR experiences have narrative at the core. Some XR experiences lean on interactivity to drive engagement but don’t allow it to lead the experience. Remember to keep the interactivity as the support.

A good way to make sure you’re keeping the narrative at the core is to always ensure that everyone (audience and makers) are approaching a ‘problem’ of interactivity from a narrative context and that the solution makes narrative sense. Back to the penguin in the fridge. I would try to interact with in by prodding it with my controller, which starts to eject me from the experience. If, however, the narrative asks how I would try to communicate with the penguin and the answer is that I ‘flap’ at him, moving my arms up and down, my controller would become invisible to me and the reward would be the penguin leading me into his cool ice cave. 

4. States of play

XR experiences are unlike games. In games, people are almost always interacting and their experience is almost always active. XR is more nuanced and audiences can sometimes switch, mid experience, between active and passive states of play. 

Depending on the kind of experience your team is building, the core ‘intended’ state of play for the audience can be defined in a way that denotes their active or passivity by describing them as ‘users’, ‘participants’, ‘witnesses’, ‘agents’ or ‘guests’ etc. 

Knowing this core tenant of interactivity is a useful tool for you to help structure your story amongst the interactivity. As a ‘guest’ in the penguins ice cave, an audience will have different narrative contexts for their engagement than an audience who might be described as ‘explorers’. 

Despite  a core tenant for us makers, the audience may not be privy to this but, even if they are, people will switch their state of play. Inexplicably, a person might become passive in an experience where the story is structured around them being active and vice versa. My advice for this phenomenon is to try and write in moments of reprieve for those people who might switch but, when in doubt, just write the fullest experience you can.

There is, at present, no standardised system of planning for XR experiences and many projects reinvent the wheel. You should seek advice from those who have gone before. (Photo by Startaê Team)

Understanding at which points people in an experience will likely switch from passive to active states of play is hard but it usually coincides with the level of intended immersion. 

You can try and force a switch of states. Games do this all the time by inserting cinematic sequences in between periods of gameplay but it’s hard to get right in XR experiences.

5. Levels of immersion

Many XR experiences involve multiple senses and need a certain level of immersion for people to feel the most engaged and allow themselves to solely focus on the story rather than the fact they’re wearing a VR headset, for example. We are always looking to create artificial flow states for those present in our experiences.

A tool to help you distil your XR writing into a flow state guide is a simple visualisation to map out the main beats or acts of the narrative onto a line that ramps, plateaus and slopes down again. The line represents the ideal immersion level for an audience throughout an experience.

The Ramp & Slope of the immersive experience
(Harrison Willmott)

People may always be in states of flow and so, when we want them to engage in XR experiences, we can guide their transition by gradually easing them into it. It’s a tough, careful and controlled process, which is why pushing them up a ramp seems like a fitting metaphor.

Once they’re in immersive flow, it’s relatively easy to keep them there until we want them to stop but we can’t just eject them from the experience as that can ruin the whole thing. The slope is a gradual, careful and considerate exit from immersive flow that enables the audience to properly process and appreciate what they’ve just been a part of.

You can assign the beats or acts of your narrative to any point on the immersive ramp and slope as though you were chronologically planning out a traditional story. The difference with this is that you can use the level of the line to help you determine the narrative’s immersiveness and from there you can extract more details about how your narrative may be experienced at each stage or act. 

Typically, at the start, the narrative may begin at the first moment an audience hears about an experience, where the immersive level is at the lowest. As you begin to guide the audience up the ramp, either through marketing of the experience or perhaps this is during a tutorial or loading screen, the immersiveness is still slowly rising and your writing will need to be delicate and intriguing, designed to entice and convert a person from curious to engaged. 

As you ascend the audience over the precipice and into the plateau of full immersion, you can really begin to flex your writing, surrounding them in a rich world of wonder and brilliance. As you prepare them for the gradual and controlled descent down the slope and out of immersion, perhaps this is an excellent time for an epilogue or fun little extras. This kind of thinking when it comes to writing feels as though you are writing the whole campaign for an experience but the experience for the audience isn’t just the bit where they’re in the headset or in the theatre. An XR audience begins their immersive journey for an experience from the moment they hear about it all the way to when they’re sharing their experience with friends and family afterwards. You should try to extend your writing to be alongside them for their whole immersive journey.

Even if you just take on one of the five tips I’ve written above, you will be well on your way to writing an exceptional XR experience. 

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The Writing Platform will feature a series of articles on virtual, augmented and mixed reality between July and September 2021. Get in touch if you’d like to propose an article. 

Harrison Willmott is a multidisciplinary creative working across a spectrum of industries including immersive filmmaking, XR and flat media production. One of his passions is enabling and encouraging more people to start creating for the immersive industry. He’s also a digital artist making works themed on introspection and mental health by playing with photogrammetry, VR sculpture and motion graphics. 

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