x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Trendspotting: Narratives take shape

Digital technologies have changed our lives; now they're set to change the stories we tell, too.

We homosapiens are the storytelling animal. Stories are, and always have been, the central device by which we understand ourselves and find meaning in the disparate set of experiences that we call life.

It's no surprise, then, that when it comes to the state and future of our storytelling, there is no shortage of opinion. The literary novel is dying thanks to an ever-shrinking readership. Cinema has calcified around the billion-dollar action-hero franchise (ideally inspired by a Marvel comic). Television drama is amid a golden age thanks to cinema's aforementioned slump and the inspirational example of The Sopranos.

There's more than a little truth in all of the above. But when it comes to the future of storytelling, there are even more important forces at work. That is, the ways in which the story is being transformed by new technologies that will, observers say, allow entirely different and immensely powerful new forms.

Of course, every revolution has to start somewhere. The new kinds of stories we're seeing now only hint at the full potential of this transformation. Take books: we know that the paper book is going the way of the vinyl record but what will the rise of the digital book do to fiction? Interactive, multiplatform and multimedia seem part of the answer. Look to Shuffle by James Raydel, an innovative ebook consisting of seven connected stories that can be read in any order. Or Michael Grant's teen-fiction novel BZRK, launched alongside a complementary digital experience that included a mobile app, scripted videos, an interactive comic and online social game.

TV and movies are also in the process of adopting new, digital-age shapes. See the work of Fourth Wall Studios (fourthwallstudios.com); their Emmy-award winning series Dirty Work about a Los Angeles crime-scene clean-up crew reaches audience members in multiple ways including online video, mobile phone audio message and SMS message.

Meanwhile, the UK's BBC is experimenting with a set of technologies called Perceptive Media, which can tailor broadcast content to audience members so that a soap opera, for example, might roll out one storyline for a viewer who is 25, unmarried and lives in London and another for someone who is 55, married and lives in Scotland.

So much for the near future. What about the medium term? Expect the boundaries between film and video games to blur so that a new storytelling form - entirely interactive, yet driven by narrative - takes shape. Already, 3D first-person shooter video games such as Bioshock (www.2kgames.com/bioshock), which takes place in an underwater city called Rapture and features a complex storyline about human genetic enhancement - are offering increasingly cinematic experiences.

The ultimate end point, surely, is total immersion: a media so tangible, so "real" that it feels like life itself.

Virtual reality was a big idea in the 1990s but back then the technology wasn't ready and the industry stalled. There are signs now, though, that it's coming back: check out the Oculus Rift (www.oculusvr.com), a virtual-reality video game headset set to launch soon that offers immersive video game experiences (check out the myriad YouTube video demos for more). The implications for storytellers are vast; pretty soon, we'll all be immersed.

David Mattin is lead strategist at www.trendwatching.com

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