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Living In A Story - What Is Experience Fiction?
"'Major,' said he, 'did you ever, as you walked along the empty street upon some idle afternoon, feel the utter hunger for something to happen--something, in the splendid words of Walt Whitman: 'Something pernicious and dread; something far removed from a puny and pious life; something unproved; something in a trance; something loosed from its anchorage, and driving free.' Did you ever feel that?'
'Certainly not,' said the Major shortly."
G. K. Chesterton in 1905 wrote the short story "The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown" as part of his popular collection The Club of Queer Trades (read the text or listen to the audio freely). In it he presciently describes, maybe for the first time, a type of fiction that is designed to be told and experienced in the medium of reality itself. While most stories are read, listened to, or watched, these stories come to life all around the participant. Something we call Experience Fiction (XF).
What is experience fiction?
Experience Fiction is, in its most simple definition, a class of fiction told primarily in the medium of active reality. A wide range of story forms would fit this definition including ARGs, augmented reality stories, types of interactive theater, location based stories, etc.
Mr Northover from The Adventure and Romance Agency in Mr. Chesterton's story begins his description of his unusual business as follows:
"It has continually struck us that there is no element in modern life that is more lamentable than the fact that the modern man has to seek all artistic existence in a sedentary state. If he wishes to float into fairyland, he reads a book; if he wishes to dash into the thick of battle, he reads a book; if he wishes to soar into heaven, he reads a book; if he wishes to slide down the banisters, he reads a book. We give him these visions, but we give him exercise at the same time, the necessity of leaping from wall to wall, of fighting strange gentlemen, of running down long streets from pursuers--all healthy and pleasant exercises."
A hundred or so years later a nascent but growing industry has now sprung up around the production of these kinds of living stories. From Chesterton's humble Club of Queer Trades the practitioners of this unusual craft have spread out to advertising houses, movie studios, and transmedia production companies around the world. Experience Fiction is a new and evolving class of stories that is finding a dedicated and growing audience as it begins to discover its true potential.
Stories in "reality"
It might seem strange to think of reality as a medium and even stranger to think of using it to tell stories, but in fact reality is the original and default medium. The stories we know of our friends, families, co-workers, and ourselves happen in reality. They are revealed to us through actions, events, experience, and even through other media. For instance when a friend is sick we find out through conversations, emails, tweets, posts, and other media in addition to direct contact and observations. This is the way we know about events and each other. Not only do we easily construct for ourselves, out of a myriad of input, a perfectly understandable time-line and integrated knowledge of our stories but we understand that we are, or could make ourselves, a part of them. We know that we can act to intervene and join in with the ongoing stories of the world around us. This is how we experience life.
The only difference between our day to day stories and Experience Fiction is that experience stories have been created for the purposes of fiction.
To learn more about using reality as a storytelling medium read our presentation on the topic here.
Living in a story
"The Adventure and Romance Agency has been started to meet a great modern desire. On every side, in conversation and in literature, we hear of the desire for a larger theatre of events for something to waylay us and lead us splendidly astray. Now the man who feels this desire for a varied life pays a yearly or a quarterly sum to the Adventure and Romance Agency; in return, the Adventure and Romance Agency undertakes to surround him with startling and weird events. As a man is leaving his front door, an excited sweep approaches him and assures him of a plot against his life; he gets into a cab, and is driven to an opium den; he receives a mysterious telegram or a dramatic visit, and is immediately in a vortex of incidents."
The fact that experience fiction uses reality as its primary medium leads to two other qualities that are unique to the medium of reality
The first is that in experience fiction the story or storyworld exists "at the same level" as the participants. Just like in life, everything that happens in an experience story happens in the same world as the participants, while they are participating at least. In a book it is impossible to interact with the characters, the settings, or affect the plot. In Experience Fiction the barrier between the audience and the story is gone.
To illustrate the difference, in traditional theater, even though a play is acted out live, in physical reality, it is depicting a world and events that are happening in a fictional place that can not be "reached" by the audience. In experience fiction the characters, the events, and the physical world is open to whatever actions the participant chooses to take. If some event is taking place in the story, it is taking place in the same world as the participant and there is always the chance that they will interact.
Creating stories "at the same level" does not mean that essentially linear stories can not be told however. The amount of control a participant has over a story in experience fiction is up to the creators. In our every day lives there are a lot of things we have no control over either and we don't expect to. The weather, other people, world events, etc. The difference is that even though we can't change the path of a storm in reality, traditional fiction, or in experience fiction, in experience fiction we are affected by it in a way that a storm in other media can not affect us. We can feel it, smell it, and it may change our plans, or experience, or our story in surprising ways.
"At the same level" also doesn't mean that there can not be elements in the story that are "mediated" as long as we can react to them just as we do in reality. For instance if a character in an experience story is a 3D augmented reality character, that will work fine as long as we can interact with them.
The other major quality of experience fiction is that our perspective seems to be "set". We are all our own protagonist in EF. We see a larger story, and may play other characters and roles, but it must be from our perspective and our perspective only. Maybe some day as the art advances we will be freed from this but for now it is both a major strength and a limitation of the medium. Reality is single player. No matter what role we play we are the protagonist. The strength of this also partly has to do with the drive towards the medium. No other medium has the power to transform us as directly as reality does.
What drives the urge for experience fiction?
The desire to experience fictional stories in reality is almost ubiquitous. Who, as a child, didn't want to live out their favorite stories? Children throughout the ages have pretended to be heroes or villains, racing through backyards, allies, or woods while dreaming and fighting imaginary battles.
When children play this way they are not just entertaining themselves but starting to write their own story of who they will be. They may be a hero one day or a villain the next. By playing these roles out they get to experience new ways to feel and think and act. When a child wraps themselves in a character it is an opportunity to change themselves. For instance, a child who pretends to be Batman in order to get home after dark unafraid, wont just feel braver, they will become and act braver. They will do things they can only do while "being Batman" but they will be able keep those accomplishments for themselves. Long after they stop pretending to be Batman they will still be unafraid of the dark. That change in perspective is theirs to keep.
As we grow older we take on other roles. Teachers, police officers, mothers, etc. Before long we forget they are, at least partially, roles that can be changed, or played much differently. We get fewer and fewer chances to experiment with new sides of ourselves. We read books, we see movies, we play games, but our opportunity to actually go out into the world and try on new ways of being and being seen diminish. In experience fiction we get to play, not just with a story, but with our own story.
Studies have shown that just a few minutes playing in VR simulations with taller, better looking, avatars can increase confidence well after the game is over and carry on into the real world. Imagine how much more potential there is in actually experiencing the physical world in a new way for days at a time?
In these stories we can cast off the core roles we have adopted for ourselves and try on new roles, experiencing new versions of ourselves with no consequences outside of the story. By playing ourselves in different roles it helps us to see the stories and roles we have already written for ourselves in our "real life". It allows us to question and re-write our own visions of who we are and bring elements of those fictional versions of ourselves back to our core personality.
The difference between childhood pretending and experience fiction may only be that in experience fiction the creator is someone else. An artist who can create a true sense of the unknown and challenge us in ways that our own imaginations can not. The world becomes magical again, full of genuine surprise. When we explore an old house it is full of mysteries. When we find a lost key, it leads somewhere wonderful. When we dig for buried treasure in the sand, there is a treasure to be found.
Experience fiction is just starting to find its place and its practitioners. As the medium becomes easier to share, distribute, and even broadcast it will become a very popular story form with its own set of effects that no other form can duplicate.
It is fitting to let the fictional Mr. Northrop finish his own vision of what Experience Fiction has to offer his clients.
"We give him a glimpse of that great morning world of Robin Hood or the Knights Errant, when one great game was played under the splendid sky. We give him back his childhood, that godlike time when we can act stories, be our own heroes, and at the same instant dance and dream."
Note on the term "experience fiction"
Experience Fiction is a descriptive term and is obviously meant to put focus on the "experiential" nature of the medium of reality. Even if the reality itself is "virtual" the experience of the participant is the key to its nature. Calling it "reality fiction" might be more accurate technically but it feels confusing and oxymoronic to many. The term also helps to distance these kind of stories from a "transmedia" or "transmedia storytelling" label which is a more general term and takes away from the idea of a unified story being told in a unified medium. We have been abbreviating it as ExF or even XF.
(Credits: All quotes are from "The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown" and the illustrations are by its author, G.K. Chesterton)