This article is cross-posted from Caro Murphy’s original post here.
Disclaimer: There is probably never going to be an entirely perfect and universally accepted paradigm for the “Immersive Arts” industry, but since this is a burgeoning and blossoming field, I’m attempting to condense my own thoughts about it here. Disagreement is encouraged and applauded, just know that I’m likely to not respond to every single new argument or classification posited. This helps me think about things, your mileage may vary, and that’s okay. Perfect is the enemy of the good and we’ve gotta start somewhere. Escape Rooms are not well represented here, but thought about a little in the addendum. This diagram also does not at all include transmedia experiences like ARGs and asynchronous online storytelling games and again, that’s not my angle here. Those things are absolutely included, I just can’t fit them into this 2-dimensional representation. A z-axis having to do with format/delivery medium probably would be appropriate for this at some point, and I encourage future thinkers to expand on this.
When I think about the field in which I am currently developing work, have often been thinking of it as where games intersect with theater.
From Games: Interaction Mechanics
When considering the art from this perspective, it’s easy to think about it in terms of interaction mechanics. Rules, in some cases, to arbitrate conflicting goals. Randomizers like dice, sometimes, to simulate uncertainty. Democratic process, in other cases, to vote on outcomes. Puzzles, to gate experiences. Honestly, interaction mechanics could get an entire book’s worth of philosophizing and still prove insufficient.
From Theater: Characters, Relationships, Setting… Scenes
From the theatrical perspective, I often think about things in term of the dramatic elements that create show– especially scenes, characters and relationships. Well realized characters with interesting relationships within a richly developed environment often -creates- scene. Scene can be spectacle, or it can be subtle. Outside of improvisation, most theater has a lot of the theatrical elements literally scripted, practiced, rehearsed with technical lighting, sound, etc, in order to support and create excellent scene.
In essence, I had bee thinking about it in terms of the very crunchy interaction mechanics on one side of the house, and the very lyrical theatrical elements on the other side.
Now, I’m thinking about it in slightly more robust terms.
Now I’ll talk about my definitions for these labels!
X-Axis: Audience/Participant Agency
We use a lot of different terms for the people who experience the art as ticket-holders. In theater, commonly they’re called audience. In LARP they’re often called Player Characters or players. For this, I went with Audience/Participant since it covers the transition from passive to active that comes with the increasing agency.
By agency, I mean the participant’s ability to have their interactions impact the outcomes of the story.
Y-Axis: Transportative Physical Environment
Is transportative a real word? It is for me! (Language is constantly evolving, come with me please.) What I mean by this is that the environment itself creates a sense of being elsewhere: no longer in the relative world we all perceive daily (as if even what constitutes that could be agreed upon…) but in an imaginary world.
By physical environment, I mean that the actual physical setting, whether fabricated or simply production-hacked to use real-world environs.
This is not to say that blackbox settings cannot provide transformation or that elsewhere feeling– obviously they can. This is just to cover the range from total undecorated to highly decorous physical sets when talking about the immersive arts.
Traditional Theater – This category is by no means all inclusive of all the many many many different types of theater. It favors proscenium theater and more or less ignores less well-known or niche forms like Brechtian. It’s there as a placeholder by which we can compare other forms in the interactive arts.
Immersive Art Exhibits – This category is one I decided to include because of the fact that SO many of these types of events have been cropping up around the west. Usually they’re gorgeous projector-mapped and sculpted environments with varying degrees of participation or interaction available for guests. There’s not usually story about the participant, they’re the recipient of someone else’s story.
Environmental Theater – This category is, in my mind, the babiest of steps into participant agency. The environment is usually robust and sometimes site-specific, but there’s no real way for audiences to influence story our outcomes. Maybe they can say hello to characters, but that’s about it. I’d put a show like Lenox Avenue in this camp.
Immersive Theater – This category is where a lot of big industry successes have come from like Sleep No More and Then She Fell. Audiences are usually given limited agency such as the choice of movement (sometimes within limits, sometimes with greater freedom). They may be pulled into side-experiences that not everyone gets to see. They are brought into the story as vehicles for the characters to deliver story, but not as full characters themselves. This type of theater has a heavy emphasis on the environment.
Participatory Theater – This category is pretty typically seen in theme park entertainment. Audiences are encouraged to participate in a variety of ways: clapping along, calls and responses, cheering for their hero and booing for the other, dressing in theme, etc. There may even be elements of audience improvisation such as being brought up onstage to perform stunts or jokes with the characters. But again, audience members are limited in how they can influence. I’d posit that most forms of improv are also participatory theater. Medieval Times and Hoop Dee Doo Review also come to mind as examples of this category.
Interactive Theater – This category is an exciting and emerging form in recent years. It usually heavily encourages audiences to participate and has a variety of interactions that level to what many different guests enjoy, encompassing the ability for guests to create full-fledged characters engaged in story and interaction mechanics, or simply to be observers, and all levels in between. Of course, it still has scripted elements, and as a result may have merely the illusion of choice, or outcomes limited to just a few potentials, like a choose-your-own-adventure type of story. Often there are elements to be solved with the participant’s help that cannot be solved without them– puzzles or role-played interactions.
Live Action Roleplaying – This category is so vast I could not possibly summarize it. Larpforms are as vast and varied as any art. I would like to propose, however, that good larps are player-centric, co-creative, emergent, and have undefined outcomes because those outcomes are infinite, and responsive to player needs and desires.
Addendum: I’m also now thinking that the mechanical-to-theatrical axis sort’ve exists (perhaps within many of these categories) but notably Interactive Theater and larp. Like a chart within the chart. I love charts.
Many escape rooms might fall more on the mechanics side of Interactive Theater where things like Club Drossemeyer and Galactic Starcruiser fall farther towards the theatrical side, and escape rooms like those from Strange Bird would be somewhere in the middle.