Rose's new book, The Art of Immersion, provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look into the conception, creation, and promotion of many products of popular media from Christopher Nolan's film The Dark Knight to Xbox's Halo; from George Lucas' Star Wars suite to the Nine Inch Nails' album Year Zero; from ABC's Lost to Evan Williams' sites Blogger and Twitter.
Yet for all of its contemporary pop culture references and social media anecdotes, The Art of Immersion feels quite dated. His thesis ("A new type of narrative is emerging--one that's sold through many media at once in a way that's non-linear, that's participatory and often gamelike, and that's designed above all to be immersive.") is obvious to even the most technologically un-savvy reader. Nearly everyone, from Topeka, Kansas to Tokyo, Japan has understood that intuitively (if not explicitly) for 10 years.
I enjoyed reading the first few chapters in which Rose discusses the transformation of media and the creation of increasingly immersive worlds through the advancement of the technology, content and delivery method of newer forms of media. Rose outlines a rough sketch from the invention of the printing press and moveable type to the advent of the motion picture to the seductive glow of the living room television to the immersive and participatory "deep media" of the Internet. Yet as I continued to read, I kept waiting for the book to "start".
Each new chapter felt like a slight regurgitation of the one before it; each felt like an introduction to the theme, yet the book never fully developed the theme. True to his subtile, Rose answered How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way we Tell Stories. But each chapter begs the questions: WHY? What effect does this have on our culture? Are there any positive or negative consequences? What can we expect for the future of media? Etc. Rose's point that media has changed to be more immersive is obvious and could have been articulated clearly in an introduction. I hoped he would go deeper.
The Art of Immersion is interesting at points and offers its readers great tidbits about their favorite television shows, films, music, and websites. But it left this reader wanting more.
"The Internet is trying very, very hard to tell us." That quote is from Elan Lee, one of the early pioneers of Alternate Reality Games. Lee created I Love Bees to promote the Xbox game Halo 2, and was part of the 42 Entertainment team (along with Alex Lieu and Susan Bonds) behind Year Zero, which engaged thousands of Nine Inch Nails fans in the creation of a story around the album of the same name.
The quote above quote appears in Frank Rose's new book, The Art of Immersion, due out in February 2011. Rose, a long time contributing editor at Wired, where he's covered everything from the fall of the music industry to the impact of digital technology on television, offers an assessment of where story-telling is going in an age when narratives are no longer linear and more often than not are told, or at least informed, by the participation of a consumer community.
Rose labels this "deep media." Story-telling that offers an immersive experience. It refers to everything from the online audiences that gathered on their own to decipher the convoluted plot line of Lost, to the MadMen fans who hijacked the show's characters in the form of Twitter personas, playing Don and Betty true to their `60s personas.
To his credit, Rose doesn't simply regurgitate examples of current entertainment and gaming industry campaigns like Avatar or Grand Theft Auto. He frames the challenges and emerging formulas in light of all the story telling changes that have come before, from the serialized novels of Dickens, to the early breakthroughs created by D.W. Griffith that gave film its own identity as a medium, to the trans-media narratives about which Henry Jenkins writes so intelligently.
Multiple themes emerge in Rose's book. The first is that conventional entertainment doesn't work they way it used to. We know that just from looking at the numbers. Box office sales, DVD sales, music sales have all plummeted in recent years.
Secondly, the command and control world of the author (or auteur in the film world) is over. As soon as the audience can step in, create content and direct, the old model crumbles.
Three, stories and games have become more inextricably linked than ever. A game may never be able to offer the full "sensory wallop" of a motion picture, but they certainly allow the viewer to insert himself directly into the experience. Given the desire to participate, games become a magical way to connect and influence.
And four, it's normal for there to be confusion and even resistance as a new definition of story telling develops and movie makers, publishers and ad agencies all struggle to figure it out.
One of my favorite quotes in the book, memorable to any film student of the 70s or 80s, is from Jean Luc Godard, the French New Wave director whose approach to story telling challenged Hollywood and even French convention. Asked if a story shouldn't have a beginning, middle and end, he answered, "Of course, just not necessarily in that order."
Today's question might be, "Shouldn't every story have an author?" The answer might be, "Of course, but why limit it to one."
I wanted a lot from this book, but didn't get quite enough to satisfy. I was surprised that Mr. Rose had a lot of discussion about various television shows, including 'Lost' and 'The Office', yet not even a mention of a true pioneering web show like 'The Guild'. And can we have a discussion of the digital generation without an in depth examination of The World of Warcraft phenomenon? It gets a one page mention.
I felt at several times that I was being told what was 'cool' in the digital universe. I had hoped for a more careful examination of the art of immersion, less a history lesson on how mainstream media tries to make money off the marriage of old technology and new.
I would, however, recommend this book on the strength of just one chapter, 'Control'. In it Mr. Rose examines piracy and controlling copyright in this digital age. I would go so far as to say that politicians should have to read this chapter before saying one damn word on digital piracy.
Guy L. Gonzalez
The Art of Immersion is a much-needed bridge to/from Henry Jenkins' seminal Convergence Culture, as Frank Rose crafts an engaging, insightful overview of how storytelling has evolved in the digital age that's accessible to all, whether enthusiast or skeptic. Focusing primarily on the intersection of film, TV and gaming, there are plenty of takeaways and insights of interest to writers and publishers, too.
Unlike most transmedia advocates, myself included, Rose focuses on immersion and depth of story, rather than just the primacy of STORY itself, offering a variety of compelling examples. Among them, his contrast between Star Wars and Avatar is on point, and I enjoyed his emphasis on marketing and engagement vs. interruption advertising; it's a key aspect that gets overlooked in most discussions about transmedia.
The final three chapters delve into the science of immersion, with some really interesting info, though Rose's take on Twitter is surprisingly simplistic and disconnected from earlier references in the book. Particularly interesting is the Lanier-ish (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage)) cautionary tone he ends the book on, somewhat surprising coming from one of the Wired crew.
All in all, a great read, and highly recommended.
NOTE: A complimentary copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, W.W. Norton.
This book fascinated me from start to finish. It examines how readers and viewers are now immersed in our fictions in ways that previous generations could never have imagined. For anyone curious about how tales are now marketed, and how readers and viewers become participants in fictional worlds, this is a must read.