Book review: The Art Of Immersion

Frank Rose W W Norton & Co, £19.99

THIS tremendously lively and clever volume is subtitled: "How the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories."

In truth, it's less fixated on America and less self-confident than that makes it appear.

Rose is an intelligent guide to how technologies have created new opportunities for narrative, and is canny enough to realise that any predictions have short shelf-lives.

The book's conclusion is a paradox as different technologies pull in different directions.

Is the future of entertainment the holodeck, for want of a better word, where Artificial Intelligence and 3D holography create a simulation of a world, or will the "real world", via a variety of apps and across a host of media, become the board on which new forms of entertainment are played?

Rose examines a wide variety of evidence, from the "alternative reality games" that were used to market the Batman film The Dark Knight and the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero, to the interplay between game and film in Avatar and the user-generated content that accompanies Star Wars and Lost.

Often the story shows studios or companies seeking to reassert control - as when people went on to Twitter as characters from Mad Men or user-generated adverts were hijacked by activists - and realising that losing control is often no bad thing, as least as far as balance sheets go.

On more traditional media, Rose is on less secure ground. There's nothing about the Napster/iTunes debacle in music, and the chapter on literature nods at Borges and suffices itself with cataloguing the failure of "choose your own ending" films.

There's nothing on Robert Coover's CAVE project at Brown University, or the ways in which non-linear story is being approached by traditional novelists.

What Rose is extremely good at is insisting that technological change actually matters very little in terms of the basics of storytelling.

If we are looking for a reason why the sci-fi video game Half-Life isn't as compelling as Mark Z Danielewski's unconventional House Of Leaves novel, it lies in emotional engagement.

Yes, there's a dopamine thrill from shooting a pixellated alien; but there's a deeper satisfaction in engaging with the hopes and fears of Navidson, Danielewski's main character.

That technology is changing how we tell stories seems indisputable. The deeper issues lie, still, in the means of production.

Rose is right to insist that emotion matters more than MP3, but very challenging questions remain about who controls the means of production and how creators are paid for creating. Do we want art in the hands of Coca Cola and Nike?

Or worse, that group which has always embraced new technologies and don't appear in the subtitle: the porn industry?

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 20 March, 2011

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