Storytelling is at the cusp of a revolution.
New media is relentlessly heading toward a future that is completely immersive, interactive and—most exciting of all—designed to please all five senses.
From Facebook’s hefty investments in virtual reality technology to the production of real-time holographic displays, communication technology is steamrolling its way to what we once thought was the stuff of sci-fi movies and nothing more.
Although we have some ways to go until we teleport ourselves directly to where the news is happening—scientists actually believe this is a possibility—for now, both mainstream and alternative media are diving headfirst into the production of interactive and immersive stories.
To find out how you can incorporate some of these awesome storytelling techniques into your own content, check out our picks of the most breathtaking interactive narratives we’ve found across the Web.
If you want to be blown away with an unconventional storytelling experience, enter the world of The Boat. Complete with howling wind sound effects and text and images that sway and jolt—giving you the feeling of being inside a real refugee boat—this interactive graphic novel allows you to walk a mile in a Vietnamese refugee’s shoes.
It also teaches you a thing or two about masterful storytelling:
First, stories must be crafted in such a way as to seamlessly integrate different medium forms. If done right, viewers forget they’re reading text, listening to sound effects, looking at visuals and scrolling down all at the same time and begin to experience it as a whole. Each form contributes a different and new piece of information and ties in naturally with the rest of elements.
Second, old and new media can be combined to give birth to innovative hybrid forms. Reminiscent of traditional comic books, the story’s animated ink panels—with speech bubbles that appear as the reader scrolls down—contain images that were actually made with real paper, a calligraphy brush and ink.
For a surprisingly intimate and first-person account of what it’s like to live through a devastating tornado, check out After the Storm. A masterpiece of digital storytelling, this short interactive piece is told by an independent film maker who lived through the deadly tornado that destroyed Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 2011.
By artfully combining audio narration with full-screen video, music and animation, this piece appeals not only to our eyes and ears, but also to our sense of touch through the interactive experience of scrolling and clicking through scenes in unison with the narrator’s actions, such as turning the pages of an album or viewing pictures in a camera. It provides a completely immersive experience for the reader—just short of actually living through a storm.
One important storytelling principle seen here is that telling a story from a personal, first-person perspective is almost always more provocative and compelling than a third-person account. While this has always held true for text-based stories, it is taken to a whole new level here. The intimate narration and the videos shot completely from the narrator’s perspective multiply this effect.
“Turn up your sound. Watch. Read. Participate. Share.” This is how this interactive project reels its viewers in from the outset.
With the promise of allowing the audience to actively participate in this story, this innovative piece creatively weaves together documentaries, text, polls and infographics. Viewers can choose what they want to watch or do next and are asked to either condemn or absolve certain “digital sins” of these times, such as posting selfies or googling your name.
The lesson here is to involve the user, termed by many media scholars as a “produser” of content rather than a passive consumer. Giving the user the power to decide the course of the story, determine its outcome and share their results with others are some of the hallmarks of modern interactive storytelling.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” —Robert McKee
An interactive project made mostly with animated infographics and stunning data visualizations, The Fallen of World War II is both visually compelling and moving.
Although numbers of war casualties on a page hardly move readers nowadays, this documentary does an excellent job of using sophisticated data visualizations to add meaning to these figures and compare them to the human losses of other world conflicts.
If you want to learn more about creating animated infographics that move audiences, then this is a definite must-see.
A key takeaway from watching this short 15-minute piece is that when you place large numbers in a wider context, they become much more significant. Also, the infographics use detailed cut-outs of people to humanize them, frequently zooming in on them throughout the story to remind the viewer that they were more than just numbers.
A unique combination of interactive story, longform journalism and online game, Rebuilding Haiti is groundbreaking in its coverage of the tragic aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti.
By allowing the reader to make choices concerning the way authorities will rebuild the country, the project successfully involves the audience in the convoluted intricacies of social problems such as famine, homelessness and poverty.
The message? Reality is much messier than we think.
Although some might balk at the idea of turning a complex, tragic issue into a game, the creators insist that games are just another tool to communicate ideas and are not necessarily limited to trivial matters.
The storytelling lesson here is that the old boundaries regarding storytelling mediums have been completely blurred. Bottom-line: Anything goes as long as it gets the point across.
On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, the National Geographic Channel was able to attract widespread media attention with this awe-inspiring interactive piece.
Using a split-screen format to simultaneously tell the stories of Lee Harvey Oswald and JFK until they converge one fateful day, this perfectly synchronized piece uses audio, video and images to communicate an oft-told story in an unprecedented way.
The storytelling lesson here is that although an eye-catching animation in and of itself cannot turn a bad story into a good one, when it is combined with the age-old nuts and bolts of good stories—like a creative and well-thought-out storyline—then the results are truly memorable.
“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.” –J.K. Rowling
Virtual reality is the future of storytelling and the mainstream media is already getting their feet wet.
The Des Moines Register, for example, already published this piece which features an interactive view of a farm in Iowa. Designed specifically to be used with the Oculus VR headset, this immersive story allows the viewer to navigate an exact reproduction of the farm. In this virtual environment, the user can walk around and explore the field, watch 360-degree videos and browse through images.
The takeaway here? Storytelling is experiencing a revolution and—like with all communication revolutions in the past—the appearance of a new medium drastically change the way stories are told. Although the first few virtual reality stories will probably still be stuck in a made-for-Web mindset, the next years will bring plenty of new and unforeseen applications.
An ambitious project which attempts to question people’s beliefs about war, this virtual reality story was also designed to be used with the Oculus VR headset.
By placing people in the middle of a face-to-face encounter between fighters belonging to opposing sides, this experience is designed to humanize those who have been viewed as the enemy for so long.
This project gives an inkling of what’s to come in the future.
We will most likely see a lot more projects aimed at arising empathy in the audience by transporting them directly to the scene of an event and allowing them to experience first-hand what it’s like to live in someone else’s circumstances.
Known as the pioneer of interactive storytelling, the New York Times created this virtual reality piece. It documents the creation of 150-foot-tall portrait of an Azerbaijani immigrant that was pasted onto a sidewalk across from New York’s Flatiron building.
As an attempt to heighten awareness of the city’s rich immigrant history, this piece allows the viewer to follow the entire enterprise, from the moment the project is prepared in the studio to its installation and the moment it is viewed from a helicopter.
This virtual reality experience will lead storytelling into the new direction of allowing the viewer to have an out-of-body, fly-on-the-wall experience where they process sights and sounds they would otherwise never have.
In line with the demand for interactivity and immersion, Time magazine has also launched a whole new site dedicated to these types of pieces.
This story, for example, features an interactive burger builder which allows you to see which city’s residents have your same taste when it comes to burgers—and, of course, it allows you to share your results. Another story features an interactive sleep chart which allows you to view how much less sleep you get than the average American.
These types of stories—which borrow a lot from games and quizzes—teach us that storytelling in this digital era is not only designed to appeal to the senses but also to build identity and sense of self.
A bit narcissistic? Maybe. But in this digital era, the individual experience is what matters.
While we’re still a ways off from mainstreaming multi-sensory experiences, communicators like you and me can already create this type of content, even with limited time and resources.
For example, interactive and animated infographics, images and slide decks appeal not only to the sense of sight, but the sense of hearing through audio and the sense of touch through the interactive experience of clicking, scrolling and hovering.
There are free tools like Visme that allow users to create all of the above–thereby increasing the chances of creating content that actually engages and inspires viewers to click, like, comment and share with the rest of the world. Try it for free here.
And if you want to receive additional tips on becoming a better visual communicator, sign up for our weekly newsletter below.