Hyper Narrative Interactive Cinema: Letting The Audience Participate In The Movie

Hyper Narrative Interactive Cinema: Letting The Audience Participate In The Movie

What if I tell you there is now a possibility for you as an audience to decide the narrative of the movie while watching it? It would be surprising and intriguing, right? 

The book “Hyper–Narrative Interactive Cinema Problems and Solutions” by Nitzan Ben Shaul, not only explains the concept but also dives into the fundamental problems with the idea and provides precise solutions. 

What is hyper-narrative interactive cinema? 

It is basically the ability to control the direction and events of the film by the audience as they watch it. So rather than just being passive viewers/observers, they get a chance to actively engage, thus making them participants in this new form of cinema. The emergence of this concept became possible due to new generation technological advancements, shifts in cognition, changes in perception, and social conduct.

To simplify it further, cinema can now be interacted with in the same capacity as that of the games. The technology used in games is what has inspired the hyper-narrative of interactive cinema. So, the plot and series of events can be modified and personalised based on the viewer's discretion and choices.

After writing the book, Nitzan Ben Shaul also invented the technology InSplit ( standalone player for editing and projecting variably branching interactive narrative videos)  that was used in the movie Turbulence (2010) made by himself. Among filmmakers, Turbulence is also referred as a full-length interactive pilot feature.  

In Turbulence, at major pivotal points, the audience gets to pick an eventual lineup of events by providing a definitive answer to the tool called InSplit

Edi, Sol and Rona of Turbulence are three Israelis who are separated after being arrested and pitted against each other. The story is based on the post-Lebanon crisis, which led to their separation,  and follows what happens when they meet by chance in Manhattan, New York two decades later. 

Rona and Sol rekindle their love affair but will they vow to each other together or will Sol continue an ongoing phone call to help the story entirely deviate from the major cliff-hanger. Without the viewer interactions, the movie is 83 mins long capable of following a predetermined path. However, with interactivity, the movie has the capacity to run for an hour or two more. 

Turbulence was awarded the Grand  Festival Experimental Feature Award in Berkeley Film Festival when it was featured there. 

Nitzan Ben Shaul admitted that movies like Run Lola Run (1998) and Sliding Doors (1998) were his inspirations because they provided the audience with the suspense and thrill of multiple outcomes in a given plot. 

What is the book about?

This book attempts to cover some of the major loopholes and setbacks of the hyper-narrative interactive cinema and its theories. Post-modern narrative stories affect the temporal order, mix the genres and create a disoriented mess of light and heavy discourses. There are issues of origin, creativity, coherence, closure, identity, textual depthless-ness, loss of affectivity, and viewer disorientation. The basic issue is that of coherence and closure. 

There is a strong interaction between narrative films and active spectators who are deeply engaged in restructuring the narratives in their minds by the films' modes of narrative delivery. 

Firstly, it is important to understand why narrative films do well. They do well because they allow viewers to form a sequence of a cause-and-effect chain of events to reach the closure. There is a pre-existing,  unknown plotline (known to the filmmakers) in which the viewers fit the data they have received while viewing the film to cognitively process the film's narration. Since the narrative films give the viewers an ability to constantly keep asking questions and then help them with the answers through the script, the audience's attention and engagement are heightened at all times. As a result, identifiable and understandable coherence between the events unfolding in the film is required for the viewer to reach a satisfying conclusion.

So, what does hyper-narrative cinema do? 

It is basically different narratives that can be run simultaneously in a parallel format or alternatively. While in Run Lola Run, the crucial scene from which the story divulges into two separate narratives is repeated to portray the diverted narratives, hyper - narrative can have multiple trajectories. 

Hyper Narrative Interactive Cinema: Letting The Audience Participate In The Movie
Looop Lapeta and Run Lola Run have Hyper Narrative storytelling. (Credits: India Today)

Many hyper-narrative theorists suggest the creation of multi-layered opportunities of plot lines which would allow customisation more easily to the audience. They think that if the viewers are given the scope to build the narrative according to themselves, they will find the cinema-watching experience more engaging. However, there is a major drawback. While the viewer will try to make sense of the cognitive-behavioral activities occurring in the presented narrative to further the storyline with interaction, they will end up creating a non-coherent narrative that won't end into the closure, thus leading to frustration. 

Ideally, it's necessary to understand that retrospection is as important as prospection. What we see in the moment helps us to understand what to expect in the future,  what we see later helps us to understand what went by (already occurred in the film). In a multi-narrative reliant on interaction, the audience will feel the extra onus to cognitively engage and memorise the activities of the film to induce further actions. 

To make interactive narrative successful, the book suggests that instead of having several branches to every branch of the tale, there should be cohesive conclusive restricted switching narratives to ensure the success of the idea of the interactive narrative. 

Multiple narratives can be revealed from crucial points of view which are driven by psychological and emotional decisions like:  should the character shoot or not shoot, should the character cheat or not cheat.  In some cases, the narratives can return to a critical moment and re-enact the events that occurred at that critical point, and then display subsequent changes in the following scene and diverge into differing narratives. This improves coherence and also the engagement of the audience in the alternating narratives.

Apart from this, the cognitive constructivist theorists largely assume that the viewers tend to believe that they are a part of the cinematic world when they watch a film. However, Nitzan Ben Shaul has very efficiently explained the contradictions in such statements,  thus establishing that the audience is well aware of the distinction between real and virtual. 

One such example would be, as Janet Murray explained, that 3D films coax the audience to believe that what they are watching is tangible and make them feel the urge to put out their hands to touch the objects. Nitzan Ben Shaul precisely explains that this forms a contradiction to the immersive experience, and also to the feature of hyper-narrative. He states that even in such experiences viewers know what they are watching is fantastical. Many times viewers take off their 3D glasses to disengage themselves. This is a sign of complete awareness of what's reality. Apart from that, such experiences are key examples of split attention. 

Such discussion is clearly indicative of the deep analysis and understanding that the author has towards the subject. He has attempted to understand all the theories objectively and then pointed out the major flaws. Split attention is another major point of discussion when it comes to Hyper - Narrative Interactive Cinema.

What is the issue of split attention? Split attention is basically when the viewer has a difficulty in trying to grasp the cognitive activities taking place in the movie while engaging with the depth and emotional content. In the chaos of trying to make sense of the narratives, audiences lose out on the immersive experience, thus contradicting the hyper-narrative theory of increased engagement.

To avoid the issue of split attention, Nitzan Ben Shaul has constantly re-emphasized on the need for premeditated, limited, cohered narratives presented in a conclusive manner. Another major issue that the theorists tend to look beyond and normalize while constructing hyper–narratives is that they believe viewers identify themselves with the protagonists. Therefore, the theorists suggest that when the viewers will get an opportunity to control the actions of the protagonists, their interest will heighten and they will be able to engage better. 

However, Nitzan Ben Shaul has articulated that it is the feeling of empathy that connects the audience to the characters. They do not necessarily identify as the protagonists. Thus, when constructing multiple narratives, writers should treat the protagonists as the viewer’s friend and not as an identity of the viewer.

In Indian cinema, the movie Bhaag Johnny (2015)  has multiple crossroads events that lead up to two simultaneously running perspectives at a time. However, both the narratives are tied together at a crucial point close to the climax and help the viewers to have a coherent and conclusive closure. Ideologically, Bhaag Johnny actually implements every suggestion provided by the book without involving viewer interaction as a possible option. 

Unfortunately, the film wasn't well-received by the Indian audience back then. That is understandable because the palette and appetite of the  Indian audience weren't well suited for such a complex narrative.  It largely holds true even today. However, such a response makes it evidently clear that the masses aren’t ready for such experimentations yet. They haven’t been able to entirely digest the multi-narrative films, and involving the layer of interaction would just complicate the movie-watching process to new levels. 

Recently the Indian audience has been very receptive and appreciative of Looop Lapeta (2022) which is an official Hindi remake of the German 1998 film Run Lola Run which had inspired Nitzan Ben Shaul. The recent acclamation that the unique concept-driven film is getting amongst the Indian audience is testimony to the gradually evolving palette audience. However, the popularity and praise of Looop Lapeta is restricted to the intellectual audience. This event is indicative of a slow change. There is a long way to go when it comes to the accepting and indulgent attitude of the viewers to cultivate towards hyper - narrative interactive cinema.

The book fails to realise that such a concept doesn’t exist yet. Hyper–narrative interactive cinema hasn’t been constructed. There is still the ability to modify the concept and rely on newer technological advancements or creative genius.

The book also fails to question why there is a need for the phenomena of hyper–narrative interactive cinema in the first place. There is sanctity and sacredness attached to the process of filmmaking and film-viewing which would be completely restructured to give place to this new form of cinema. Art is an abstract and subjective concept. Not every creation is made to please every single person of the vast multitude and posing this innovation of hyper–narrative interactive seems to be an attempt to create maximum satisfaction for people. Art isn’t something that every person can create. While everybody may have the ability to differentiate between what art caters to their tastes and interest and what doesn’t, in most cases, they aren’t equipped to create an art of their own liking. 

Thus, this book has managed to discuss every sub-concept, problem, and provide detailed solutions but leaves us with a major question: Do we even want hyper–narrative interactive cinema?

Author Biographical Note: Vanshika Lakhani is pursuing her degree in Mass Communications and Journalism from Jai Hind College. She is also an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College from where she studied Arts. She reviews films, web-shows, books, and music. Her reviews have also been published on other portals like Film Companion and Café Dissensus Everyday. She is a huge content enthusiast and enjoys talking to people who tell her about new content to consume. Now she is associated with Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an intern.

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