What are we aiming for with “first-person immersion”?

When I say “first-person immersive audio”, do you think of The Walk or Wolverine? Do you imagine lines like “you have the wrench in your hands” or do you hear binaural audio wrapping around your head? This desire to pull audio listeners into the story as deeply and firmly as possible is entrenched in any kind of storytelling. How do we reach that next level of making people react genuinely, even though they’re safe in their own homes or cars? I’ve been watching the ramping up of a variety of interpretations on this “first-person immersive” (FPI) with interest, especially considering the recent release of Calais 2037, so I’ve collected some thoughts on what we’ve seen specifically carrying this label or related ones.

When The Walk came out reformatted as an audio fiction (from its original incarnation as a walking app from the Zombies, Run! company), there were a lot of descriptions of how it appears to model itself on a video game mission. Later, this fell short for me because it lacks the “immersion” aspect of actively moving yourself or a character through this active environment of a Scotland under siege. I have enjoyed the story as far as I’ve gotten, but it didn’t really feel like the kind of immersion they were aiming for, especially since people are required to to comment on your perpetual, eerie silence. (And it’s not easy to listen to while walking, but maybe that part is because I’m prone to clumsiness.) But The Walk is not the first podcast to go for a second-person-pronoun immersion: have you listened to Twilight Histories? Or perhaps The Dog is Dead?

Twilight Histories places you in the shoes of a time-traveler, and with judicious music scoring and a solid narrator, you travel through time and go on adventures, but here adventures tend to happen to you rather than requiring your direct involvement. Something about this podcast settled better with me than The Walk, even thoughThe Walk is full cast. It trod ground a little closer to what I expect from interactive fiction, with only one voice speaking stories based on, in this case, large amounts of historical research. Another single-narrator podcast, The Dog is Dead, is an anthology podcast that uses second-person-pronouns to immerse you in emotional short stories with sharp twists at the end. This goes full hog: sound effects to highlight events in the narration, mood music to enhance what’s happening, balanced to not become over-produced so that you can become the “you” of the story.

But the other thing people might think of with the term FPI is the line that we are perhaps crossing into virtual reality.  The liner notes for Calais 2037 talk about this in detail, but the usage of binaural audio is pretty rapidly prevailing as the method to go for if you have the money for it. Marvel’s Wolverine uses ambisonic microphones — four microphones set up in a sphere — and recording on location in order to achieve this 3D-spatial effect in audio that is extremely successful in accomplishing immersion. Marvel seeks audio-first immersion (i.e. not putting you in the shoes of a certain character), certainly, to a degree of realism that is admirable, but Calais 2037is coming directly from the long-term goal of a VR narrative, through the gateway of FPI audio.

Calais 2037 is not a you-oriented narrative. It’s a dark and dystopic spy game in a world where real chicken can only be found if you know who to go to and where Marsha Everlyn is our exiled political protagonist. Sound moves from one side of your head to another — when I heard a heavy door slide open past my face, like it was really there, I spent a moment being mind-boggled — and the whole thing is done with very minor use of non-diegetic sound. This kind of FPI can’t rely heavily on mood music or scoring, like Twilight Histories does to enhance the experience. Not to say it does not show up in Calais: this is what radios and so forth in-scene exist for, so that diegetic music can run the double-duty as at atmosphere and tone builder. (The opera scene in Part II in particular is spine-tingling.)

I think the most important thing to the immersive aspect of FPI is that you, the listener, is one person — so therefore the story must follow one person or at least make sure to share experiences that one person is having or has had. Following multiple POVs in one storyline breaks that possibility, even if only a little bit. Calais 2037 follows Marsha, but doesn’t just follow Marsha around in the present time. You go all the way inside her head, when she has flashbacks and nightmares, and suffer the same echoes of bad dreams layered on top of reality. The way they make sure to blur the feeling that you know everything about Marsha, and still yet never enough, is a work of art.

What do you think about the directions audio fiction is taking in terms of immersion? There’s a lot to said for different ways to accomplish that feat, not just audio recording style or narrative style, but other ideas such as the removal of non-diegetic sounds or recording live foley as sound effects. What has been your experience with the varieties of first-person immersion? Do you think this level of immersion sought in borderline-virtual reality audio is only possible with certain genres or styles of narrative?

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #4, April 23 2018.