An illustration of the narrative arc. A train on tracks goes from Act 1, The Beginning, up an incline towards Act 2, The Middle. Finally the train plummets down toward Act 3: The End.

How to Use Narrative as a Design Tool

by Molly Fitz-Patrick | | 22 min read
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Storytelling is ubiquitous; it transcends time, place and culture. It also transcends technology, but takes a central position in VR. Narrative is essential for immersive experiences that have depth and emotion—experiences that will leave a lasting impression on your users. Enter a new world of storytelling and discover how to use narrative as a design tool.  

VR allows us to explore our imagination and traverse far beyond reality. However, whether in the real world or a virtual one, the practice and importance of storytelling is universal. A narrative of some kind is essential if we want to create a successful VR experience.

Here UX consultant Frank Spillers explains why storytelling is so important in VR and how it can transform behavior and create a sense of presence and immersion.

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View narrative as a design tool. Storytelling infuses the virtual worlds we create with depth, emotion, and purpose—this elevates VR from a technological novelty to something profound. 

A well-crafted narrative provides users with context, and thus guides them through the VR environment with a sense of purpose and direction. It creates a connection between the user and the virtual world and should foster presence and immersion. Through storytelling, users become active participants, allowing them to shape the course of the experience and hopefully forming a personal bond with the content. The 2010s and 2020s have seen a rise in immersive media and interactive storytelling through more traditional mediums: TV and video games. Players and viewers are able to influence the outcome of a story based on the decisions that they make. 

Even though interactive storytelling has gained momentum in traditional mediums, VR's spatial aspect, where users move and interact, gives them a unique sense of agency, which makes every journey within this immersive world truly their own.

How to Bring Storytelling into Your VR Experience

  1. Understand Your Audience and Goals: This rings true with any UX design project—you should always start by identifying your target audience and the goals of your VR experience. Who are the users? What emotions or reactions do you want to evoke? Understanding your audience and objectives will shape the direction of your story.

  2. Conceptualize the Story: Conceptualize the core elements of your story through techniques like brainstorming, mind maps, storyboards, mood boards and user journeys. What is the central theme or message? What is the setting? Who are the characters? What is the narrative arc? Consider how the immersive nature of VR can enhance these elements.

  3. Embrace Immersion: Leverage VR's immersive capabilities to create a sense of presence within the story. Craft environments and characters that users can feel a part of. Use spatial audio, realistic visuals, and interactive elements to deepen immersion.

  4. Create a Compelling Hook: Capture users' attention from the outset with a strong opening that piques curiosity and establishes the story's tone. Use visual and auditory cues to guide users' focus and draw them into the experience.

  5. Establish Narrative Flow: Design a well-paced narrative that maintains the user's interest throughout the experience. Here is where a story arc and/or story beat is particularly useful. Consider the sequence of events, build tension, introduce conflicts, and create moments of resolution or revelation.

  6. Point of View, Field of View, Multiple Perspectives and Experiences: Take advantage of VR's ability to provide multiple perspectives. Think about the user’s point of view, first person or third person? Can users experience the story from different angles or switch between characters' viewpoints, which can enhance depth and engagement.

  7. Offer Agency and Choice: Incorporate decision points that allow users to make choices that influence the story's direction. These choices should have meaningful consequences, giving users a sense of agency and ownership over the narrative.

  8. Utilize Sound and Music: Sound and music play a crucial role in creating atmosphere and emotional impact. Use spatial audio to enhance the user's sense of presence and incorporate a fitting musical score to complement the story's mood.

  9. Immerse Users in Environments: Craft detailed and immersive environments that enhance the storytelling. Your users should feel like they are part of the world you've created, with attention to details that support the narrative.

  10. Test and Iterate: Prototype and test your VR story with real users and ideally, proper hardware like VR headsets. Gather feedback on their emotional responses, interactions, and overall experience. Use this feedback to refine and improve the narrative elements.

VR is a rapidly evolving field—it presents infinite opportunities for storytelling. It’s important to approach it with imagination and excitement, but also to view it as a UX design project. Continuously iterate and refine your narrative based on user feedback, technological advancements, and emerging trends in VR design.

The Take Away

VR opens up a whole new world of storytelling. It goes beyond pixels and code to guide users through immersive experiences that resonate deeply, infusing virtual realms with purpose and emotion.

A well-crafted narrative not only guides users through the VR landscape but also fosters their presence, immersion, and active participation, which can evoke personal connections with the content. The unique spatial aspect of VR empowers users with agency, which allows them to interact and shape the unfolding narrative. 

Techniques like brainstorming, mind maps, and mood boards help us to develop our stories and our vision. If we embrace VR landscapes, we can use the immersive capabilities of VR, like spatial audio and interactive elements, to forge a strong sense of presence. 

References and Where to Learn More

John Bucher’s book, Storytelling for Virtual Reality: Methods and Principles for Crafting Immersive Narratives, explores storytelling in VR in-depth.

This Medium article provides a comprehensive look of narrative as a design tool. 

This episode of Make It by Adobe Creative Cloud explores immersive storytelling. 

VRScout has written an extensive guide on VR storytelling.

Hero Image: © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

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Fitz-Patrick, M. (2023, October 25). How to Use Narrative as a Design Tool. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF.

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