Whenever I talk about my passion for Immersive & Narrative Design, people often assume that this particular field cares more about story telling, linearity and self-obsessed cutscenes and less about game mechanics and freedom of interaction and choice… which of course isn’t true: Immersive & Narrative Design is an important pillar in creating immersive, coherent and emotionally connected interactive and motivationally player-driven experiences; it is also vital in planting motivational structures into the player’s mind: He shouldn’t just do a task in the game because it says so but because it makes sense to him and he is motivated and driven (often emotionally) to do so. 

For narrative driven games, I even go as far as suggesting a complete ban on the use of the word “storytelling” and instead replacing it with the better fitting term “story experiencing”. Let’s be honest here: a game that constantly tries to tell you, the player, what to do, with whom and when and where and also how to do it, how to feel, who and what to like, and so on and so forth… well, that kind of game sort of missed the whole point of what an interactive experience is all about. There is “story telling” in games but it mostly happens outside the game world and is more about experienced game moments players have had and which they share on discussion boards, in speed-run videos or in heated discussion amongst friends.

But for this article I’d like to take a few steps back and instead find out what is causing a lot of the friction and drama on why immersion, emotion, coherence and narrative constructs often have such a tough time in video games:

Non-interactive vs interactive entertainment:

“I watch films but play games.” — this pretty much summarizes the difference between non-interactive and interactive entertainment. With films, like most non-interactive entertainment, you get to observe a constructed and self-contained experience that does not allow for direct interaction. You are part of an audience that shares the same experience; your task is to sit back, watch and interpret, knowing that what you see is all you get. “Watch but do not touch!” 

Video games, most famous representatives of interactive entertainment, are, on the other hand, incomplete constructs of reactive rules that cannot execute and complete their function without your input: Your interaction is the vital catalyst allowing the construct to become a fully-fledged personalized experience in the first place.

But lets take a closer look at the differences between non-interactive and interactive entertainment.

Non-Interactive vs interative entertainment in the column fight: 


Non-Interactive Entertainment
(Film as example)

Interactive Entertainment
(Video Games as example)


A fixed, self-contained and pre-conceived passive experience, fictional or not, typically featuring a narrative, often with a beginning, a middle and an end.

An incomplete but reactive construct of mechanics, defined by rules and driven by external input; often a pre-conceived but incomplete — and therefore not functional — narrative structure is weaved into the construct.

Audience & Participants

The audience members are observers and not able to interact and participate and therefore incapable of influencing or changing the experience directly.


The construct of the experience contains all necessary elements correctly structured and ordered. It is therefore complete even without the audience observing.


A film doesn’t just stop by itself should you in the middle of it decide to walk out of the cinema.

The audience members are participants and their interaction is a vital element of the experience.


Although the experience contains all the necessary elements, they are not in the desired structure and order. The interaction of the participant is required to complete the construct.

If you stop playing a video game, it will just pause or idle, unable to continue meaningfully without turning non-interactive.


Author control of content

The author has full control over the structure of the experience and contributes all the pieces required to make the structure complete and functional.

In a film or book the author has full control over setting, structure, narrative and characters, including protagonist & antagonist.

The author only has control over rules, structure and, if available, the narrative shell construct. The author can lay down the premise and define the basic structure but he is unable to provide the full set of instructions without breaking the interactivity.


Although in games the author can define the mechanics, rules, setting, characters, narrative and structure, he is not allowed to directly control certain important elements, most notably the player’s role (e.g. protagonist)


Author control of structure

The author can easily dictate structure, pace, progress, perception and perspective and interchange at will.


While the author author can setup the structure, pace and perspective, it is ultimately up to the player to control progress, perspective and perception.


Immersive & Emotional Delivery Language

The various forms of non-interactive entertainment have their own immersion and emotional delivery language: For novels it’d be choice of structure, words, perspective, pace, perception, etc whilst audiovisual media like film and TV use narrative structure, camera framing, editing, lighting, sound, music, actor performance, etc.


Video games have not yet fully established their own immersion and emotional delivery language; instead they borrow heavily – and mostly – from established audiovisual non-interactive  forms of entertainment (e.g. language of film for creation of cutscenes)

Evocable emotions

Because the audience only observes the experience, the emotions evoked are indirect and reactive towards experience.


The audience will feel for the characters and situations but it will not necessarily feel thesame.  

Because the participant is one of the main pillars in interactive experiences, any emotions evoked are direct and personal.


This means games can unlock an additional set of emotions in the participant: guilt, regret, success, euphoria, revenge, personal satisfaction and others.


Interpretation (encoding / decoding of output / input)

The individual platforms (film, TV, book, play, etc) define the encoding standard for the output of the experience. An audience member needs to have the necessary knowledge, consciously or subconsciously, to decode the experience successfully. 
Often this decoding requires is a two-step process: First factual decoding (e.g. objects, their properties and their actions) followed by an interpretation pass (the meaning).

For example, in order to read a novel you have to have a few basic skills: You need to be able to read, to understand the language the novel is written in and you need to know how a basic narrative structure works. This will allow you to access and decode the factual information which is the first decoding step mentioned above. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you fully understand the novel from an interpretation point of view, maybe because it deals with cultural aspects you are not familiar with.


The individual platforms (e.g. type of interactive entertainment) often have two separate encoding standards, one for output (presentation) and one for input (interaction). 
The input encoder can be two-fold: The first layer defines interaction with the platform specific interface (e.g. controller, keyboard, mouse) with the second experience-dependent decoding layer translating interactions into experience-specific inputs.


Most video games platforms have a form of a controller to read the inputs from the player, which he has to first understand. Then the inputs the player gives are read and interpreted in the game (e.g. A for Jump)

PASSIVE / ACTIVE form of enter-tainment

PASSIVE form of entertainment.


In order for the audience to enjoy this form of entertainment, their frame of mind needs to be in a state of willingness to accept that the experience is pre-constructed, self-sufficient and complete without any need of interaction.  


ACTIVE form of entertainment.


In order for people to enjoy this form of entertainment, they need to want to actively participate in the experience for it to function properly – which requires a different state of mind than non-interactive entertainment. This means that interactive entertainment does not replace non-interactive entertainment but rather compliments it.


I’ve only given overview summaries. Each point warrants closer examination and explanation, which I intend to provide in separate articles.

But I’d like to at least give closer context to two of the above topics:

Participation and Observation:

The two forms of entertainment stimulate different “wants and needs”: Participation is not the same as observation, and you’ll often find that if friends play video games together (e.g. video game pizza night), your polite invitation to a fellow friend to play a game by offering the controller can result in a equally polite rejection along the lines of: “Thanks, but I’m okay. I like watching… you keep playing”.

It essentially means that the two forms of entertainment will never replace but rather compliment each other, proving all the debates on “if video games are responsible for the death of cinema” invalid because direct comparison isn’t applicable in this case. What probably does happen is that we focus on factoring the quality of the various offerings into the question of which form of entertainment to chose: I really fancy watching a film but none of the offered films are of interest, so I’ll go and play a game instead as a second choice.


Immersive & Emotional Delivery Language:

One of the things we heavily borrow from the non-interactive media, especially the audiovisual kind like film & TV, is their emotional delivery language: Filmmakers have over the past hundred or so years learned how to immerse the audience and evoke their emotions. Over time they’ve not only constructed rules and patterns facilitating immersion and the evocation of emotions but also installed them in the subconscious of the audience. When you watch a film, you know when it is time to be scared, sad, suspicious, excited and more. You can feel the tension and suspension when something provocative, exciting or bad is about to happen on screen. 

All these queues and tools that trigger the immersive and emotive responses from the audience are based on rules that filmmakers (in the case of film) have created, adapted, learned and over time distilled to what they are today. What makes it fascinating is that the vast majority of the audience doesn’t even know WHAT these rules ARE and HOW they work but only THAT they work: they literally feel it. And because they work without needing explaining to the audience, the world of video games heavily borrows from these rules. I call this rule set the audiovisual immersion & emotional delivery language. The fundamental problem though is that this particular language was developed for a non-interactive experience (camera framing, edits, lighting, etc) so a straight port just doesn’t work. Hence the rolling eyes of the player followed by frantic button mashing when non-interactive cutscenes overstay their screen-time welcome in video games. If we want to make it work, we first have to understand, analyze and deconstruct that language and adapted and recreate our own version that works for interactive entertainment.

Video games have started to develop their own language for immersive and emotional delivery but the overall progress is very fragmented, often genre, IP or even project specific, with only a few blocks universally applicable. I’m only scratching the surface on this topic but I’ll need more than one article to cover this in detail.

Fundamentally – and going back to the point why I wrote this article in the first place — this is only a quick overview to why the need for understanding the differences of non-interactive and interactive entertainment is vital for creating personalized interactive virtual experiences that immerse and emotionally and motivationally hook the player and provide a satisfying challenge worthy of his time.