Virtual Reality Storytelling Terminology

Below is a curated list of terms relating to storytelling within virtual reality.

  • active presence

    (also known as ‘hand presence’)

    an immersive state that is reached as a consequence of using a handheld tool/device (peripheral) within a VR experience

  • agency

    (see also: ‘local agency‘ and ‘global agency‘)

    the capacity of an entity (a person or other entity) to act in, and influence, an artificial environment

  • authorial intent

    the extent to which the human author pre-ordains the possible narrative or instills the system with the ability to creatively adapt to the experiencer

    On the one hand, strong authorial intent means the quality of experience can be ensured, according to the vision of the human author. On the other hand, greater creative freedom on behalf of the interactive narrative system can yield greater user agency at the risk of straying from the human author’s vision.1

    1. Riedl, M and Bulitko, V. Interactive Narrative: An Intelligent Systems Approach. AI Magazine Pg 6.


  • butterfly effect system

    the butterfly effect system is a storytelling mechanism for managing complex narrative structures where actions from the experiencer can have a direct influence on how the narrative plays out

    The phrase ‘butterfly effect’ derives from chaos theory where American mathematician Edward Norton Lorenz used it as a metaphor to describe the phenomenon whereby a minor change in circumstances can cause a large change in outcome.


  • embodied cognition

    the idea that cognition is not just limited to the brain, but distributed across the entire body

  • embodied presence

    acknowledging the existence of your body within a virtual reality VR experience

    In physical reality and first order virtual reality there is something very simple that you can do to physically establish your presence. Look down, and you will see your body, or see parts of it continuously in peripheral vision.1

    1. Slater, M. “Place Illusion and Plausibility Can Lead to Realistic Behaviour in Immersive Virtual Environments”Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Dec 12; 364(1535): 3549–3557 Pg 10.

  • emergent narrative

    when non-player characters (NPCs) have complete autonomy in an interactive narrative e.g. The Sims

  • emotional presence

    a state that evokes an emotional response from the experiencer e.g. empathy, joy, or fun, within a virtual reality (VR) experience

  • Experience Manager

    (also known as a ‘story generator’)

    a generalisation of the ‘drama manager’ concept put forward by Joe Bates in Virtual reality, art, and entertainment. Originally published in Presence: The Journal of Tele-operators and Virtual Environments, Pg. 133–138, 1992.

    an intelligent, omniscient, and disembodied agent that monitors the virtual world and intervenes to drive the narrative forward according to some model of quality of experience. Often used as a surrogate for the human author.1

    1. Mark O. Riedl and Vadim Bulitko. Interactive Narrative: An Intelligent Systems Approach. AI Magazine Pg 3.


  • ghost story

    (see also: the Swayze effect)

    a virtual reality (VR) experience where the user is a disembodied observer in an unfolding narrative – as if watching a movie – but incapable of making changes to the world or talking to the characters

  • global agency

    (see also: ‘agency‘)

    interactivity where the experiencer’s actions could yield some sort of outcome or have a consequence on the narrative

  • hotspot

    an interactive spot within the artificial experience that reveal more content or options

    Hotspots can be animated and are often shown as a glowing orb.

  • immersion

    a psychological sense of being in a virtual environment

    Immersion provides the boundaries within which place illusion (PI) can occur.1

    1. Slater, M. “Place Illusion and Plausibility Can Lead to Realistic Behaviour in Immersive Virtual Environments”. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Dec 12; 364(1535): 3549–3557 Pg 6.


  • interactive narrative

    (also known as: ‘responsove narrative’)

    a form of digital interactive experience in which experiencers create or influence a dramatic storyline through their actions

    When the balance between an ordained narrative and freewill interaction is tweaked just right, it creates the perception of great “game play” – a sweet feeling of being part of something large that is moving forward (the game’s narrative) while you still get to steer (the game’s play).1

    1. Kelly, K. (2016) The Inevitable Penguin. Pg 229.

  • local agency

    (see also: ‘agency‘)

    interactivity that flavours the experience, but is unlikely to send it down a different narrative path

  • non-compliant user

    a user who doesn’t interact with a responsive narrative

  • non-player characters (NPCs)

    computer-controlled characters

  • presence

    (also known as: ‘telepresence’)
    (see also: active presence, embodied presence, emotional presence, and social presence)

    a feeling of being in and of the virtual world, and the ignoring of physical world distractions

    It is the strong illusion of being in a place in spite of the sure knowledge that you are not there.1

    1. Mel Slater. Place Illusion and Plausibility Can Lead to Realistic Behaviour in Immersive Virtual Environments Pg 5.


  • Quantum Story Theory

    a principle of crafting an experiential story within a virtual world proposed by Chief Creative Officer at The Void Curtis Hickman and further developed by Director of Story Development Tracy Hickman


  • redirected walking

    is the name given to a technique used to extend the possible size of a virtual reality environment by imperceptibly rotating the virtual scene without the experiencer being aware

    Redirected Walking causes people to change their real walking direction without noticing it, allows for larger VEs [virtual environments], and does not induce appreciable simulator sickness.1

    1. Sharif Razzaque, Zachariah Kohn, Mary C. Whitton Redirected Walking. The Eurographics Association 2001. Pg 1.

    The technique is notably utilised in experiences created by The Void.

  • responsive narrative

    (also known as: ‘living stories’ or an ‘interactive narrative‘)

    virtual reality narratives that adapt based on interaction from the experiencer, often driven by some form of AI

  • signposts (signposting)

    environment cues with the added purpose of helping the user to interpret the virtual environment

  • social presence

    choosing to actively engage with others within a VR experience


  • Swayze effect

    (see also: ghost story)

    the sensation of having no tangible relationship with your surroundings despite feeling embodied in the virtual world

    The phrase was coined by Story Studio and the name is a reference to actor Patrick Swayze who played the protagonist in the 1990’s film Ghost. In the film, Swayze’s character dies and returns as a ghost to help his wife solve the mystery of his death. The effect observed by Story Studio, looks to describe the struggle of affecting a virtual environment and the people who occupy it when no observable feedback from the world is being received.


  • valid actions

    the actions that an experiencer can take that can result in changes in perception, or changes to the environment

  • zeitgeber

    any external or environmental cue that entrains or synchronizes an organism’s biological rhythms to the Earth’s 24-hour light/dark cycle and 12 month cycle