The Fallacy of Immersion

Immersion has been the buzzword of the themed entertainment industry for a little over a decade or so. We’re in an arms race where every new project attempts to one-up the last by increasing the ‘immersiveness’ by another factor. Bigger, more enveloping, more detailed, and especially: more real

While some of the projects this has resulted in are phenomenal achievements, and indeed some of my personal favorites, I really find it peculiar that realism has become so centered in the process. In fact, ‘immersive’ and ‘real’ are often treated as if they’re synonymous and thus to make something more ‘immersive’ necessarily means you must make it more ‘real’. But one only needs a cursory understanding of operations to realize that realism and guests’ wants and needs are often in direct conflict with each other.

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What Sondheim Can Teach Us About Experience Design

Photo Credit: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/26/theater/stephen-sondheim-dead.html

Stephen Sondheim, famed musical theatre composer, lyricist, genius, and a personal idol of mine recently passed away. His death has recently caused me to reexamine a thought I’ve had from time to time: that rides are akin to songs.

It might sound a bit strange at first to suggest that rides and songs are the most closely related storytelling mediums but consider their raw components. Music at its most basic level, stripped of lyrics, is a progression of sensations you feel. Rides at their most basic level, stripped of plot, are a progression of sensations that you feel. A simple unadorned coaster might be the equivalent of a single melodic line, one surrounded by scenery the equivalent of a full symphony: full of color, texture, and harmony. Both use these sensations to shape an arc of emotion within you — to tell stories. This is different than most movies, plays, books, and (many) games — which primarily use dialogue, plot, and prose. Those forms of storytelling speak to your mind. Music and experiences instead speak directly to your body. 

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World Building: Themed Experiences are Tools of Social Change

Sparkling lights, cheery music, the smell of popcorn, cotton candy, and crisp churros floating through the air — bright colors, immersive worlds, elaborate spectacles from dawn past dusk. This is the imagery that’s conjured up when theme parks and other immersive experiences are discussed: fun, frivolity, and above all a disconnection from the real world. 

Some topics that probably don’t come to mind? Infrastructure, transportation policy, civic planning, technological development, history curriculums, gender politics, race relations, and a myriad of other issues normally reserved for some domed building far, far away.

There is a widespread belief that theme parks and related experiences are simply repositories of fun, devoid of politics. But that notion is simply not complete. Themed experiences are absolutely fun, entertaining places where people go to decompress. But they also play a gigantic role in shaping culture. These experiences are the physical repositories of our shared histories, mythologies, hopes and dreams. They are physical models that the world outside the berm looks to for inspiration. 

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The Big FAT Problem in the Attractions Industry

Photo Credit: https://orlandoinformer.com/blog/rides-at-universal-for-larger-guests/

This essay contains mentions of weight numbers, percentiles, and size-related traumatic experiences and may be triggering to those with such experiences or eating disorders. 

You’re 12. You’re excited. You’ve waited all year for the summer to come and school is finally out! You and your friends are headed down on a vacation to an exciting theme park you’ve been seeing television ads for weeks about. You’ve looked up ride videos online, gazed longingly at the park map, and you know exactly what you want to do first: that big flashy coaster right at the front of the park. It’s so tall, and, ominous. You can’t wait.

The day finally comes and you and your friends are practically spurting out steam you’re so excited. You get to the park right as it opens and zoom straight to the coaster. The line is already an hour long. Undeterred, you persevere. One hour later, feet sore, your reward is in sight: the experience you’ve dreamt about for god knows how long, the thing you’ve seen on tv for countless weeknights. The gates open and your friends eagerly scurry into the open car and you follow swiftly behind.

You reach up and pull down the overhead restraint. But there’s a problem. You can’t seem to get it to ratchet down like your friends next to you. It just springs back up. You realize why this is. Your friends are thinner than you. A jolt of anxiety floods through you and you feel a unpleasant lurching in your stomach. No matter, you probably just have to reposition yourself. You try again. No luck. The ride attendants are proceeding with the restraint checks. They’re only two rows away. Your friends are all situated: restraints locked, supplementary buckles in. Yours isn’t. Beads of sweat start forming on your forehead. Will they send the train off with you still unrestrained? Of course not…right?

The restraint checkers get to you. You look at them apologetically. You hope they aren’t mad. One rolls their eyes and walks away, the other gives you a smile and tells you it’s not a problem at all: happens all the time. He lowers the restraint onto your stomach and proceeds to throw his entire body weight onto the harness as he attempts to get it to lock. You feel like The Rock just kneed you in the kidneys. He does it again. You’ll find bruises on your stomach later that night. Your friends are staring at you, silent. He lunges again. The wind is practically knocked out of you and still, no luck. There’s now a train behind you, waiting to be unloaded. The guests at the gates are all looking at you, exasperated at the scene in front of them, impatient for their turn. You feel like a trapped insect, desperately wishing to scurry from the light, but trapped under a magnifying, glass dome.

The attendant apologizes. You’re just too big for the ride and will have to exit. Your face flushes, your eyes are bloodshot as you futilely strain to hold back the tears that are burning them. You say pleasantly “of course, ‘course, no big deal,” as if a grocery clerk just said they only have paper instead of plastic. You stand up. Your friends look up at you and give a shrug. You laugh and tell them it’s not a problem – you’ll see them at the on-ride photo station – you don’t even like roller coasters. You clumsily climb over their legs in the confined car, as you attempt to make your way to the exit. You nearly fall. You hear a few poorly disguised snickers coming from behind you. After what feels like half an hour, but was really only a few seconds, you make it to the exit platform and hastily head towards the ramp, away from the people, desperate to get away from the spotlight. As you turn the corner you hear a huge round of applause: the train has finally left the station – without you. Welcome to the loneliest place on earth.

That’s a true story. It was told to me several years ago. It’s very similar to my own. The person in question vowed to never visit a theme park again and suffered with eating disorders for the rest of their teen years and into adulthood.

The relationship theme and amusement parks have to fat people is abysmal and has been steadily getting worse over time. I’m a relatively fat person. The older a ride is, the better the chance is that I will fit on it. Modern coasters? Forget about it. Hell, apparently dark rides that move slower than their queues are off limits now too. I don’t understand how the same companies who are able to build floating mountains, stunt-tracks, and generally physics-defying achievements on a daily basis are unable to create a seat fat people can sit in.

This is a problem the industry is going to have to address sooner or later. People are getting bigger. It doesn’t show signs of stopping. The majority of women wear plus sizes. But even if that weren’t the case, there’s so many people right NOW that are being excluded. An absurd amount. 

How absurd? My weight is right around the 90th percentile of Americans. I can’t fit on most roller coasters. What if we treated height like weight? The 90th percentile of men in the US (using men, because they’re taller and I’m feeling generous) is 6’. Imagine a world where anyone over 6’ tall couldn’t ride a roller coaster. Would we treat that with the same eye roll, head in the sand, “just stick a tester seat outside and call it a day” approach?

Test seat for revenge of the mummy at Universal Studios Is restrictive and very public.
“Revenge of the Mummy: Excruciatingly Public Test Seat, the true psychological thrill ride. http://dcipjoe.blogspot.com/2011/02/universal-studios-orlando.html

Actually, lets talk about tester seats: a wet bandaid of a solution if there ever was one. Is this supposed to be a compassionate alternative? Congratulations, you’ve moved one of the most potentially humiliating scenarios an American can experience in modern public life from the loading area, where dozens of people can witness it, to right in front of the bloody attraction marquee, where they can experience what it’s like to be a severed head on a pike. “Fat people beware.” Every attraction has a published minimum height requirement right in the park guide map, right in the description. Did we lose the measuring tape when it came to waist circumference? Did we run out of private alcoves to put tester seats in? How is this the world we live in? The rides we build dont even fit the people designing them! The twilight zone should stay inside the Tower of Terror.

And this isn’t only about emotional trauma and feelings – for those that need something more than human suffering to motivate them to pursue change – it’s a physical safety issue. The existence of fat people is ignored, forgotten, or otherwise overlooked in the design of attractions. The Punga Racers waterslide at Volcano Bay has notoriously injured over 100 people and PARALYZED James Bowen because it wasn’t designed properly to accommodate larger guests. Universal was forced to implement a 150 pound weight limit. 150 pounds. Guess what? That means its inaccessible to 63% of women, and 88% of men! Sounds like inclusion to me.

By the way, Mr. Bowen: he was 215 pounds. Even if the ride was designed to accomodate him safely, it would still exclude 30% of all men and 16% of women.

In 2013 a woman was killed on a roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas because the restraints weren’t designed to accommodate her. The same thing happened earlier in 2004 in Massachusetts. How many people have to die, be maimed, seriously injured, or laden with a lifetime of mental illness before we invent a solution to accommodate fat people that isn’t “shove harder”?

I’m disgusted by the attitude this industry takes toward accommodations – as if they’re an annoying requirement imposed upon it, something that can be ignored or brushed off, as if the guests these decisions affect don’t really exist or aren’t that numerous. But we’re talking about, at the absolute very least, 30 million people in the US alone. And this lackadaisical attitude towards accessibility affects way more than fat people…unaccommodating restraints and vehicles are no friend to those in wheelchairs, those with mobility issues in general, amputees, etc, either. 

So what can be done? Well at the very least communication around issues of accessibility needs to be drastically improved. It shouldn’t be incumbent upon the guest to miraculously know if they might have an issue, or go on the worlds worst treasure hunt to find a hidden pdf somewhere on a park website to find out all the ways they don’t fit. Put it in the map, put it in the attraction description. Treat size and other accessibility issues the same way you treat height requirements: spelled out clearly. Make it simple. Don’t be afraid to list weight numbers if there’s an ACTUAL weight requirement, but don’t use weight in place of measurements. If the restraint only accommodates someone with a 40 inch waist, just say that. Waist, hip, and chest measurements would be a good place to start. Most people already know theirs. Hell create an online size chart like clothing manufactures do. 

Include chairs without armrests in restaurants and theaters. Embrace bench seats. Talk to actual fat people. Put the damn tester seat in a place where the entire land isn’t an audience!

These should be the obvious things, but harder work needs to be done in the long term. Designers and engineers and business leaders need to stop pretending that every person is the dimensions of a standardized test dummy or reference illustration. Accessibility needs to be a priority, not just for fat people, but for everyone. It shouldn’t just be shrugged off with an “oh it’s just not possible.” Really? This industry makes the impossible possible every day. It’s the entire business model: go faster, higher, more spectacular, more impossible than ever before. Embrace the freakin’ challenge. 

Hell, for the completely soulless capitalists among you, imagine the increased merchandise sales you’d have if all the t-shirts came in plus size and you suddenly trippled your market of potential customers. Imagine how many more “I survived ____” t-shirts you’d sell if those people actually were able to ride “____”. Imagine the increased attendance, increased good-will, increased number of visits per guests, increased guest-spend per guest if those 30+ million Americans actually felt welcome. 

For those of you feeling angry or exasperated with me, welcome to experience design. You are right now experiencing a small fraction of what it feels like to actually visit a park as a fat person. Will your restraint hold you? Remain seated please; permanecer sentados por favor.

  I shouldn’t have to argue that more guests should feel welcome because its better for the bottom line. I shouldn’t feel the need to write a 2000 word essay that’ll probably get me placed on a list somewhere to argue that fat people are, surprisingly, also people that deserve the same experiences their thin counterparts get for the same priced ticket. I shouldn’t have issues fitting on rides built in the last few years when I have no problem fitting on rides built in the 1950s. I shouldn’t have to argue that emotionally traumatizing 12 year old girls for life is maybe a bad thing that we shouldn’t contribute to. And yet here we are. 

This is an industry built on big dreams. Dream bigger.

The Four Elements of Themed Experiences and 5 Act Structure

This might not be my most eloquently prosed post, the final stretch of grad school is upon me and time is at a premium, but I have thoughts I want to share.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking into how to develop impactful and fun stories and attractions and I’ve think I’ve narrowed it down to 4 elements, from which the entire experience evolves. 

The first two are often talked about by Joe Rohde. First you have,

  • Theme: the moral of the story or message of the storyteller.
  • Subject: the “actors” that illustrate the story. Not only characters, but also place. 

Then there’s two more I’d like to add. 

  • Experience: this is the core event you will witness or participate in. Only a few words. Think archetypes.  This is similar to the aspirational quality that some theme park designers have talked about, but more importantly it is the lens through which the entire story will be framed.
  • Journey: the way we get there or specific premise. Think of it almost like a writing prompt. (Note: I debate whether journey belongs here because it’s somewhat determined by the other three)

You put the four together and the beginning of an attraction story begins to take place. 

For example in Rise of the Resistance we can see that 

  1. Theme: Good Vs. Evil. Evil will lose. 
  2. Subject: Star Wars. Intergalactic Civilizations. Spaceships.
  3. Experience: Prison Break
  4. Journey: Recruited into a space army and captured. 

Or The Haunted Mansion

  1. Theme: Death is actually kinda funny.
  2. Subject: A Haunted Mansion
  3. Experience: Guided Tour
  4. Journey: Deciding to visit that old creepy mansion

Of course there’s room for interpretation but with these four events you begin to see how any satisfying ride might be crafted. Even at random. Say you have. 

  1. Theme: Be careful what you wish for
  2. Subject: Construction Equipment
  3. Experience: Flight
  4. Journey: stumble into an abandoned construction site at night. 

One can start easily piecing together an attraction from this. Bob the Builder is tired of construction and wishes to do something more glamorous. We stumble upon him in a construction site right as he makes a wish for more excitement – causing the construction equipment to come alive. But it quickly grows dark as the construction equipment doesn’t like being unappreciated and chases us into the night sky on a whirlwind journey. Eventually it all comes to an end and Bob and us both realize that life is plenty exciting as is. 

Where this framework gets really exciting is how it ties into narrative 5 act structure. You have your four pieces of framework. Now what? Well let’s look now at classic five act structure. You’ll remember it from English class. I’m no expert, but here’s my summary

  • Act 1: Exposition: the world is introduced
  • Act 2: Rising Action: the main character sets out on a journey
  • Act 3: Arrival: the character achieves their initial goal. But at the midpoint of this act something happens which changes the equation and sets them on a new journey
  • Act 4: Journey Home: character sets off on the final quest. The final confrontation occurs at the transition to act 5
  • Act 5: Resolution and Denouement

The key thing to remember is that each key moment in the story occurs at an act transition, with the third act split in two – the key reversal occurring there. (All of what I’m about to say could be mapped onto 3 act structure too, but I think 5 makes it easier to talk about). 

So anyway…you’re building a ride. What goes where? Well I’d propose that nearly all attractions follow a simple rule. The Journey is everything that happens before the midpoint and the Core Experience is nearly everything that comes after. The theme and subject are what color each scene within and determine the ultimate outcome.

In modern attraction design it looks something like

  • Act 1: Entrance and early queue. The setting and world are introduced.
  • Act 2: Queue: the queue takes us on a journey into the world on our way to a promised experience (not always the core experience, but often). We learn about the world, and it’s rules, and why we’re there.
  • Act 3 Part One: Preshow: We arrive at the promised destination and new information is revealed that will set us on a new quest.
  • Act 3 Part Two: Load/secondary queue: The core experience (which follows its own three act structure) begins
  • Act 4: The Ride: We live out the meat of the core experience which leads us to one final climatic moment. 
  • Act 5: Climax & Exit: We experience the climatic moment of the core experience, and the story quickly resolves itself as we exit the vehicle with a denouement then or shortly thereafter. 

For example Indiana Jones and the temple of the forbidden eye:

  • Act 1: We come across an archeological dig at a temple
  • Act 2: We venture into the temple to see what’s up and learn this is a creepy place.
  • Act 3 Part 1 : we come across Sala and he tells us about quest expeditions we’ve somehow signed up for and the legend of the forbidden eye. Also we need to find Indy.
  • Act 3 Part 2: we decide to go on our own expedition (the core experience begins)
  • Act 4: The expedition throws up many obstacles of increasing threat level, preventing us from rescuing Indy until
  • Act 5: We nearly get crushed by a Boulder and narrowly escape. Indy lectures us since we were the ones that needed rescuing and we slowly make our way out of the scary temple. 

Or Rise of the Resistance

  • Act 1: We find the rebel base
  • Act 2. We are tasked with a mission to space but something goes wrong
  • Act 3 Part 1: We’re captured and thrown in prison
  • Act 3 Part 2: We’re rescued and begin our prison break (core experience)
  • Act 4: We journey through the prison facing increasing obstacles trying to make our way home until
  • Act 5: a final climatic encounter and daring escape pod run. We’re told we did a good job and exit.

As long as queues are long, and rides are short I predict this is the specific way we’ll see the structure implemented. What’s interesting though is looking to the past to see how rides and attractions then still followed the same structure BUT implemented it differently.

For example, before queues were really designed as part of the experience, it was common for the ride to begin as early as the beginning of Act 2. Let’s reference Pirates of the Caribbean (California version)

  • Act 1: We are introduced to New Orleans square and the Blue Bayou.
  • Act 2: We begin a journey through the bayou and enter mysterious caves
  • Act 3 Part 1: We learn that pirates used to inhabit these caves
  • Act 3 Part 2: The pirates materialize and the core experience of seeing pirates do pirate things begins
  • Act 4: Pirates do pirate things until
  • Act 5: The town climatically burns down, they all drunkenly kill themselves, and we exit this fever dream and end up back where we started.

Now consider how Pirates was adapted when it moved to Florida and it adopted the new-fangled immersive queue. The immersive queue replaced The Journey portion of the ride leaving only the Core Experience. The overall structure of the story was preserved, but what specific elements achieved it changed.

There’s even a ride that has a more unusual implementation. Let’s look at The Living Seas. For starters

  1. Theme: The ocean is majestic and cool
  2. Subject: Seabase Alpha
  3. Core Experience: Explore an Alien World (And/or aquarium)
  4. Journey: Specialized technology takes us deep under the sea

Now:

  • Act 1: We’re introduced to the history of sea exploration in a museum and documentary
  • Act 2: We begin our journey under the sea via Hydrolator
  • Act 3 Part 1: We take sea cabs to further our journey
  • Act 3 Part 2: We arrive at Seabase Alpha
  • Act 4: We explore Seabase Alpha (core experience)
  • Act 5: We leave Seabase Alpha via Hydrolator

This is the only attraction I’m aware of that has used the ride as a journey rather than the core experience. It’s an unusual implementation but it just goes to show that any means can be used to achieve any part of the structure, as long as all parts of the structure are there, you get yourself a satisfying experience.

The more I think on it, the more I think nearly all attractions can be conceptualized in this framework, and better yet this framework provides a nice blueprint to develop new attractions. Does it apply to your favorite?

Ready when you are CB: A Primer on Editing Technique for Themed Entertainment

At first glance it may not seem like there is that much in common between film editing and theme park design – but it turns out there’s a lot in common.

Welcome aboard! My name is Kira, and I’ll be your guide here on this great movie diatribe. It’s the perfect job for me because I used to work in movies! But just between you and me this is no ordinary tour. Because here we’ll be taking a look a film editing techniques and seeing how they can be used to design theme parks and rides! Funky huh? Just please make sure to keep your hands, arms, and eyes in an ergonomic positions at all times.

Now that we’ve taken care of business. Let’s talk about me. Back before I started pursuing a career in themed entertainment design, I had another career ambition. For a very long time I wanted to be a film editor. (Yes ironic for a person who can’t cut anything out of a 7000 word article). I fell in love with the process of editing when I was a young teenager, went to film school, and had a fairly successful career working in all stages of the post production process – editing quite a number of short films, commercials, and a feature along the way. As such, I spent a lot of time studying editing theory and how, not to craft stories from scratch, but how to tell stories with existing pieces: spending a lot of time thinking about how to shape emotion through the use of pacing, perspective, music, etc. And as such I can’t help but approach the design of themed entertainment from within this framework. But it’s occurred to me that this might be a more novel perspective for many people interested in the discipline because while modern theme park design has its roots heavily planted in movie making – most current fans and people interested in designing it tend to have roots more in visual art, writing, technology, or general theme park fandom. 

And I know what you’re thinking. “Editing? How is there any editing happening in a theme park? It’s all just one continuous environment!” To which I’d reply, “Well, only sort of.” The rules and theories behind editing actually apply to any sort of art form that’s experienced over a period of time. Editing is the study of how to best tell a story. And when you look at themed attractions in particular, there’s actually a lot of tools being used in ways remarkably similar to cutting together film. So what do you say? Is everybody ready?

Continue reading “Ready when you are CB: A Primer on Editing Technique for Themed Entertainment”

Interactivity and Immersion and Storytelling.

There has been a lot of talk about Evermore in the theme park community as of late. For those that aren’t aware it’s a new breed of theme park that’s just opened up in Utah; it has no rides and instead focuses on extremely immersive interactive storytelling with actors and detailed settings. It’s really less a theme park and more of a role playing game come to life – though with settings as detailed as anything in Animal Kingdom. At least that’s what the hype is. I confess I haven’t visited Evermore yet. It’s inaugural event was a halloween themed festivity and those of you that know me know I don’t have any interest in experiencing anything that even hints that it might be of the horror persuasion. So I want to make very clear that the thoughts below aren’t a review of Evermore – I haven’t experienced it, and overall I’m as excited as anyone to see how the park evolves over time and how some of it’s ideas might be implemented elsewhere.

Continue reading “Interactivity and Immersion and Storytelling.”

Oh There’s A Great Big Beautiful Assortment (of Reasons People Visit Everyday)

Recently, I was watching an episode of Super Carlin Brothers, a Youtube channel devoted to Disney, Harry Potter, fan-theories, and other miscellaneous pop-culture nerdom and was excited to see a video about their recent trip to Walt Disney World. Alas, the excitement quickly turned to dismay as criticism was turned to none other than Figment from Journey into Imagination. Who was this character, they asked, how dare he have a ride devoted to him when he doesn’t even have a movie or tv show? I felt a knife twist into my heart. No! How can you not understand the brilliance of having an attraction not based on pre-existing IP? Do you not understand the history of this character?

But wait, that’s not all. It wasn’t long after that I, in what seems to be a monthly occurrence,  was watching or reading some top ten list on a theme park blog and wincing as bare steel roller coasters or incoherent monstrosities appeared higher on the lists than classics like Thunder Mountain, Pirates, or new ground-breaking attractions such as Flight of Passage. What!?! How can you even think of comparing Millennium Force with Space Mountain?

But it gets even worse. Routinely I’m dragged into debates on internet forums and blogs about how Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is more groundbreaking than this or that because robot arms > everything, or how Evermore and Star Wars land are going to change the industry because they’re going to bring live action role-playing games to the industry and how immersive that is. Think of the stories. It goes on and on and on a spinning whirlwind as I scream into the abyss, “BUT WAIT THAT’S WHAT NOT THEME PARKS ARE FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR!!!!”

For me.

Perhaps it’s time to take a breath. Continue reading “Oh There’s A Great Big Beautiful Assortment (of Reasons People Visit Everyday)”

You made it! I Knew You Would

Imagine for a moment that you’re going on a vacation to Paris. It’s your first time visiting the city of light. What do you want to do? You want to see the Louvre of course! To get lost in the boulevards, to gorge yourself on pastries, drink wine, eat cheese, explore opulent palaces, climb through Notre Dame, tour the catacombs, detour to Disneyland Paris! (If you’re the kind of person that reads this blog anyway). You want to embark on all these adventures and you don’t want a rainstorm, or natural disaster, or renegade mime to get in your way: all the things that might otherwise make an interesting story if the someone visiting Paris wasn’t you. The ideal Paris trip is the one where nothing goes wrong, you encounter pleasant surprises, and the activities increasingly become more magical leading up to the last day of the trip when you have a moonlit dinner on top of the Eiffel tower, forever moved by the beauty of the city. At which point you return home on a high of wonderful memories.

Now imagine, instead, there’s a new movie out in the cinema: Paris Vacation. The trailers have been purposefully vague, no one knows quite what to expect. You buy tickets and go to the opening night midnight screening. The previews end, the lights dim. And for the next two hours you watch some rich guy’s slick video of the same exact vacation described above. No heist that needs to happen, no bloodline of Jesus to follow, no chance for the power of culinary arts to save someone’s soul, no stolen bread, no one falls in love, everything goes just as expected. Unless you’re a film critic you’d walk out wondering what the hell the point was, severely disappointed you paid $20 to see someone else’s home video.

Herein lies the difference in story construction between traditional and experiential forms.

Traditional stories are about characters who want something and are antagonized along the road towards getting it. That’s the core of any traditional story – whether it be play, movie, or novel. What people pay for is to see someone confront an obstacle and (usually) overcome it. This basic structure has been analyzed ad nauseam from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell to your 3rd grade English teacher. Beginning, middle, end. Boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl back. The key to any good story is in the struggles the characters face and how those struggles change them.

But what is the audience’s roll in this? The audience goes to the theatre, reads the book to see the character get their due. And in any good story, and good entertainment (read satisfying experience) the audience gets what they want. If they don’t they tend to throw tomatoes.

So what happens when the audience is part of the story? When they play a role in the narrative? Think about your own life for a moment: the story you live every day. Do you want to be antagonized? No, not really. It’s not fun when something stands in the way between you and what you want. People struggle their entire lives to escape their personal antagonists. In many ways that’s what life is. And sure we might grow from our struggles but the process is never fun. Entertainment is the quest to escape that. Art is the quest to observe it from afar.

And so you arrive at the inherent conflict between stories and experiences. The perfect story needs antagonism. The perfect experience needs the absence of antagonism. The trick is in combining them to create experiential stories.

Any individual person never wants things to go wrong. We seek out stories to see other people be antagonized and to escape our own troubles: to feel like there is control and order in the world. We go to stories to see people overcome obstacles. And once you’re inside a story that doesn’t change. And I hear you saying, “but wait of course people want to be antagonized – they want to be chased by the shark, or get caught in an earthquake, get caught in the evil villain’s clutches.”

To which I say, yes and no. People want less to have these experiences, and more to have these fantasies. They want to experience a massive earthquake while experiencing no actual danger. They want to experience fighting a villain, but only if they win and aren’t seriously hurt. And often they just want to experience pure joy, beauty, and peace of the kind so rarely found in the everyday world.

In addition, any antagonism you want by definition can’t be antagonism. Antagonism is what stands between you and what you want. And you’re the person that waited an hour to get on a boat that you knew was going to be attacked by a shark. You knew you were going to be chased by dinosaurs on the time rover or get trapped in a mystical temple full of booby traps in that jeep transport, and that the Yeti was coming. You knew there were going to be swarms of Pirates and you knew there was a giant scary drop coming at the end of Splash Mountain. That’s the whole damn point. The only real antagonist in any experiential storytelling is the damn queue – and we know how much people love those. The worst experiences are the ones that make promises and then something gets in the way. Think about the game level you can’t beat despite trying 50 times, the ride that breaks down right as you’re about to get on, the beautiful restaurant with the microwaved meatballs. The core of experiential entertainment isn’t story it’s wish fulfillment!

The key with the antagonism in experiential storytelling is that other characters may be antagonized. But us? We get exactly what we want and the process to get there is deliberately designed to increase and prolong the pleasure as much as possible. Other characters are antagonized. We are teased. Other characters might grow or change through the diegetic struggle. We grow or change through empathy,  the emotional journey we take, and the ways we’ve be primed by the story to construct meaning in the experience.

Story therefore still plays a crucial role in the process, helping to shape the form the experience takes and create theme. Theme adds meaning and context to the core experience. The wish might be to experience flight. The story gives that flight an arc. It brings people into the world, takes them into the air on a journey and back. It can take what would be a rather static experience of a standard helicopter tour and vary the pace, sights, and stakes to shape the emotionality into a dynamic, orchestrated flow in which feelings are heightened through an intersection of classical and pseudo-musical forms of storytelling technique that create a constant play of tension and release. The story too helps create theme which gives the experience extra meaning and significance to an outside truth. In an ideal scenario all three of these perfectly rhyme with each other and create transcendent experiences.

This is storytelling of a very different sort, as the experience of a traditional spectator and traditional characters are merged into the same world. The audience member, who now also plays a role in the story, must get what they’re looking for and ideally more than they’re looking for.  And I worry that it’s too easy to oversimplify this idea from “Give the audience what they want” to “Give the audience what they expect”. Hell, even the idea of giving the audience what they want is problematic and limiting if read too literally. Perhaps a more accurate framing is to think carefully about what you want the audience to experience. What you want them to feel. Engineer the experience around that and set the audiences’ expectations appropriately. This is a process that must occur first. The story must be constructed around the experience not the other way around. You have to think about what the environment will be like, how it feels, how the guest moves, what they see, who they interact with, what they can do, before an appropriate story can be attached. In traditional narratology the world building fleshes out the story, but in experiential entertainment, in a sense, it’s the story that fleshes out the world building. This is how you can have evocative experiences with very simple, relatively uninteresting stories create such memorable attractions (a la Monsieur Toad) and evocative stories with simple, uninteresting experiences create such duds (a la Mermaid). Or you end up with interesting stories and experiences that nevertheless don’t quite line up properly. Say like an experience designed for suspense with a story designed for a jam session (a la Guardians).

Antagonism you want for yourself isn’t antagonism at all. It’s a catalyst. It brings you closer to what you want and is the key to great experiences. And this is a key difference between telling traditional stories and ones in which the audience is a character. Characters in traditional narratives are almost always unwilling participants in the events of the plot. What stands between them and what they want is a source of suffering. But we, the audience, have decided to be there and can expect a satisfying outcome. That is the contract audiences make with storytellers. And as such anything that comes between us and the payoff, when done right, makes the payoff all the more satisfying. And crucially, the experience doesn’t necessarily need anything coming in between at all. But stories require meaning, and without the ability of us, as a character in the story to experience true struggle, the meaning must come from outside – in the world. Hence the importance of the construction of that world and the experiences within. The story of the world we’re in and the characters in it can imbue our own experience with that meaning, which is why it’s so critical that the story and experience reflect and reinforce each other. When it all comes together you get some of the most effective storytelling out there…stories that form deep and personal connections with the audience. Guests get to experience fantasies made real and with any luck, go home feeling inspired and with more insight than before. 

 

Only You Guys are Going on This Special Mission

It seems there was a time during the 90s and 00s when no ride could open without us, the guest, being thrust on some mission we didn’t know we were there for. On Dinosaur we were co-opted into rescuing some rosetta stone of a reptile, on Spider-Man thrust into reporting on a man with a levitation-fetish, unwilling science experiments on the Hulk, Alien Rescuers in ET, substituting for crash test dummies on Test Track. Or else we were tourists. Touring an old hotel, touring the galaxy, touring a movie studio, touring some institute, touring an ancient temple – no not of the Forbidden Eye, of Poseidon, touring touring touring. (For a list of exhaustive tropes, including these check out Passport to Dreams). The goal here is admirable. The landscape of themed entertainment was changing bringing with it a new breed of attraction where the audience isn’t just an audience anymore but an active participant in the story. 

However there’s a problem with this and it centers around the concept of cognitive dissonance: when your mind has to hold two contradicting ideas as both true. When an experience asks you to role play, it asks you to put aside your own internal thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and substitute them with what it provides. Generally this doesn’t work out very well in any medium, but it’s particularly difficult in themed entertainment because your own internal thoughts, feelings, and experience are so central to the entire endeavor. Designers often made the mistake of telling stories about us instead of about the worlds we were in. And stories about ourselves that did not and could not mesh with the experiences they were providing.

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