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. 

 

Theme Park Musing (#1?)

Occasionally I write some thoughts about design but not fully fleshed out enough to be an essay. Going to try to post those  here more often then just on the tumblr. I’ve written quite a few, but I think this is the first one here  so I’m gonna call it #1 

I think when designing attractions it’s essential to remember that they do not tell stories in the way that we’re used to. They have more in common with dance or music than movies or books.
Movies, books, and plays tell stories through the use of characters, dialogue, and their interactions. They all essentially rely on the written or spoken word to create their story.
Dance and music are different. To say a ballet gets it’s meaning through the synopsis in the program is ludicrous. It’s a useful tool that gives the dance clarity and context, but the actual story is told primarily through movement.
I think the danger we face when trying to create attractions, especially as time goes on and we try to imbue more meaning and complex, multidimensional stories into them, is that we focus too much on the characters, dialogue, backstory, and story in the traditional, written, sense rather than using the medium at hand. We’re at danger of giving immense attention to songs’ lyrics while giving only marginal attention to the music itself. Lyrics give clarity and specificity to music, but truly good music conveys the essence of that story with just the melody and harmony itself.
@pureimagineering defines Story as someone wanting something badly and something getting in the way. (Paraphrased). I think I’d broaden that definition though and say the essence of Story, and really theme as well is a progression of emotions generally involving conflict and release, that is shared between the storyteller and audience. We usually channel that emotional progression into metaphors of characters, events, circumstances, and themes. Most types of storytelling require the storyteller to assign all or most of these for the audience. Written and spoken language require specific abstraction to relate ideas and meaning. But music and dance don’t. It can help make sure everyone is on the same page but doesn’t really affect the outcome. A truly well written song will convey its story and meaning with or without lyrics. Lyrics just take a song about grief and give nuance about the death of a specific person and guide the audience in interpretation. However it’s worth noting that audiences often strip away details that they have difficulty empathizing with or are irrelevant to their life and insert their own experiences instead. See the popularity of “part of your world”. I’d dare say most people can relate to being a mermaid wanting to be in the human world. In fact, these days, most people probably wish to be AWAY from the human world. The written story of the song acts as a way to give specificity to a broader musical statement about longing and wanting to be part of something. Surely the song wouldn’t function as well without that attached cipher, but I’d argue any similar lyrical statement would work just as well. And the lyrics without the music, or attached to the tune of Yankee Doodle would largely be a footnote in history. Indeed, in musical theatre (and Alan Menken’s work in particular) the “I want” song is a classic staple – often the most popular song of any show, and they tend to have very similar musical features. The same story is being told musically, again and again.
And if audiences are bound to insert their own specifics into a story, then it’s up to us to craft the larger framework of emotion that will direct what experiences they choose so they arrive at the intended meaning.
Anyway, this is all to say, that themed entertainment is a storytelling medium where stories are told through ENVIRONMENTS, spaces, objects, and the progression of those locations. Yes there are characters and setups that can help clarify and direct the intended meaning, but they should merely be channeling the story that’s already around them. It’s insanely important for designers to remember this. To not use the medium at hand is akin to writing lyrics for a song and then slapping them on the first melody that syllabically fits.

I think the comparison in storytelling between books/movies/theatre and music and how that relates to themed entertainment is interesting for another reason too.

Books/movies/plays tend to have a bias towards very dramatic arcs in emotion whereas songs tend to have a bias towards relishing in one particular emotion with a much subtler arc.

In part I think this is due to length. The most popular manifestations of the written word mediums are novels, feature films/long form television, and 2 hr plays. Music’s most popular form is the song. When compared to a full album, opera, movement, or symphony (or to the short story, an episode of a serialized tv show, chapter, or scene)you start to see similar ranges.

But the question then becomes what are the equivalents in themed entertainment? Is a park equivalent to a play or symphony and each attraction is merely a scene or movement? Or is each attraction an entire movie unto itself and the park is more of a library? Or is an entire attraction just a part of a scene, or just a song relishing in one feeling, the land the scene, and the park the whole work?

I don’t really think there’s an answer yet and maybe the beauty of themed entertainment is that we won’t be bogged down by presiding notions of how much time and space a story warrants. Disneyland might function more as a library of self contained adventures that are only broadly related while Animal Kingdom is a much more carefully crafted overall story with each land providing supporting scenes. And they’re both great!

I think it’s safe to say in general that as time has gone on the scope of Story has changed from individual attraction, to land, and it’s leaning towards park now.
I certainly think the ambition though among those of us that see the potential of themed entertainment is to see a truly fractal park. Where the park is a masterwork of Story/theme and each contributing smaller portion echoes that theme and adds to it. And hell in my ideal WDW fantasy the entire resort still creates an overarching idea. (Humanity And Hope for the Future).
But it’s worth noting that this is only one approach, even if most of it see it a bit like the holy grail. A library approach is legitimate too – and when done well (aka organized) might even be a more satisfying experience. I think the interesting thing about Disneyland is the diversity of experiences it offers-not only in themes, but in the arcs of attractions. Some attractions are entire play-like stories. And others are much more song-like. And scale and duration don’t necessarily determine which is which.

So yeah the medium is new and there’s a lot that hasn’t been conventionalized. I would add though, that if the norm becomes attractions that take 2-3 hours from the moment you enter the queue to the moment you exit then we should really be thinking hard about the kind of stories being told in those attractions. In the past an attraction being equivalent to a song, scene, or movement has worked well – but I’m not sure anyone wants to listen to the same song for 2 hours unless it’s more like an opera.

Why is Pirates so Good?

Theme park fans are an interesting bunch of people. We consist of everything from blue collar vacationers, hipster theatre auteurs, oh-so-serious designers, cosplaying character seekers, internet attached reporters, teenage thrill seekers, retired day-trippers, and every combination in between. And in this diverse group debates rage on pretty often  around themes of what themed entertainment should be, who it should target, and what its ambitions should be. Entertainment? Thrills? Inspiration? Escape? Community? Fun? It’s interesting that in a world that caters itself to so many different niches of preference, that one attraction comes up again and again as a shining example of common ambition. Seemingly almost everyone continually agrees that the original Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland is one of, if not the, best themed attractions ever built. So what makes Pirates so great? Why does it work so well? 

Well, of course no discussion about the excellence of Pirates would be complete without taking a moment to state an obvious reason; the ride is a showcase of technical and artistic perfection. The set and lighting design is wonderful and detailed, the sculpture worthy of galleries, the sound design multilayered, the building comfortably cool, and the acoustics better than even many attractions and theaters built today. Those features are foundational to creating any truly great entertainment experience. It’s tempting to say that that is the reason Pirates always stands out: the scale of the sets, and quantity of animatronics, duration of the ride, effectiveness of the effects, and the overall detail create an immersive environment that just really excels. And while all of that certainly plays a role, I think the idea that lavishness alone creates amazing attractions is a bit of a myopic conclusion: one that seems to be playing an increasing role in the design of new attractions and even more in their publicity. The idea that absurdly grand environments and obsessively detailed story are what make something immersive is true, but is also a limited understanding of the word ‘immersion’.

  See, ‘immersion’ has become somewhat of a buzzword in the popular lexicon – being used to describe everything from the upcoming Star Wars land and groundbreaking theatrical experiments to cell phones screens and restaurant menus. Even in the theme park world, the word can be overused and find generic meaning. Even when it is used to describe experiences that genuinely transport, this is often achieved narratively, architecturally, or with details, props, and backstory. And while there is no doubt that those techniques are crucial they also only get Pirates halfway to being the flagship that it is. So much more comes from the design of the attraction structure itself and the way it immerses the rider into those environments and story. Pirates chooses to immerse you viscerally and emotionally in the way the experience unfolds. It uses the physical space and the progression of that space to affect techniques of hypnosis and patterns of dreams to immerse experientially, not just thematically. And that focus on the experiential story of the audience itself is what makes all the difference.

Continue reading “Why is Pirates so Good?”

The Trend Towards (new) Immersion

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter undoubtably set in motion a new immersion standard.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter undoubtably set in motion a new immersion standard.

Alrighty, a big topic to start off with lol. Just as a warning, this post doesn’t exactly have a thesis – there’s a lot of ground to cover, more it’s a bunch of half developed observations. Take it as fair warning that my biggest flaw as a writer is keeping myself focused.

Has anyone else noticed just how prevalent the terms “immersive” or “immersion” have become in the themed entertainment world? It seems I can’t even read a press release for a  new merry-go-round without coming across a sentence like,

“this ground-breaking new attraction featuring a brand new type of rotating mechanism immerses the rider into the world of wooden horses and carousels of old like never before.”

Hyperbole and the focus on ride system aside (topics for another day) there’s that damn word again: a concept encompassing perhaps the absolute pinnacle of themed design being reduced to a buzzword completely devoid of any of it’s original meaning. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is immersive. Radiator Springs is immersive. The Rivers of America is immersive (I can hear some shouts about that last one coming my way already – I’ll get to it). The Simpsons land at Universal Orlando is not immersive. Nor is the despicable me attraction. Nor is a lot of the theme park world. But that’s not a bad thing, especially when the focus on immersion in the modern era seems ever so more emphasized not on the concept of immersion itself, but on a particular subtype of it. Continue reading “The Trend Towards (new) Immersion”