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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But it’s all FAKE!

In the Back to the Future sequels there’s this motif of scenes that occurs. Inevitably, events will be moving right along and then someone will say to Marty, “What? Are you chicken?”

Time stops, brakes squeal. Marty is halted in his tracks as the words send an electric shock through his body.

That’s how I feel every time someone says, (cue exasperated valley girl accent) “Ugh but theme parks are so fake!”

Forgive me, but, what is your point?

Seriously, what is your point? Are you offended that Caesar isn’t actually stabbed on stage? Is it a problem for you that Oz was built on a soundstage? Will you not go see The David because it’s made of marble and not a rotting corpse? Please tell me, what are you trying to communicate when you feel the need to point out that there’s speakers in the trees, that the castle isn’t real stone, as if real [read worthy] entertainment is dependent on silent compressed dirt. When you feel the need to point out that we’re not really in Hogsmeade were you somehow under the impression that ever was the goal?

For the love of Walt people, OF COURSE IT’S FAKE.

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Why is Mermaid so Bad?

In the last major essay on this blog I discussed an attraction that is commonly held to be one of the best dark rides ever made, Pirates of the Caribbean, and examined some of the techniques used that make it work so well. Today, I’d like to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and look at one of the more ‘meh’ examples of dark ride design in the Disney library.

Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, and in California, The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure are the long awaited ride adaptations of the classic 1989 animated musical that debuted as part of Florida’s new Fantasyland in 2012 and the revamped California Adventure in 2011. From here on I’ll just refer to them as ‘Mermaid’. For the purposes of this analysis I’ll be focusing mostly on the ride portion of the experiences as these are nearly identical between both coasts. The rides debuted to much fanfare from the Disney PR machine but have had a decidedly negative to, at best, ambivalent reaction among the fan and theme park community. To be clear, the rides are still of high quality and feature some dazzlingly technology, especially when compared to competitors, and many guests still find the experience enjoyable enough. But, I think it is fair to say that for a movie as iconic and beloved as The Little Mermaid the attraction that resulted, even for a ‘C’ or ‘D’ ticket experience as intended, feels underwhelming, and moreover, just off. Even simple dark rides like Peter Pan and Mr. Toad give better experiences. What is it?

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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.

On theme and the future

Before today’s Presentation gets underway I just want to throw out some thoughts about Epcot.

Future World was never about the future or technology or science fiction but about Humanity, our interactions with each other and the world, and the history and future history of ourselves.

World showcase was never just about being a world tour of architecture and food. It was about Humanity and our cultures – a giant expansion of the premise in It’s a Small World, outlining a hope for respect, celebration, and curiosity regarding our differences.

The reason the combination of what had been designed as two separate parks worked so well is that together the two halves functioned as a singular thesis detailing the history of ourselves and where we hoped to go.

Joe Rohde has a quote about theme parks fundamentally needing to have a theme in the literary sense – a moral or idea to explore that’s at the center of all the experiences. And I think much of what we’ve seen in the theme park world in recent years, specifically Disney has been a loss or modification of that principle – whether it’s because Disney has lost sight of it or because we’re in a huge period of transition remains to be seen. I honestly think this is what made most Disney parks unique from other parks even if the company didn’t realize they were doing it.

The magic kingdom/Disneyland is about childhood and the shared myths of a country that has influenced much of the dreams of the world. Epcot was about Humanity and our interactions with each other and place in it. Animal Kingdom is about Nature and Humans relationship with it. These deep themes give the parks resonance. It’s revealing that the one park in Florida that only had a subject (movies) but no real theme, is the park that has suffered the most over the years.

The parks in Florida by all accounts have been and are heading into one of the biggest periods of change in the resort’s history, and the parks worldwide and industry have been seeing large shifts in the business model, what attractions consist of, etc. I’m not inherently opposed to change. Change is often difficult, especially when it involves the destruction of something you have fond memories of, but it can also be exciting and an opportunity. There is a trend amongst Disney fans on the internet that become aghast at almost any change and that’s not what this essay is about. As long as theme parks are viewed primarily as entertainment and not art by the public, and as long as their business model relies on people coming back, parks will always have to keep themselves fresh, deliver new experiences, and change to accommodate culture. And frankly the most interesting parks are the ones that have been around the longest and seen these changes mold their landscape over time – a completely artificial reality somehow becoming just as rich of a place as any other.

My only concern is that in this particular period of change there does seem to be the potential for that guiding principle of theme in that literary sense to be forgotten. Change in theme would be hard but forgivable and maybe even beneficial in the long term but a loss of theme results in a fundamentally different experience – a day long experience where all experiences inform each other becomes a day long hodge-podge of corporate branding and it is literally only the presence of that underlying theme, story, whatever you want to call it, that prevents that from happening.

I really am excited about the upcoming announcements and am largely confident about the future of the parks around the world. The beauty of time and history is that even when a pendulum swings too far it tends to swing back. But nevertheless these worries do run in my mind. I worry about the public perception of the company and how that ripples across generations. I worry about how certain trends in themed entertainment design create dogma that excludes other types of experiences from being created – experiences or styles that used to be central to the medium and still have utility. And I worry about the park naive enough to theme itself to all of Humanity and by so doing became a park with the most potential to do something meaningful with the tools of themed entertainment besides just entertain – that it might decide to abandon that potential in favor of an easier end.

The movies we enjoy most are those that tell us something about ourselves – that do more than than just offer fuzzy, funny characters and action sequences. If you can deliver the fuzzy, funny, the frenetic AND the deep meaning, or theme, then you have the worldwide hit. And Disney gets this. They churn out movies with that formula all the time. Here’s hoping they use it again.