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.

There has been a lot of talk though in the theme park world and even the mainstream media of how Evermore represents the future of theme parks. How this is what next-level immersion looks like: being sent on quests, and interacting with actors. It’s Westworld but in real life! And certainly with upcoming attractions like Galaxy’s Edge, rumors about the new Universal park in Orlando, experiences like The VOID (an offshoot of Evermore’s development and invested in heavily by Disney) it can certainly seem like that. 

Ignoring where the plot of  Westworld leads, I’m here to say that while there are certainly elements of this trend that are exciting, immersion and interactivity are not synonymous with one another. And that games and storytelling, as Ian Kay might have pointed out a while back, are near antonyms of each other. And that for immersion to work well there needs to be separation between the audience and the art. 

I think there is room for RPG like experiences to exist within a theme park, and probably room for them to support their own entertainment endeavors as well, but I think the the audience that enjoys that kind of thing is a small subset of the audience that theme parks have traditionally appealed to – The Lorekeepers – and has the potential to leave everyone else hanging.

I’m well aware that I could be dead wrong on this, my personality does not jive well with this sort of thing. I’m a very introverted peep, I despise most forms of audience participation, hate being singled out on stage, don’t like not being in on a joke, cannot muster enough suspension of disbelief to have a conversation with an actor maintaining character, and even if I could am too self-conscious to let the actor see me act back. I don’t particularly like free-from puzzles and find most games that don’t involve a good deal of creativity to be pointless. I don’t like being on the wrong side of a power dynamic and to me – being put in a situation where you’re interacting with an actor, are a pawn in some plot, or someone is watching you back all feel exactly like that. I’d much rather be the actor assigning the quests than the guest, and I’d much rather just take in the view on a train more than that. So I’m pretty hopelessly biased on this topic – but I do know there’s  a lot of people like me. (Side note – I did actually quite like The VOID  which is somewhat of a similar kind of experience – though interacting with a computer simulation is very different  than having to interact with real people. And I still don’t think it’s a substitute for a typical theme park experience, though it would fit well within it). I do think there’s numerous other reasons to be cautious about these trends though – there’s useful stuff there, but I don’t think as a thing unto itself it’s the future of theme parks. There’s a lot of issues.

For starters let’s start with something a lot of people seem to confuse. Immersion and interactivity do not equal each other. Something can be interactive without being immersive and vice versa. Opening a door is interactive, answering questions on your ride vehicle screen is interactive, but unless within a larger appropriate environmental context they’re no more immersive than listening to a tv show while you cook dinner. Similarly some of the most immersive experiences on earth don’t require you to interact at all. Simply being within a forest, or old city, or seeing a really good play can been immersive as anything. Though some of this I suppose depends on exactly what you define immersion and interactivity to be. After all even just walking through an environment is interactive on some level and at some level focusing your attention on any event or thing is immersive. So what exactly are the definitions? For our purposes an interactive experience is an experience that requires you to make decisions and affect change in order for the experience to progress. An immersive experience is an experience that utilizes a variety of techniques, and usually the use of all the audience area, to focus all the audience’s attention to the story at hand and forget the outside world. There seems to be a long trend in the themed entertainment industry that assumes that interactivity begets immersion and anything immersive can be made better by including interactivity. I think that this is a false notion though and that interactivity can often actually make experiences less immersive unless very carefully constructed. With interactivity comes the very likely chance that the audience begins to focus on the interactive element rather than the story or environment itself. Escape rooms often have this flaw. The puzzles and mechanics of the game overshadow the environment and draw attention to the scenario’s artificiality. The story might be that you’re locked into a detective’s office with only his helpless assistant – yet his assistant also is the moderator and hint-bearer of the game. You might have so many tasks to complete that you barely soak in the story of the world, and ultimately the experience is more like an overdecorated puzzle or to do list than a truly immersive one.

There’s also the issue of assigned roles contributing again to a sense of artificiality and destroying immersion as I’ve discussed at length here. This is something that such experiences are at risk for. A traditional immersive experience or theme park story requires the audience be nothing more than themselves. It does not presume to tell them what they feel or who they must be to experience it. They’re simply the audience or something similar. In many newer immersive interactive adventures we’re given objectives, roles we’re supposed to pretend to be, etc, and while I’m sure this is enjoyable for some, I think for many it leads to substantial cognitive dissonance as too much suspension of disbelief is required. Or it plain just requires work when they’d rather be having fun or relaxing.

This also leads to a bigger problem which is that in order to experience a story, art, any sort of work, you almost necessarily can’t be part of it. If you’re part of the work, then you by definition aren’t experiencing it – you’re creating it. Once an audience member gets called up onstage for a bit, they stop experiencing the show (at least the show everyone else is watching) and instead become part of it. Arguably they still end up with some kind of experience, but not at all the experience of the authorial vision. Some of the earlier attempts at immersive theatre recognized this: that separation between the story and the audience is necessary in order for the audience to experience the story. Sleep No More cleverly asked the audience to wear masks – not only giving them the curtain of anonymity to feel more comfortable in the space and interacting with actors, but very clearly delineating for the audience members what was part of the experience and what wasn’t. Even so, telling a story in such a way – where any part might be seen or missed is enormously difficult and arguably not storytelling at all. Storytelling by definition involves careful control over the release of information and uses that flow of information to create a dramatic arc. If all our time is spent answering riddles, going on quests, deciphering backstory, only getting uncontrolled glimpses of the residents of the space on their journeys – then what we’re getting is something much closer to a game than a story. And while I’m sure there are plenty of people that would argue with this, I think games and stories are not at all the same thing. Games can, occasionally, tell stories through their mechanics (think of what monopoly gameplay tells us about unrestrained capitalism) but that is fairly rare. It is much more common, say in video games, for games to expose us to lots of backstory – endless amounts of trivia about the history of a world and the details of the overall plot at any point it time – but with limited control over perspective, timing, order of events, what we see and and what we miss, and with much of our attention dedicated to the task at hand what exactly is the game ever able to say? Are we really ever given a chance to be immersed? To take the story in? Is a story ever actually told? Or are we just left to dig one up? Stories exist to tell us things, to encode truths and ideas in metaphors, themes, and the emotional journeys they take us on. And it is an enormously difficult challenge, potentially impossible, if the audience is allowed to be the author. In fact most of art of designing themed entertainment and storytelling is the art of the giving the guest the illusion of being the author, when that isn’t the case at all. 

Finally there’s practical concerns to consider. The larger the amount of people visiting an experience the more difficult it is for each of them to participate in the interactive story at hand. The logistics quickly become impossible as hundreds or thousands of people are sent on a fixed number of quests, plot lines start to cross over, actors are overloaded, etc, etc. It can become a mess. 

Interestingly VR experiences like the VOID might be able to handle these kinds of problems as well as the audience separation problem more easily. I don’t necessarily know if the technology is particularly well suited to a long form format (just being in that suit for 10 minutes is uncomfortable and hot as blazes), but it’ll be a very interesting path to watch.

So does this mean I completely hate the idea of interactivity in parks and the current trends? No, actually. I think there’s a lot here that’s interesting and that could be put to good use. However, I don’t think it’s a good idea, nor do I think it can be particularly successful – especially at scale, as an end unto itself- though so much is up to the individual execution. Those of you that have seen my Mary Poppins attraction have seen the influence that immersive theatre has had on me and my ideas for what a themed entertainment experience can look like. I just don’t believe that interactivity begets immersion or that it is at all at the top of the list of important things. That being said it seems like an enormously good tool to add life into otherwise static spaces. I love the idea of actors populating spaces. I love the idea of audiences getting to interact with them (and shy audiences getting to watch those interactions without a mandate or getting only half an experience if they choose not to participate). And I love the idea of the various actors in the space being tied together to a semi-scripted meta-narrative that enriches the overall story of the land or attraction. But I don’t think it’s an attraction in itself. I don’t think such experiences are capable of telling all that great of stories by themselves – unless perhaps you attach yourself to an actor and follow them around for hours. You’ll notice in my Poppins attraction I made the immersive theatre element part of the queue, part of the prologue that sets up the larger experience – not the main course in itself. Such elements are I think a fantastic way to set up moods and set up themes and relate small nuggets of information that might enhance a theme – but not full experiences unto themselves.

I also really like the idea of interactivity in ways that make sense for the environment. But to me the best kind of interactivity is not always in ropes you get to pull or machines you get to twirl (though those are very fun!) and definitely not in touchscreen littered about, but more in environments that encourage you to explore them, look into windows, go down alleys, etc. The best kind of interactivity isn’t a layer that’s added on, nor something you’re required to do, but something that evolves out of the setting itself. In other words, go visit Tom Sawyer’s island.

All of this is a very long winded way of saying that interactivity isn’t immersion nor is it the main course of experiential storytelling. This stuff can’t be mandatory and it has to go somewhere, culminate in something, say something. With those concerns in mind though, the ideas being played with are very exciting and it will be fascinating to see where they lead us in the future.