Archive | October, 2013

Coffee, Beer, Zombies, and the Future of Immersive Entertainment

30 Oct

Unfortunately, it couldn’t be all play, all the time in Atlanta. We had a full day of work ahead of us to set the record straight on a few items.

Does Octane deserve to be considered one of the nation’s best coffee establishments? Yes. Especially when paired with a popover from the adjoining Little Tart Bakeshop in the Grant Park location.

Will Rosebud provide a superlative experience for the discerning brunch enthusiast? We started with fried cheese grits with smoked cheddar and pepper jelly. Need I go on?

Can Porter Beer Bar live up to its reputation as one of Atlanta’s best destinations for enjoying a wide variety of amazing beer? Early results are extremely promising, but from a due diligence standpoint, we feel that it would be imprudent to end our investigation prematurely.

Atlanta is a flexible concept

“Atlanta” is a flexible concept

Refreshed and recharged, and in gratitude to Atlanta’s gracious hospitality, we thought it was only right that we do our part to assist them with their zombie problem. Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse promises an interesting variant on the standard haunted attraction. Unlike NetherWorld, which was incongruously located a few blocks from suburban strip malls, AZA is convincingly nestled in the woods off a deserted stretch of highway. The attraction is built on and around the grounds of a deserted motel and it didn’t take much effort to believe that zombies might be nearby.

For those who don’t frequent this type of entertainment, the haunted attraction industry is all grown up and embraces more than what we endearingly referred to as a “haunted house” back in the day. There are a growing number of variants on the theme of scaring people for fun and profit, including haunted mazes, haunted trails, scare zones, haunted hayrides, etc. Many attractions aggregate and even mashup several of these styles to make sure that you don’t get too comfortable. AZA provides three attractions which can be generally described as 1) haunted house/haunted trail mashup, 2) haunted maze + paintball and 3) haunted house/immersive theatre.

cdc-zombie-posterOut of respect for the organizers, I won’t give up any spoilers, but I will share some general impressions. Admission can be purchased on a per attraction basis. I was here from California and was in the middle of nowhere, GA. I was going to all three.

Although the attractions can be visited on a standalone basis, some of the employees had specific ideas on the order in which to experience them if you were seeing more than one. They were essentially imposing a meta-level of story and emotional engagement that hadn’t actually been accounted for in the overall design of the attraction. The best part is: different people had different opinions on the ideal order, and they were pretty passionate about their individual assessments. It was like having a personal team of horror sommeliers. More importantly, it was unscripted proof that the tendency to find story in our lives is central to the human experience. It also echoed my thoughts on the very personalized reactions that one can expect from immersive experiences.

Unlike many haunted attractions, which are essentially self-directed (i.e., here’s the entrance, proceed to the exit,) each of these attractions had a guided component. While the most memorable features of many attractions are the live performers, the level of interactivity is typically low and unidirectional: they scare, you scream, keep moving. The guides and performers at AZA added a sense of theatricality and interactivity which enhanced the the overall immersive quality of the experience. The first attraction we chose was called “The Curse,” and it took advantage of the ample, wild surroundings by using parts of the neighboring forest as the set. There was a backstory and a mystery to the attraction, and we were recruited as investigators and addressed directly by the guides and performers. Although I saw room for improvement, I was certainly entertained.

All in a day's work

The blogger in the line of duty

For me, the main attraction, and the reason I found myself in Conley, GA deferring my important research of Atlanta’s brewpubs, was the “Zombie Shoot.” We were provided with a semi-automatic AirSoft gun (essentially paintball, but using specialized BBs instead of paintballs) and protective headgear, and were told, “Aim for the head or the chest. Keep firing until they go down.” Pretty much the exact opposite of your standard preshow advisement, “Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.” Also, in case it’s not totally clear, you’re firing at real people, I mean zombies, not cardboard cut-outs or animatronics. Did it work? Mostly. Was it fun? Definitely.

Maybe King Lear actually IS the future of haunted attractions

Maybe Shakespeare actually IS the future of haunted attractions

The final attraction was called “?” and I think it’s telling that it might have been my favorite even though on its surface, it seemed to be a standard haunted house. Why? Story. It was the most theatrical of the three and featured the most interesting and inventive story, while still remaining focused on trying to scare you out of the building. Granted, we’re not talking Shakespeare, but it was a refreshing and successful variant on what could have been an uninspired production.

The production value in these attractions was not award-winning, and the storytelling was not expert, but I’m still glad I checked them out. It was all produced with a lot of heart, and everybody from the people selling the tickets to the performers and guides and zombies seemed to be having a good time and wanted to make sure that we were too. By providing three very different, hybridized attractions, it was clear that the creators were willing to take some risks and try out some new ideas, which will always impress me more than playing it safe.

Crossing the line from a one-way performance to an interactive experience can immediately raise many expectations that are potentially difficult to meet. The biggest challenge becomes the reconciliation between the audience’s sense of agency and the practical and aesthetic parameters of structured entertainment. It’s a tricky balancing act between living an experience and playing along. To choose an extreme yet practical example from this show, being provided with a gun and an opportunity to fend off assailants is real and pulls you right into the experience. However, remaining cognizant of where you can and can’t shoot can temporarily pull you out. It trades the steady equilibrium of an evenly immersive but passive experience for one which attempts to balance instances of deep immersion within a more structured rules-based framework. The resulting dynamics suggest a hybrid with gaming, sports, and other experiences that would otherwise seem at odds with what (in this case) is essentially theater. Personally, I think that finding a satisfying balance in these intersecting sensibilities is a challenge worth taking on, and that we’re hopefully just scratching the surface of the types of experiences we can expect to enjoy in the future.

SATE ’13 & the Gross Anatomy of Haunted Attractions

23 Oct
Cutting to the chase at SATE

Cutting to the chase at SATE

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Savannah, GA to attend SATE ’13. SATE (Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience) is the annual design conference of the Themed Entertainment Association, of which I am a proud, card-carrying member! This is my second year attending this event, and I can’t say enough good things about it. It would be well within the bounds of this blog to provide a full report of the conference, but rather than reinvent the wheel, I can vouch for the high-quality recaps posted at entertainmentdesigner and micechat. As if having my mind blown by the entertaining and informative presentations and panels wasn’t enough, I also hung out with industry pros and peers at events held at a haunted hotel and the courtyard of a former jail. It was two full days of encouragement, stimulation, and inspiration, and I left with a head full of ideas and direction. But I wasn’t going home. I was on a mission. I was heading to Hauntlanta!

It's my blog. I can plug my childhood friends if I want to.

It’s my blog. I can plug my childhood friends if I want to.

When my friend Ted Dougherty found out I was going to Savannah, he insisted that I had to go check out NetherWorld, a haunted attraction on the outskirts of Atlanta. When Ted talks haunts, I listen — he’s the author of an award-winning book about the history of Knott’s Scary Farm and he logs the miles to check out new attractions. NetherWorld is regularly ranked as one of the best haunted houses in the country and even enjoys a high position on a list of the Most Influential Haunted Attractions of All Time, alongside Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and other legendary spots. The accolades made the 3 1/2 hour drive seem fairly inconsequential.

I don’t want to disappoint, but I don’t feel that it’s fair to provide a detailed blow-by-blow review. These types of attractions rely on the element of surprise, and I respect the importance of not spoiling the experience. I will share some high-level impressions though. NetherWorld 2013 consists of two mazes, and the combined experience takes approx. one hour. Apparently, the attraction changes every year, which itself is a horrific consideration, given its massive size and density of detail. I sometimes leave these types of attractions, including those with presumably far larger budgets at theme parks, with a disappointingly sizable mental list of missed opportunities and instances of ineffective execution. My experience with NetherWorld was the complete opposite; I was struggling to hold on to the inexhaustible list of everything that did work, and my brain was in spasms trying to retain the outrageous sensory overload that I had just experienced . . . in a good way.

This kept happening

This kept happening

However, after leaving SATE, my head was full of story. Among other things, talking shop with Chris Huntley for an hour will have that effect. He promised that my brain would instinctively expunge his heretic theories so that I could resume normal functioning, but so far (thankfully) that hasn’t happened. As he pointed out, using the Haunted Mansion as an example, the story for most haunted attractions goes something like, “You’re in a really bad situation, and you need to get out, or bad things will happen. Good luck.” This would seem to justify an approach in which a haunted attraction is essentially an empty container for a potpourri of arbitrary horrific offerings. In fact, at NetherWorld, although the two mazes are distinctly themed, it was difficult for me to articulate anything more than the skeletal plot above for either of them. It seems that the lack of a compelling or unique story should have caused my emotional engagement to border on disinterest, but that wasn’t the case. So why did I love this attraction so much? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m going to take a crack at it.

I thought we were talking about haunted houses.

I thought we were talking about haunted houses

Without getting hung up on specific terms of art, understanding how we respond emotionally to stories may involve unwinding the relationship between “what” is being told and “how” it’s being told. This relationship is arguably more symbiotic and therefore less forgiving in non-immersive modalities. For example, while it’s possible to temporarily lose yourself in a great book or movie, it is almost impossible to totally forget that the story is happening to other people. If the art or craft of the storytelling falters, we quite readily fall back to the default state of being ourselves. Also, we instinctively and sometimes unconsciously act as critics and connoisseurs when we experience stories told in these ways. On the other hand, because an immersive experience inherently requires a material level of involvement by the audience, it begins to experientially resemble life or dreams. While we may form an opinion of the experience as it’s happening, it will be less natural for us to disengage and evaluate it critically. If some traditional storytelling components are missing or unbalanced, we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves and move forward, just as we do in life.

disbeliefIn short, stories that do not have a deeply immersive component must suspend disbelief so that you can accept the story that is being told to you. On the other hand, immersive experiences must suspend disbelief so that you can accept the story that you end up telling yourself. This is a key insight for me as a storyteller. As a writer and filmmaker, I recognize that I often try to direct and control my audience’s reactions. For instance, I might evaluate the success of my piece based on how many people laugh or jump or cry at specific points that I have crafted. However, as an experience designer, that approach might not be ideal. A successfully designed experience may encourage a viewer to integrate what she is experiencing in a very personal way and with a highly individual outcome. To paraphrase Asa Kalama, another speaker at SATE’s story segment, sometimes the most effective approach in developing a successful experience may lie in providing a compelling framework for a guest’s creativity to blossom, and then getting out of the way!

Slow news day

Slow news day

Back to NetherWorld. A haunted house is a classic immersive experience. I may have been more forgiving of “what” was being told to me, because I was captivated with “how” it was being told. This is not an argument for style over substance. A total disregard for story and plot will cause a haunted attraction to be indistinguishable from a fun house, and would not be successful in my opinion. Nevertheless, an exceptionally designed experience may emphasize the “how” by expertly employing abstract narrative tools that are not necessarily story-driven. For instance:

Pacing:  There needs to be a rhythm of emotional flow to the experience. Thrills should escalate and punctuate with an unpredictable but considered periodicity.

Cohesion: Although I couldn’t really put my finger on the details of the plot, there was something generally “demonic” about the scenic design which provided a baseline of thematic continuity. To clarify, in this particular attraction, it would have been jarring for me to if I had encountered a vampire or an alien in the attraction, because it wouldn’t have “fit.”

Variety: Within the cohesion, there must still be a diversity of stimulation that doesn’t feel repetitive.

Spatial Design: The space should be designed to obfuscate, disorient, reveal, etc., as required by the other narrative components.

Motion/Body Engagement: Moving through a physical space, crouching, running, walking in a circle, fatigue, fluctuations in temperature, etc., all have the potential to influence emotional engagement.

I’m not suggesting that the above elements are absent in less immersive storytelling. However, while there is no formula for accessing the magic of emotional response, as storytellers, we can still draw meaningful conclusions about the effectiveness of certain techniques for certain experiences. This may sound very obvious and automatic until you encounter an attraction that has been ineptly executed. Bottom line: NetherWorld probably wouldn’t make a very good book, but it’s so effective as an experience that they make it look easy.

But that was over and done with, and I understand that Atlanta has a bit of a zombie problem…

To be continued.

Shhh, There’s a Speakeasy Coming to San Francisco!

7 Oct

No, not that one. Nope, not that one either. This one’s the real deal, and it’s opening in January 2014, but I might be able to get you a sneak preview!

A couple weeks ago, I was wrapping up a meeting with an associate at Cafe La Boheme in San Francisco, a suitably appropriate place to evaluate various plans for making the world a more entertaining place. At the end of the meeting, he asked me what I was doing the following night, and proceeded to give me a silver pocketwatch with a dog tag conspicuously attached to its chain. He said, “Call the number on the dog tag, they’ll tell you what to do.”

Once I got home, I called the number and received further instructions on where to show up and what to say when I got there. The following evening, we left the nighttime streets of 21st Century San Francisco, walked through the doors of a nondescript building, right into the year 1923 and the world of The Speakeasy.

The Speakeasy will be a work of immersive theatre. Like many newly-minted terms in art, technology, culture, etc., it’s both challenging and somewhat pointless to attempt to concretely define immersive theatre because every new show seems to expand the scope of what it can encompass. Generally though, it refers to a theatrical experience which “breaks the fourth wall,” which is a fancy term for saying that the conceptual, invisible barrier that typically separates the audience from the players is understood to be nonexistent. In short, when you come to an immersive theatre show, you should expect to find yourself onstage. I am personally very interested in this concept, because it employs many of the storytelling sensibilities that are found in the world of themed entertainment and theme parks. If you think of a theme park as a giant work of immersive theatre, then you can start to get a sense of the exciting possibilities for both of these types of entertainment.

Back to 1923. I can’t really tell you what went on in there, but it was a lot of fun. It might have involved classic cocktails and casino games. If you’re curious though, the theatre company that is producing the show had a successful Kickstarter campaign that will give you a flavor of what they’re creating without spoiling any surprises. As I mentioned, The Speakeasy will not be open to the public until January 2014. However, in the interim, they are running exclusive previews on Friday nights to test out ideas, generate buzz, and engage potential supporters. These aren’t actual performances, but if you’re interested in the bleeding-edge of the local theatre scene, it’s a great opportunity to meet the creators and producers and get involved in the early stages of a very unique experience. If you would like to attend a preview, please contact me and I’ll see if I can let you borrow the pocketwatch for a night.

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