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The Most Fun I Ever Had Being Murdered

22 Jul

I died in tmeme3he Purge last week. OK, that came out weird, let me explain.

The Purge is a film that came out last year that generally, and not incorrectly, gets lumped into the horror genre. However, it’s actually a political science thought experiment wrapped in a veneer of science fiction dystopia that dials up the suspense until it implodes into horror. The general conceit is that in the year 2022, a new political party has “fixed” America; there is 1% unemployment and almost no crime. The catch: all crime, including murder, is actually legal during a 12-hour period called the Purge that occurs once per year. Despite its macrocosmic context, the movie had a minimalistic feel that focused on the experiences of a single family in a discrete location and the ethical dilemmas posed by this practice. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but there was something oddly compelling and surprisingly thought-provoking about it. I knew there had to be more to the story.

When I heard that there would be a sequel being released this summer, I knew I would see it at some point. However, when I heard that they were promoting it through The Purge: Breakout, a pop-up haunted attraction that was touring the country, I dropped everything to get a ticket. A haunted attraction in July? Talk about Christmas coming early!

928930cc-09e0-41e7-8d3f-751858ff0972The typical haunted attraction tends to be a fairly linear affair. You start at the beginning and keep moving until you get to the end, trying to absorb or avoid (depending on your preference) as many scares as you can along the way. In contrast, Breakout is billed as “An Immersive Escape Experience.” Groups of up to six guests are locked into the attraction at one time and given thirty minutes to try to figure out how to get out by deciphering clues and solving puzzles that are embedded in the surroundings. The concept of an Escape Room attraction is not new, and did not originate as a horror-themed show, but as some designers have discovered, they really are two great tastes that taste great together.

Welcome to the Hotel California

I found a friend who agreed that this sounded like an excellent way to spend an evening, and we headed out to the location, a parking lot on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles where a few trailers decked out in full Purge regalia awaited us. As we watched the sun go down, I started to feel.

It wasn’t quite the stomach-churning dread of a haunted house. It was more of a light, but increasing anxiety that I would totally choke on the puzzles. I immediately reflected that I was grateful to be feeling anything! It occurred to me that going to the movies or even certain live events just wasn’t doing anything for me recently, and that one of the reasons why I keep coming back to haunted attractions is because they stir something that lies dormant for too long of a stretch.

Not for the claustrophobic

Before entering, we had about five minutes to get to know our three fellow participants with whom we would be trapped, and indulged in the futility of concocting a strategy for getting out. I was nominated as some kind of leader. Anxiety level rises. One of the hosts came out and gave us the setup: we’re locked in some weirdo’s basement on Purge Night, which begins in 30 minutes. We need to escape or he kills us. Not necessarily true to the sophisticated moral complexities of the movie, but I wasn’t complaining. We were characters in the story, and it was about to begin! We were provided with some straightforward rules: don’t break or take anything, don’t try to use a light, if you trigger one of the emergency buttons (you are locked in, after all) then it’s immediate game over, no refunds, no questions. Oh, and there was one more thing, only about 1% of everybody who’s played the game has escaped. And you thought Vegas was rough.

Once the door locked behind us, the panic began. . . immediately. Any remnant of any strategy that we thought would have been useful dissipated in the first 15 seconds. In true basement style, it’s not very well-lit, which is a problem when your success hinges on finding objects in your environment. In addition to miscellaneous klaxons, sound effects, and the sound of your blood pumping in your ears, every five minutes there were very loud, periodic reminders that the Purge would be starting in 25, 20, 15, etc., minutes. Needless to say, when all five of us were huddled in a very small room and stuck on a puzzle, these reminders were anything but calming.

We solved a bunch of puzzles. We tried our hardest. We celebrated our successes. But in the end, we died. Murdered to be exact. Time ran out, and for us, it just wasn’t enough. If we had five more minutes! If we had only done such-and-such! Did we remember to look behind that one thing? We wallowed in the coulda-woulda-shouldas for a minute or two, but the general consensus from all of us was, “That was SUPER FUN!”

Totally Occupied The Purge

It was an exceptionally produced show. I love puzzles, and I felt that they were well-tested to be achievable but challenging (obviously, since we died!) The makeshift trailer setup was not at all reflective of the excellent production design and technical sophistication that kept our attention for thirty action-packed minutes in such a small amount of space. It was 100% adrenaline from beginning to end and when it was all over, I wanted more. However, part of what makes this type of show special is that it’s really something you do once and only once.

The coolest part of the show turned out to be something I least expected — us! A common feature of many immersive experiences is to get you out of your chair and into the action. However, this often takes the form of occupying the same space as the actors while they go about their business. The better-written productions allow for some latitude and improvisation, but there is still a script, and you’re still essentially watching, or in some cases being guided/goaded through some simple participation. Breakout was different — we were the cast. The story consisted entirely of what we did. There was one non-player cast member, but I think she was there to make sure that we didn’t go completely off the rails. And man, did we kill it! Before we got killed, that is.

I was in awe at how naturally we worked together as a team, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. People’s strengths immediately surfaced — the codebreakers, the searchers, the observers, the scouts — without any explicit coordination. Almost all of the puzzles required some form of cooperation, but it somehow happened in a seamless way. When it was all over with, we felt like old friends, and made plans to get together for future events once October rolls around. It was magical.

We are a culture that is screamingly desperate for personal connection. We are undoubtedly the most well-connected, lonely people that the planet has ever hosted. Breakout showed that when you put people together and give them a story and some purpose, you just might end up with something unforgettable. We need to be creating more experiences like this.

The Source of Magic at IOA’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

14 Jan

Singing into the wind. Bailing out the Titanic with a teacup. That is the sense of futility I feel when it comes to sharing something insightful that hasn’t already been said about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The entire production is an unqualified success from the Butterbeer to Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans; from the Forbidden Journey to Filch’s Emporium. It’s a feast for the senses worthy of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and cannot fail to delight even the most studious and persnickety of fans.

As much as I gaped, marveled, delighted, and thrilled at everything I was experiencing, there was one detail, which I keep coming back to that crystallizes the strong sensibilities at work here. After having made my way through Hogsmeade a few times, I kept noticing a building with a modest line outside of it. I’m sure with a bit of investigation, or perusing the park map, or asking a cast member, I could have figured out what it was, but I did none of these things, and decided to just allow myself to be surprised. About every ten minutes or so, the doors to the adjoining building would open, about 30 guests would be allowed in, and the doors would close again. Curiosity piqued.

When it was my turn to enter, I found myself in a dark room with walls lined from floor to very tall ceilings with shelves crammed with narrow, rectangular boxes. As I soon discovered, I was in Ollivander’s Wand Shop. A young guest was selected, and the rest of the audience was entertained with ten minutes of immersive theatre. The guest is placed into the position of a young wizard choosing a wand (or being chosen by a wand) and experiencing the necessary trial and error that ensues during the selection process. As we observe, wand/wizard mismatches can have chaotic consequences, and the show is punctuated by tasteful special effects that occur throughout the room. Before long, wand and wizard are well-met, and the guests are ushered into the “real” Ollivander’s where they sell real items in exchange for real money.

So why is it that in a land that features one of the most technologically sophisticated attractions on the planet, an exquisitely themed restaurant complete with a bar that sells real alcohol, and an infinity of detailed exteriors and interiors, I was so taken by this bit at Ollivander’s? The answer is simple. The decision to showcase this particular component of the Harry Potter mythology demonstrates a true respect and understanding for the material and why it resonates with our culture.

Imagine the blank sheet of paper. Now imagine the task of selecting from among the thousands of pages and dozens of hours that comprise the seven, often massive, volumes and eight epic films of the Harry Potter series. At the very least, it’s an awesome undertaking to distill that into a handful of experiences to unify in a themed environment.  However, at the heart of all those pages and frames and at the soul of that phenomenon is the universe of answers suggested by a simple articulation and the question it raises, “The world is a magical place, but what if I could learn to control it?” It’s no accident that Harry Potter takes place in modern-day England and not on another planet, or in the distant past, or a parallel universe. The allure of Harry Potter is the not-so-childlike hope that maybe this could be real. As we live vicariously through the young heroes (and villains) of the story, their entry point into this world that we desire is Ollivander’s. More so than Platform 9 3/4, Ollivander’s is where desire meets destiny, and the realization of one’s dream becomes personal. Selecting this vignette shows tremendous insight and sensitivity to what really matters in this epic story.

However, the execution is equally stunning. It’s a very low-profile attraction, and it’s easy to miss. You can easily enter the real store through an alternate entrance and be none the wiser of what’s happening in the adjoining room. This deliberate understatement in an environment of overload is a very tasteful design decision, and makes the experience feel even more special. Granted, it is somewhat of a holy grail to deliver guests a personalized, intimate experience in theme parks, but the sheer numbers of guests often make this an impractical goal, and tends to be at odds with another hallmark of theme park design: consistency. This makes the choice to use the modality of immersive theatre even more daring. Attractions have been breaking the 4th wall for generations as a technique to kickstart an immersive experience. From the Ghost Host and the talking skull to Indy and Evac, we have been personally invited to enter the story instead of just watch from afar. However, beloved as those characters are, they’re still a step removed from us, no matter how amazing the technology gets. Quite literally bringing Ollivander’s to life creates an impact that is not soon forgotten even if you are not the chosen one (and chances are, at my age, it’s gonna have to be a pretty slow day.)

I don’t mean to suggest that the techniques used at Ollivander’s are unique in the theme park world. The hundreds of cast members at any major park provide a unique and constant presence in myriad interactions that is easily taken for granted, but in fact lies at the core of seamless immersive experiences. However, there is nevertheless a harmony of theme, execution, and restraint at Ollivander’s that is uniquely transcendent, noteworthy, and inspiring. Pure magic.

Test Track 2.0 = Attractions 2.0

7 Jan

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m really just not into cars that much. Sure, I went through my pre-adolescent fixations with Hot Wheels and The Blue Flame, but as I got older, I grew to see a car as just another option that could get me from point A to point G. That said, I’m not completely immune to their charms; I could probably recite a full traffic school curriculum on account of an inexplicable magnetism for speeding tickets. However, even in a lottery fantasy scenario, a fancy car would still rate pretty low on the list.

Maybe it’s just real cars that I don’t like

Finding myself at Epcot, the day before IAAPA (which is another story entirely,) I surveyed my options and approached Test Track with an academic indifference, knowing that I would ultimately try to experience everything the park had to offer. I understood that the show had been redesigned within the past year, but I had not experienced its previous incarnation, so I really had no idea what to expect.

The first thing that got my attention was that the queue temporarily deposits you into a room filled with touchscreen kiosks. I picked up an RFID card, tagged into the kiosk, and found myself designing a car by balancing four fundamental characteristics: Capability, Efficiency, Responsiveness, and Power. OK, design is a bit of an exaggeration; from a technical standpoint, it’s more of a sophisticated menu system that allows you to select from a number of pre-designed models based on your personal preferences. Still, this type of interactivity was a first for me in a queue.

Sammy approves of Test Track

Before boarding the ride itself, I tagged my RFID card and “uploaded” my designed vehicle into the ride vehicle. The narrative of the ride is that you are testing your vehicle on a specialized track. Each phase of the ride tests a different characteristic, and features a monitor that ranks the uploaded vehicles, which makes the experience feel very personalized in an unexpected way. The ride itself was beautifully designed with a streamlined aesthetic that felt convincingly contemporary and even a bit futuristic, which is no small feat in the context of the dynamic technological wonderland of daily life. The Power test is essentially a speed trial that hits a speed of 65 MPH, making Test Track one of the fastest rides in the Disney universe. As the vehicle approached the unloading area, I thought the ride had a little bit of everything including high-speed thrills, and I felt pleasantly surprised, wondering what I would ride next. Little did I suspect that the experience was far from over.

Not a popular option in the 9-13 demographic

As I exited the vehicle, the first thing I noticed was that the younger riders, especially the boys, were FREAKING OUT! In a good way! Kids were tugging at their parents, begging to ride again before their feet had even hit the platform, and by the look on the parents’ faces, I could tell that this was not the first such request of the day. Boys were swaggering about how their car dominated the Power test (although low marks on the Efficiency test were conveniently ignored.) There was a buzz of infectious and uplifting energy that felt very special. Test Track is not a superlative thrill ride, doesn’t feature any fictional characters, and is not necessarily an icon of themed design, but these young riders showed a level of pride, ownership, and excitement that would be a high point in any designer’s career. I sought the exit so that I could get back in line and check it out again, but that turned out to be not as easy as I would have expected.

Play at your own risk

The first post-show area features a giant screen where I tagged my RFID card and saw my vehicle’s aggregate score compared to those of the other riders around me, along with a Daily Best. I noted with some disappointment that I was about 15 points shy of the Daily Best. The irrationally competitive side of me that mercilessly crushes anonymous opponents in in-flight, seat-embedded trivia games wanted the most Efficient, Capable, Powerful, Responsive car in all of Epcot on that November day. It had to be buried somewhere in that design kiosk and I was going to find it! I continued toward the exit with renewed intent.

And entered another room with touchscreen kiosks that I almost blew right past, but it was early in the day and I couldn’t resist those screens. At these kiosks, I designed a commercial by mashing up a narrator, music style, setting, and vehicle attribute into a short animation featuring my car, which I emailed straight from the kiosk. Mine was a cowboy talking about how powerful my car was while jumping around on the moon with a disco soundtrack. It was so much fun, I did it twice before heading toward the exit.

And found myself in yet another area with even more kiosks that allowed me to customize the look and performance of my car to a much greater degree than the queue kiosks. I fell into another rabbit hole doing this for a while, uploaded my design to my card, and brought it to another interface where I uploaded it to a virtual simulator and drove it around a video track. At this point, I started to realize that there was a possibility that I might spend all day at Test Track and I hadn’t even set foot inside the World Showcase yet.

Weird

I segued into another area that was essentially a giant showroom for Chevrolet, the sponsor of the ride. I spent the least amount of time here since, you know, I’m not a car guy. However, I couldn’t help noticing that people were actually stopping to take pictures in front of the cars and check them out. Personal preferences aside, GM is a perfectly capable industry leader when it comes to making automobiles. However, GM cars do not have the fantasy appeal of  Ferrari or Porsche or Lamborghini, but at this point in the experience, I was starting to feel pretty good about Chevy. Corporate sponsorship of attractions goes all the way back to Walt, but I cannot remember a more symbiotic and positive example. Finally, after all this, the exit through retail felt gentle and inoffensive instead of the harsh return to semi-reality that it can sometimes be.

Leaked concept art for Test Track 3.0

To my surprise, not only did I like Test Track, but I loved it, and my enthusiasm extended above and beyond the ride itself. While many attractions provide a “best-case scenario” approach to the decidedly mundane and obligatory aspects of waiting in line and exiting, Test Track engages and involves you at every turn. From an experience design standpoint, there is not a single wasted opportunity to entertain and delight the guest. In fact, the ride itself is less of an inflection point in a humdrum routine, and feels like one of the many components of the overall experience, albeit one that is markedly visceral.

In the past year, I had the privilege of experiencing some of the most outstanding attractions in the themed entertainment world, including mind-blowing experiences at Universal Studios Hollywood, Islands of Adventure, and Cars Land at DCA. While those parks feature unforgettable, world-class, game-changing achievements, there is something about Test Track that announces the true future potential of experience design. I am a strong believer in the potential of interactive technology to take immersive experiences to a new level, but as designers, we must always be mindful of not letting the tail wag the dog. In my opinion, Test Track not only strikes a harmonious balance between technological innovation and thoughtful storytelling, but does so in a bold and fearless fashion that has truly raised the bar for the industry.

I never did figure out how to design the best car of the day, but my happy memory of the experience made me start counting the days until my own kids will be old enough to ride it with me and take a crack at it.

Fried Cheese & Coke: Branded Experiences and Iconic Retrospectives

6 Nov

I lived in Prague during a period when email was still a novelty, mobile phones were seen in Tom Cruise movies as devices used for making phone calls, and internet cafes actually had computers in them. A popular means for distributing information was known as a “newspaper,” and a few were published in English for the benefit of the expat community. One of these featured a column called, “Easy Targets,” which was an unannotated list of people, institutions, concepts, etc. that would be recognizable to a contemporary reader. And that was it. Further commentary was neither provided nor required. A similar list published today might include, “Congress, Miley Cyrus, Facebook status, gluten-free beer, you get the idea.” One fateful afternoon, I picked up said newspaper and immediately sought out the Easy Targets, and at the top of the list was, “Smažený Syr.” For me, this was and is the absolute soul of wit. There is so much depth and commentary packed into those two words that it can still bring a smile to my face today. Let me explain.

I’m ready for my close-up

Smažený syr is Czech for fried cheese. In the fight for daily survival, which occurs at the intersection of 30-cent beer, a national/institutional disdain for last call, and an ambiguous notion of employment, sustenance is a fickle ally. At certain single-digit hours, one’s options are typically limited to: 1) hot-dog 2) sleep or 3) smažený syr. Smažený syr was notoriously and reliably available at a kiosk outside of one of Prague’s train stations, day & night, rain or shine. Many expats have had their lives temporarily saved (and ultimately shortened) by making this pilgrimage. Moreover, smažený syr often found its way onto the menu at almost every local restaurant, often masquerading as a main course, sharing the stage with a sidekick of french fries. The most common description of what it feels like about half hour after eating this is, “I think I just swallowed a hockey puck.” It’s a rite of passage. It’s a way of life. It’s wrong. It’s an easy target.

You can't make this stuff up

You can’t make this stuff up

So when I tried to wrap my head around the idea that there could be an attraction in Atlanta dedicated to Coca-Cola, my first thought was smažený syr. It’s not a terrific stretch to prejudicially pigeonhole the World of Coca-Cola as a temple to American capitalism, providing dubious educational value and celebrating a product that is bad for you. Now, that’s an Easy Target. Seriously, Coca-Cola makes smažený syr look like a health fad. I had to check it out.

Figure 3

A shadow passes across the land

The attraction chronicles the impact that Coca-Cola has had on world culture for the last 100+ years. After a guided introduction followed by a screening of a surprisingly psychedelic animated short (i.e., commercial), guests are left to explore the rest of the attraction on their own. Setting aside for the moment the photo-op with the company’s polar bear mascot and the 4D theatrical feature, WOCC resembles a traditional museum with a number of exhibits focused on corporate artifacts culled from various times and places. Love it or hate it, Coca-Cola has some of the most recognizable, inventive, and iconic branding of any product sold anywhere, and the various exhibits make it clear that they haven’t rested on their laurels at any point in their efforts to get us to keep buying it. What’s even more remarkable is that as a product, Coke has remained relatively unchanged, which makes it somewhat of an outlier in the fast-paced world of global corporate commercial one-upmanship. In fact, this nuance lies at the heart of WOCC’s best feature: Vault of the Secret Formula.

Last known whereabouts: Atlanta

Last known whereabouts: Atlanta

The Vault immediately appealed to me, and it was the first exhibit that I visited. The theming begins as soon as you enter the exhibit through the larger-than-life vault door that looks like it was lifted from the set of Goldfinger. Next, you are visually scanned and cleared for security in a waiting area before entering the actual space. The first thing you notice as you enter is that it smells like Coke; it sounds weird, but it’s very subtle and it works. The exhibit proceeds to relate the history of the Coca-Cola company from the perspective of the secret formula. You learn how the formula was developed/invented by a pharmacist, and how it made its way through successive entrepreneurs, visionaries, and businessmen whose primary objective was to safeguard the secret. The formula is transformed into a character that enhances the fortunes of everyone who possesses it, and for the last 100 years, it has literally been kept inside of a vault with extremely limited access.

The exhibit is filled with interactive features including a steampunk device that allows you to try to replicate the secret formula by manipulating some primary flavor characteristics, and a motion-controlled interactive game in which you attempt to successfully transport the formula back to the vault before it falls into the wrong hands. Throughout, there are cleverly immersive ways of revealing additional information including whispered rumors from overhead and drawers containing information that you can peruse. In essence, they have taken the history of a corporation and turned it into a riveting adventure. Moreover, in this telling, the history of Coca-Cola is made out to be nothing less than the realization of the American dream. The exhibit ends with a 360 degree movie projection which is reasonably impressive, and in a surprising twist, the screens slide apart to reveal the star of the show: the actual vault.

A proud day for Coke marketing execs

A proud day for Coke marketing execs

I exited the exhibit a bit surprised at how roped in I got to the experience. I feel that on the basis of its creative execution, the Vault is an unqualified success. However, in the context of the idea that a museum about Coke is a classic “Easy Target,” it seems all the more impressive. After this experience, I was able to set aside my sense that the Polar Bear photo-op was kind of creepy, and that the 4D theater experience felt out of place, and that the other exhibits, while interesting, felt a little self-congratulatory. On the other hand, the Vault works because it’s not just another attempt to make you believe that drinking Coke makes you a better, happier citizen of the world. What lingered for me was the journey I felt that I had taken, and it had everything to do with the effort that was made to transform this material into a story, and to involve me in its telling. Personally, I didn’t come home and fill my refrigerator with Coke and hang framed pictures of John Pemberton in my office. However, I felt that it was well worth my time to visit WOCC, and it provided yet another opportunity to learn/re-learn/remember something that I will carry forward into my own practice: a good story and an earnest effort to creatively involve your audience in it can make ANYTHING compelling.

Now, if they had only served fried cheese in the Tasting Room.

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.

Isaac Asimov: Great Uncle of Themed Entertainment? Part 2

21 Aug

In Part 1 of this post, I made a provocative assertion about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy being related to Themed Entertainment and then did absolutely nothing to back that up. I guess I’ve got some catching up to do.

SPOILER ALERT

This post will continue to categorically ruin any initial joy and surprise that you may derive from reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy for the first time. If you didn’t heed my warning last time, then be aware that I’m really giving up the goods this time.

THE MULE’S SECRET

Another Mule that has been known to affect emotional state

Another Mule that has been known to affect emotional state

Presumably, you have exhausted some wild orgy of violent fantasies about what terrific power would allow an individual to single-handedly, and against all odds, execute a conquest of unfathomable scope. As it turns out, The Mule’s extraordinary success hinges on his capability to adjust the emotional balance of human beings. As one of his recent converts quips, “It sounds like a little trick, but it’s quite unbeatable.” The Mule himself elaborates further, “Men’s minds are dials, with pointers that indicate the prevailing emotions. … I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the point I wished.” As the story progresses, we witness the dramatic military effects of what happens when The Mule can cause unwavering loyalty in his generals, or more interestingly, overwhelming despair in a targeted population. You may be thinking that this power which I have hyped is a hyperbolic literary hack, a shadowy deus ex machina which seems to have exerted its fearsome will on the voters of the Hugo Awards. However, Asimov imbues this absolute power with some caveats wherein which lie some clever and telling nuances.

It's good to be The Mule

It’s good to be The Mule

First, when the aforementioned convert is accused of having lost all power of objective thought, he replies, “Only my emotions are fixed. My reason is at it always was. It may be influenced in a certain direction by my conditioned emotions, but it is not forced. And there are some things I can see more clearly now that I am freed of my earlier emotional trend.” The admission of this duality of emotion and reason is an irresistible concept for me, because it suggests that The Mule’s power does not require total subjugation of an individual’s mental function. It is only necessary to affect or redirect the underlying emotions, and allow the individual to reason and function in an otherwise normal fashion. Put another way, our personal emotional truths are an inextricable part of the set of assumptions that we apply to everyday reasoning and function. While certain environments, such as school or the workplace, might suggest that we ought to conduct ourselves in a precise and logical fashion, The Mule understands that ultimately our actions are influenced, and in some cases dictated by our feelings.

The second nuance of The Mule’s power is the idea that the experience of a hunch, insight, or intuition, which we tend to experience as a flash of greater power, can be treated as an emotion, and thus be induced or controlled by The Mule. The implication is that those breakthrough moments where everything seems to come together and make sense don’t necessarily need to percolate from some deep, inner place, but can actually be triggered from outside oneself. I think the rest of the book concerns itself with some minor plot point concerning the evolving likelihood of millennia of dark ages, but by this time, I had set the book down, lost in my own reverie of insight.

It occurred to me that The Mule’s power is both what we strive for as storytellers, and what we seek every time we open a book, enter a theatre, or otherwise immerse ourselves in someone else’s creation. When we open ourselves to a story, it’s because we crave that tweak or that twinge, that insight and indignation, a shock or just a hush of reflection. And we’re voracious about it, because it makes us feel, and feeling is what reminds us that we haven’t quite had the life choked out of us by the doldrums of the everyday, quite yet. We are changed on the other end of it, and we might be changed in different ways each time it’s told to us. And we take that change with us back to our lives and the people in them.

Pink Floyd Busts Out The Visi-Sonor . . . Again!

Pink Floyd jamming on the Visi-Sonor

The craft of storytelling implies a sense of neutrality wherein no medium can be considered superior to any other in an absolute sense, although the choice of medium and related artistic decisions should always support the spirit of the story. Personally, I have a strong interest in themed entertainment, and I feel that immersive experiences provide a number of new tools and modes for creative narrative expression. While The Mule could exercise his emotional control more or less at will without any external implements, he sometimes chose to focus his efforts through the use an instrument called a Visi-Sonor, which emits musical tones, but also stimulates the optic center of the brain directly, causing vivid hallucinations. I think it’s significant that Asimov chose to augment The Mule’s inherent gift of incredible power by suggesting that it could actually be enhanced when employed in conjunction with an immersive aesthetic sensibility. A strong story told with honesty and passion affects our emotions which affects our actions which affects our lives. That is power. And Asimov, a storyteller in his own right, wanted us to understand that. Buried in a plot-point in the second half of the second book of a trilogy, he tells us that one person CAN change the world, or the galaxy, or whatever term we choose to apply to those regions occupied by thinking, feeling beings. The beautiful truth though is that each of us can claim that power, and I consider it a great privilege to exercise it thoughtfully.

Isaac Asimov: Great Uncle of Themed Entertainment? Part 1

19 Aug
They gave best all-time series to WHO?

They gave Best All-Time series to WHO?!

I have been making my way through Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Admittedly, as of this post, I have only read two out of the three books, but that’s not going to stop me from drawing some crazy connection between immersive storytelling and his vision of the future.

SPOILER ALERT

NOTE: this article assumes that you haven’t read these books, or that you’re due for a quick backgrounder if you have. If you are one of the former, and you don’t want to ruin your experience of reading the winner of the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series,” then you should turn back now.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

No disputing Asimov's chops . . . as a writer

No disputing Asimov’s chops . . . as a writer

Isaac Asimov thinks big. Real big. The Foundation Trilogy takes place in the distant future. There are 25 million inhabited planets, and the galactic population is in the quadrillions. I’m not even sure how many zeroes that is, but it’s a lot. In other words, there really isn’t a useful point of reference or comparison for the scope that he envisions. The basic gist of the Trilogy is that amazingly this entire universe is governed under the structure of a single Empire. A new discipline called “psychohistory” has been developed that applies mathematical principles to project the likelihood of future events, largely based on the way large groups of people behave. So psychohistory isn’t going to tell you what your great-great-granddaughter will eat for breakfast 80 years from now, but it will probably do a good job of outlining the macroeconomic trends and political context of the world she lives in. In theory, psychohistory can be used to develop projections that span tens of thousands of years. Remember, Asimov thinks big.

Controversially, Hari Seldon, the most famed psychohistorian, proclaims that the aforementioned Empire will actually collapse sometime in the next 100 years, and will be followed by 30,000 years of  barbarism, until it will ultimately be replaced by a Second Empire. However, he posits that certain actions can be taken now that will reduce the expected duration of the Dark Ages to as short as 1,000 years. The people in power get upset, and they essentially exile him and his team to the outer bounds of the universe, where they create an entity known as The Foundation. From this protected point, he enacts what is to be known as “The Seldon Plan.” The balance of Foundation, the first book in the trilogy, consists of vignettes that illustrate how his plan has anticipated certain “crises” that occur long after his death, and how he has set things in motion such that the likelihood of withstanding these crises is actually quite high. In fact, a pre-recorded hologram of Seldon plays at pre-determined times where he basically congratulates the people of the future for surviving the most recent crisis and advises them to buckle up for the next one. No, I’m not leading up to some elaborate tie-in to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

Reading stories about how Hari Seldon is always right is only entertaining up to a point. In Foundation and Empire, the second book, things start to get interesting. The Seldon Plan is virtually guaranteed to succeed, provided that there are no massively disruptive developments in technology or politics. And as mentioned, due to its extremely large scale, it is virtually impossible for a single person to influence the Plan’s outcome. However, something DOES occur that the Plan did not contemplate, and it is in the form of a single person, known only as The Mule, who happens to be a genetic mutant. Mutations, being inherently specifically unpredictable, cannot be accounted for by the Plan. However, it remains a possibility, however remote, that a mutation could result in something of cosmic significance, even if embodied by an individual. And that’s what happens. The Empire is effectively in shambles, and the Dark Ages have begun, but The Mule begins to aggregate power at an alarming rate. He is effectively unstoppable, even bringing the Foundation itself to its knees with relatively little effort. What terrible, irresistible power can a single individual possess that can operate unchecked on a virtually unlimited scale? It’s a great thought experiment to leave you with, because the answer to that question is where things get interesting.

To be continued.

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