Tag Archives: immersive storytelling

Orlando’s Brave New Republic

23 Jun

Minutes earlier, I had been ballroom dancing. But now I was lying down on a grimy floor, evading surveillance and trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. In more ways than one.

For a moment, I thought, “Did I really travel 3,000 miles for this?”

defaultLet me rewind a bit. A few months ago, I caught wind of a project called The Republic. I read an article that described it as an immersive experience inspired by elements from Greek mythology, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Plato’s Republic. It was described as neither being a haunted house, escape room, nor traditional stage show, with the implied suggestion that it might contain whiffs of each. It even claimed to not be immersive theatre, at least in any sort of comparative sense to anything that’s been done before. The Republic was claiming to be something completely new. I’m so there!

September 1987 --- A fan of the band Grateful Dead holds a handmade sign reading I need a miracle, hoping to get tickets to a Grateful Dead show. --- Image by © Lynn Goldsmith/CorbisThere was just one problem. There was in Florida. It debuted at the Orlando Fringe Theatre Festival, which is nowhere near me. I needed a miracle. I asked the universe, and in reply got an email a few weeks later from a colleague telling me that I needed to go to Orlando for a tradeshow, on my birthday, while The Republic was running. Boom!

republic_front-doorNOTE: the rest of this post does not contain any explicit spoilers, but I do flirt dangerously with disclosing the nature of what happens. If you’re planning on seeing this show, and want a completely pure experience, then you’ve been warned.

On the day of the show, I received an email directing me to a nondescript warehouse near downtown Orlando. My drive was accented by a torrential downpour complete with Zeus-worthy lightning bolts that seemed somehow appropriate. I’m from California. Weather’s a novelty.

By the time I arrived, a queue of guests had already formed outside the entrance, and we went through the increasingly common waiver signing formality before being allowed to enter. Once inside, we surrendered our cell phones and entered an anteroom where we were provided with a new identity and reminded about the rules of engagement. In short, explore, ask questions, and get involved in the action.

57205429I am totally fascinated by the idea of immersive theatre. It blends storytelling, technical enhancement, and interactivity in a way that generally doesn’t exist outside the theatrical world except to a limited extent in some theme park and haunted attraction experiences. Ordinarily, attaching a genre to experiences that are attempting something groundbreaking is a restrictive and empty exercise, but it can still provide some useful context. As a baseline most productions tend to interpret it as a theatrical experience without chairs. The idea is that the elimination of the construct between the audience and the players allows for a deeper level of involvement with the drama. When it works, it can be tremendously effective. When it doesn’t, it might make you wish you had your chair back.

… if you want to

… if you want to

More ambitious productions add a layer of multiple rooms and encourage guests to do a certain amount of free roaming. In theory, the drama can potentially branch in multiple directions causing you to choose a single narrative thread at a time to follow. Some productions go even further by requiring guests to participate in the action by carrying props and executing other simple, scripted interactions.

In these types of shows, guests may have dramatically different experiences depending on the decisions they make, and may feel like they’re attending a totally different show upon repeat viewings. However, the net effect is really a partial glimpse of what is essentially a larger static narrative. The Republic does all of these things, but they’re just getting started.

Game Over Man

Game Over Man

What makes The Republic different is that each guest is required to play an active role that has the potential to redirect the outcome of the narrative. This is a pretty giant step forward from simply being up close and personal to the action. The creators compare their show to a video game, and this shared sense of agency is at the heart of it.

When the show began, we were told that we were recruits, and in the first “scene,” each guest was assigned to one of the cast members who would be training and evaluating us for inclusion within the Republic. I had been concerned about the emphasis on role playing, but the role of a trainee was easily accessible even if the context was essentially bizarre and cryptic.

do-you-like-me-yes-noEarly on, I was given a task to surreptitiously hide a folded-up note in a separate room. The room itself was a dead end, so I couldn’t go off on a tangent of wild exploration, but it did allow me to be alone for a brief moment. It may seem obvious, but I realized that I had been presented with an unspoken choice on whether to read the note before hiding it.

I decided to read it, and I was conscious of the time it was taking me to read it, since I was only supposed to be hiding it. Once I returned, it did not feel like an appropriately confidential time to discuss what I had read. The fact that I had read the note at all may have suggested that I had betrayed a certain confidence. The character who handed me the note did not ask me whether I had read it. I was completely in my own head over this one simple task, but I was digging it. This was immersive and exciting!

jawsIn a subsequent scene, when I was able to get some time alone with my assigned character, I asked him about the note and our conversation yielded a treasure trove of information including many tantalizing new clues and facts to piece together. It made me wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t read the note. What would our conversation have been like? I caught a glimpse of the myriad possibilities and twists and turns, and my experience was just one perspective out of 20+ guests in the context of something that might or might not have happened in the first 5-10 minutes of a 90 minute experience. You’re probably starting to get the idea of how big this thing could be.

clip_image001_0001In order to pull something like this off, the creators would have had to essentially create an all-encompassing universe that could account for dozens of permutations that could be communicated, interpreted, and executed on the fly on a minute-by-minute basis by actors who are basically improvising almost 100% of the time. It’s like a single game of Dungeons & Dragons with 20 Dungeon Masters and 20 players, played in 20 different rooms all at the same time with frequent reshuffling of all components. That’s huge. Like head-spinningly crazy. Which is probably why it ultimately didn’t totally work. For me at least.

russian-block-button-shows.siIf I had to theoretically reverse-engineer this beast, the principal challenge becomes how to reconcile what could easily become a freeform exploration of chaos theory. Periodically, there seemed to be narrative inflection points, roughly occurring at the end of an “act” in theatrical parlance, although that ship sailed long ago. These moments temporarily aggregated all the players in a single room and forced various narrative threads into some form of interim resolution. Think of it as a metaphorical reset button that attempted to contain the rapidly spiraling madness.

In theory, this is a clever mechanism. In practice, I personally felt somewhat more unmoored each time until I felt utterly disconnected from the show. The story might have been reconciled, but my role in it usually became less clear. Unfortunately, that tended to create something of a vicious cycle for me: the further I felt from the momentum of the story, the harder it was for me to jump back on the merry-go-round. I’m willing to share some of the blame for this for not trying hard enough to engage or re-engage, and at some point, I must have hit a personal limit. Or maybe the heat inside that warehouse had finally scrambled my brains out of my ears. There were no mirrors so I couldn’t be sure.

So did I like it? Well, it’s complicated. It’s important to remember that this debuted at a Fringe Theatre festival that provides a “safe” place to try out all kinds of crazy stuff that would be skewered in the context of the traditional stage scene. Not all of it is going to work. And when it does work, as it did for me in the initial scenes, it was stunning.

HYDRA_alt_1I give this team a ton of credit for creating this thing in the first place. I can imagine the B.S. sessions where people were saying, “What if we riffed on Plato’s Republic and inserted a bunch of characters from Greek mythology and rendered them against a German Expressionist backdrop and involved the audience, but totally let them feel like they were directing the action so that we’d basically be improvising 100% of the time so that each night we’d basically be putting on a new show.” Believe it or not, people have these kinds of crazy ideas fairly often. However, it’s a small handful who have the balls to actually follow through and try to raise the money, develop the concept, find the space, build the team, train the actors, build the set, and the hundred other things needed to bring this fully-grown Hydra to life.

To Team Republic: Thank you for having the courage to try something so audacious.

I find myself continuing to think about it. I honestly think that the creators should launch an online message board that could be like a support group for guests to share their experiences and riff on theories. There’s a lot going on here.

metropolis_masters_of_cinema_series_2010_atf_2_bigBut the final test of whether this thing worked — I would probably see it again. Now that I have a handle on what’s going on and how it works, I’d do some things differently. I’d be curious to further test my own boundaries as a guest. I’d want to see the rooms I probably never got to see, and interact with characters that I only saw in passing. It felt like a world worth returning to, although I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to live there.

Story Room: Saving the World is Thirsty Work

26 May

“Are you ready to save the f–king world?” he asked. To be honest, it was a bit more than I had in mind after a day at work, but I exchanged looks with my companions and said, “Sure!” After all, what could possibly go wrong?

We were about to enter Story Room, a production of Two Bit Circus. I’m not actually quite sure what this group really is. I’ve seen them referred to as an entertainment company, a think tank, and in more pedestrian press, an agency. However, I had a great time at their STEAM Carnival last autumn, so for the purposes of this blog, I’m OK with thinking about them as a group that likes to make fun experiences. I think they’d be OK with that too.

hqdefaultSo, back to saving the world. In the real world, we were at the Brewery Arts Complex, an artist colony housed in a former brewery that is off the beaten path in an industrial part of Los Angeles. It’s an easy place to get lost in and quite mysterious in its own right. Certainly worth saving.

We were welcomed inside an anteroom and provided with a smattering of backstory. It involved aliens. It sounded important. And then a door opened, we entered, it closed behind us, and we were inside the story!

Half the fun of Story Room is not having a clear idea of what to expect, and I don’t intend to spoil that for you. The website describes it as a “unique multiplayer experience that combines problem solving with character twists to create a new form of live entertainment.” Clear as mud, but intriguing as hell.

journey-escape(4)However, if you’ve read their website, you’re probably wondering, is this an escape room attraction? If you haven’t experienced one, escape rooms are pretty much what they sound like: you’re placed in a locked room and have to figure out how to get out, usually within a fixed time limit. And there’s no guarantee that you will. Getting out usually requires solving a number of puzzles based on objects in your environment, while possibly fending off antagonistic or distracting elements. I had a tremendous time at last year’s Purge: Breakout, but I haven’t felt drawn to seek out similar experiences.

Although an escape room can be elegant and complex in the design of its puzzles, the underlying narrative can sometimes feel limited. The context for your situation ultimately boils down to being trapped and needing to escape. Although there is a binary, win/lose aspect to it that appeals to my competitive side, it tends to conflict with my desire to just be entertained.

Story Room shares many of the game mechanics and sensibilities of an escape room, but the narrative framework substitutes progress for escape. It’s a subtle nuance, and therein lies all the difference.

In Story Room, as we solved the puzzles, we learned more about our situation. Rooms started to feel more like scenes, and the puzzles themselves felt increasingly like a connected, rational part of the underlying story. On one hand, it’s a different means to a similar end, but it places the focus on the journey, not the destination.

As a practical illustration: we did OK with the puzzles, but we were occasionally assisted via a mechanism that was integrated with the story. Sure, my ego would have been more gratified if we had performed better, but I found myself less focused on winning or losing and far more interested in what would happen next.
In the final room, we had to choose between two objectives to pursue. Either one would have constituted “success,” but we decided based on what we had learned about the story in the previous rooms and how we personally felt it should resolve.

In short, this show lived up to its name. We were in the story! In fact, we discovered afterward that had we done better in one of the previous rooms, we may have learned something that could have influenced our decision in the final room.

magnacovblankeThe website boldly namechecks the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 80s & 90s. This type of branching narrative is a holy grail of sorts for experience designers in location-based entertainment, but can be operationally difficult to execute. It seems that on some level, even if we didn’t experience all the possible outcomes, they pulled it off.

The puzzles were excellently designed and thoughtfully crafted to require multiple participants to solve them. In similar attractions, multiple players allow you to simply “throw more bodies at the problem” by being able to more rapidly find hidden objects. In Story Room, multiple players are critical because many of the puzzles consist of discrete tasks that need to be performed in parallel. In the final room, we each had distinct roles to play to reach our objective.

iwantmoreWe were in there slightly over an hour, but time flies, as the saying goes. Understanding that like any production, they are limited by real resources such as budget and space, my main feedback for future productions would be to create more “scenes” even if each is shorter. Reflecting on how this show redraws the line between storytelling and problem-solving, I would love to see them take it even further and incorporate more branching, more rooms, and maybe even some live performers. In other words, more of everything that worked so well.

As you could probably guess, saving the world is thirsty work, so we were delighted to discover that the Brewery just happened to have a gastropub on the premises. Tasty food. Cold beer. Good times. Highly recommended.

If you’re in LA, and this show is still happening, I would recommend checking it out. And if you’re not in LA, why not? It’s real nice here.

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.

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.

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