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Environmental Storytelling, Part II: Bringing Theme Park Environment Design Techniques to the Virtual World
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Environmental Storytelling, Part II: Bringing Theme Park Environment Design Techniques to the Virtual World


April 5, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

One of the problems facing most game and theme park designers is how to coax your audience through your story and still give them the feeling they are on a unique journey. A quest that is theirs alone, and one worth retelling once the adventure is over.

One of the methods is to create the "Illusion of Complexity." I am sure you have had the experience of visiting someone's house for dinner and at some point in the evening having to ask, "Where's the bathroom?" Even after being told where to go you still find yourself getting lost. You might even think, "For goodness sake, this is a two bedroom house, how on earth could I not find the bathroom?" Even though you are in a small house, your lack of familiarity creates a mystery in an unlikely place. For the first time visitor to your environment, you have this lack of familiarity to your advantage. In the beginning, there is no need to create mind-bending labyrinths to lose your visitors in. The fact that they are unfamiliar with the space will be mystery enough.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, it was the first themed environment of its kind. Being the first meant that its designers learned as they went and, in hindsight, realized that they made the streets and byways just a little too intimate for the park's summer crowds. In subsequent parks, like the Magic Kingdom in Florida, they fixed these problems, but in doing so, lost a lot of the charm that the original park still possesses. It was Walt's desire that each guest create his or her own experience. It was his wish that the park consist of high and low roads, or alternative routes to any and all of its various "lands."

By adding varied pathways to the same destination, you allow your audience to create their own journey.

If your desired goal is Fantasyland, you have up to five different ways to get there. You can take the alpha/photo opportunity path, up Main Street, across the draw bridge and through the castle gate. You could enter through Frontierland or Tomorrowland, or you could sneak through either side of the castle by way of two narrow paths. On one of these paths you will stumble upon Snow White's interactive wishing well. Multiply this "multiple paths" concept to each and every land, and you can see what a web Disneyland actually is. At the end of the day, each visitor will create his or her own linear visit to the park, one that is completely different from any other guest's day. Even within a group of visitors, each member may have an experience unique to them. An experience they can share, but that is still distinctively theirs.

The goal (in this case, Fantasyland) has remained the same; what are unique is the paths offered on the road toward that goal! As in the attached diagram, a "one pathway" experience can be broken up into many, giving choices to the visitor of your created environments. If you then vary the width and length of these alternative paths, maybe even adding a distracting element in the middle of one of them, you have then empowered your visitor to create their own experience.

New Orleans Square

If you have had the opportunity to visit Disneyland's New Orleans Square, you have experienced a shining example of the "Illusion of Complexity." It was the desire of the Imagineers designing this land to capture the feel of wandering the meandering streets of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Figure 3.
New Orleans Square
Figure 4.
A beautiful stairway to nowhere.

Faced with a limited amount of space, they needed to create the illusion that the park guests could explore aimlessly, with every turn revealing something new. By viewing the diagram of New Orleans Square (Fig. 3), you can see that the land's layout is really quite simple. Notice that there are no right angles anywhere in the layout, and that if you were to wander through the land you would be looping in a figure eight pattern. Within the layout are also several in-cut patios, courts, and grand southern stairways (Fig. 4), which lead nowhere. As a guest visiting the land, you are constantly confronted with seemingly new things to look at, when in fact, it's just the same stuff over and over again, seen fromdifferent angles. Consequently, the bathrooms are just as hard to find as they were in your friend's house.

Multiple Jiminy Crickets

There is one paradox that is unique to the art of environmental storytelling alone. This happens when you try to pepper your environment with reoccurring, story-driven characters.

When we go to see a movie or have an evening at the theatre, we instinctively know to suspend our disbelief before we sit down. We leave a lot of what we know about the real world at the door and allow ourselves to be completely transported by the events on the stage and screen. If the stage curtain closes and we are told upon its reopening that 10 years have passed, we happily buy into the notion. If the screen fades to black and a morning scene magically turns into a night scene, we don't even think twice about it. Unfortunately this is not true of physical places.

For some perplexing reason, when we eliminate the presence of the proscenium separating the audience from the story, the audience transforms from willing participants into shrewd skeptics. In the case of a theme park attraction, if we desire to use a reoccurring character throughout the linear length of our ride, the audience will not easily buy into it. One example is Disneyland's Fantasyland attraction,"Pinocchio's Daring Journey". We, as guests, get into a ride vehicle and are conveyed through the beginning of the story. We witness Pinocchio captured by the evil Stromboli, and then are launched into a blacklit, hairpin turning journey to escape all the various nasties who wish to capture us as well. Throughout the attraction, Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio's friend and conscience, pops up to steer us towards the "straight and narrow" path. As the story unfolds, Jiminy appears a half a dozen times, finally arriving to congratulate us at the ride's conclusion. Unlike the filmed version of this story, where such events would be common place, the spatial nature of this story and our linear movement through it leaves us disillusioned. We are not left with the feeling of having been guided by a single Jiminy Cricket, but by multiple copies, sprinkled throughout the ride! There is something about our having experienced the story spatially that refuses to allow us to believe that these events are "real."

The 3D computer gaming world must wrestle with this same phenomenon in every new project. Unless the passage of time is indicated with a cinematic cut-scene, it is quite a challenge to make your audience believe the events that are happening around them are "real." Just as we instinctively know when there is the slightest flaw in the animation of a human character, we are equally judgmental when it comes to the passage of linear time within an environment. Although we never think about a stage actor disappearing backstage to paste on a beard and age make-up before reappearing on stage, we do make such judgments about spatial events. If a character reappears too quickly, or in too many places, our carefully crafted illusion is shattered. The audience knows when "something is not right", even if they are unable to articulate it.

When we watch a play or movie, we sit back and allow the story's events to flow over us, but when the events are happening to us, we are quick to judge! We might ask ourselves, "Hey, why did it get dark all of sudden?" or "Wasn't that guy upstairs just a minute ago?" There are strict rules to our own real world environment, and we take these rules with us when we enter 3D computer generated ones!

Another challenge to overcome in the computer generated world is that of the "triggered actor". When we play enough of the games out there, we come to expect certain limitations within the medium. In many games, "actor" characters are placed within a map to interject important story elements, advice, or warnings. These actors are usually triggered into action by something we have done, or by our proximity to their location. Like in the 3D Shooters of the past, our progression is determined by our unleashing beasts from a cage, battling them, then moving through that cage onto the next until we reach an exit. The seasoned gamer knows to look for these tricks, and the act of looking can pop the illusion you are trying to create. Although this is the easiest and most effective method for introducing characters, it is worth your time and effort to try to hide what you are doing with some digital sleight-of-hand.

There is always the potential for you to rise above these limitations. You can create new rules at the onset of your game. You can tell your audience that gravity does not exist, or that time travel is possible, or that everything in this world is upside-down. You can create worlds as wacky as Dr. Seuss, and have your audience completely give themselves over to it, but you better establish the new rules early, or you will arouse their skepticism (and nobody wants that).


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