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Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry
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Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry

March 1, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

For the past 15 years I have worked as a designer for many theme park, computer gaming, and software companies. In every project I undertake, I am faced with the same challenge, "How do I draw my audience into my imagined world and make them want to stay?" Whether it's a 100 million dollar Disney ride, a 3D shooter, or a kid's entertainment title, it is my objective to tell a story through the experience of traveling through a real, or imagined physical space. Unlike a linear movie, my audience will have choices along their journey. They will have to make decisions based on their relationship to the virtual world I have created, as well as their everyday knowledge of the physical world. Most important of all, their experience is going to be a "spatial" one.

If I have an all encompassing desire for any computer game I play or themed attraction I visit, it is this:

Take me to a place that:

  • Lets me go somewhere I could never go.
  • Lets me be someone I could never be.
  • Lets me do things I could never do!

The Evolution of 3D Gaming

Within the past decade we have been witness to the evolution of the 3D gaming universe. In games such as Wolfenstien, Doom, and now Quake 3 Arena, we can visit and explore worlds on our computer screens that are increasingly dramatic and realistic. The notion of walking through theatrical environments like those found in Cyan's Myst and Riven, real time, are not that far fetched. Yet, despite our staggering leaps in technology, the game play remains relatively unchanged. We may be transported into ever engrossing and elaborate theatrically lighted cathedrals, but the fact is, we are still simply killing each other. Please understand, I have nothing against 3D shooters. I have spent countless hours with a rocket launcher in my hands and know the glories of a low Ping rate. This doesn't change the fact that on many occasions I have been blown to bits because I dared hesitate to admire a beautiful piece of virtual architecture.

Quake 3 Arena demonstrates the increasingly dramatic and realistic nature of 3D technology

Despite these technological miracles, the audience that experiences these worlds are relatively small. Bloodshed and mayhem rein supreme, with many a computer savvy cyber gladiator having to wrestle a 3D accelerator card into the guts of their increasingly obsolete PC. But, times are changing, and it seems that we are on the brink of an untapped market potential. With more PC's coming onto the market with 3D accelerators built in, it is quite possible that your everyday Joe will have the power to visit increasingly realistic worlds from their desktop.

Theme Parks and the Virtual World

Prior to the mid-1990's, my experience and interest in the computer gaming world was marginal. Not until the release of games like Myst and Doom did I fully see a potential bridge between the theme park world I was working in and the world of the computer on my desktop. As my professional computer experience has grown, so has my belief that the two worlds are not that far apart. True, their audience demographics may be slightly different, but in many ways they face the same challenge: How to bring people into their created worlds and keep them immersed and entertained. Now with the growing popularity of multiplayer and internet games, computer environments are treading on a realm, until now, reserved for the physical world. Many thousands of people are connecting and participating in these virtual worlds with total strangers for one reason.... namely, the allure of the "shared" experience. A chance to make a human connection in these new worlds and to be able to say, "HEY! Did you see THAT!?"

One of the trade secrets behind the design of entertaining themed environments is that the story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or rides through.

Because of this, there is a lot of knowledge that should be shared between these two seemingly different industries. Amusement parks have been entertaining people for over a 150 years. In the past 50 years theme parks like Disneyland, have taken the art of spatially entertaining people to new heights. No longer are rides simply a short lived thrill, now guests are fully immersed in stories, where they play the main character. Over the years these designers have developed tricks and trade secrets that (from experience) they know will work.

Environmental Storytelling

One of the trade secrets behind the design of entertaining themed environments is that the story element is infused into the physical space a guest walks or rides through. In many respects, it is the physical space that does much of the work of conveying the story the designers are trying to tell. Color, lighting and even the texture of a place can fill an audience with excitement or dread.

Much of this is done by manipulating an audience's expectations, which they have based on their own experiences of the physical world. Armed only with their own knowledge of the world, and those visions collected from movies and books, the audience is ripe to be dropped into your adventure. The trick is to play on those memories and expectations to heighten the thrill of venturing into your created universe.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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