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Ambient & environmental storytelling
From Disneyland to immersive theatre and video games
Fetid water drips from the ceiling and runs down the stone walls. The air is thick and humid and uncomfortable. I shuffle forward with my fellow captives, through the bowels of the fortress, deeper and deeper into the darkness of the dungeons. Through the bars of cells I see my fate in the hanging skeletons, ragged clothes the only hints of their past lives. Torchlight splashes off surfaces, casting everything in a sickly yellow.
We’re led out of the fortress’ passageways into the night, the dock below and the sky inky black. The path winds down the side of the cliff, past palm trees and incongruous bins. Each of us is loaded onto a boat and we drift away on the tide towards the sound of distant cannon fire...
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So many bins! Other than that, though, this was the impeccable, immersive introduction to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland Paris, and the moment that the entire park clicked with me.
My son is 10 so it seemed like now or never for visiting, plus they’ve added Marvel and Star Wars rides on top of the classic Disney stuff which we knew would appeal more to him. In typical adult fashion, I had slightly assumed it would be one of those ‘put up with it for the sake of the kid’ holidays. Like that time we went to Devon.
I was very wrong!
Back to that Pirates ride. The bit I described above was essentially the queue. This is what sets Disneyland apart from other fairs and rollercoaster parks I’ve been to: even the queuing is fun. I mean, up to a point. 🤔 There’s a commitment to storytelling everywhere you look in the park: on the rides, of course, but also in the approach and the spaces in-between. If you want to engage with it, there’s story to be found in every small corner, hidden side street and creepy shortcut. Get in line for the Indiana Jones ride and you’ll find yourself sneaking in and around ancient, crumbling ruins, like you’ve walked onto the set of one of the films.
There’s a theatricality that begins the moment you enter through the park gates. Most of it is in the background, rather than shoved in your face. You can, by all means, queue for the Pirates ride and talk to your friends and entirely ignore the slow build of atmospheric tension. That’s fine. It’s opt-in storytelling that only works with the cooperation and interaction of the audience.
I wasn’t expecting to find any of that, and it got me thinking. It’s a form of storytelling that I don’t get to do in my writing. I’ve been publishing weekly serials for eight years, but prose fiction is a much more deliberate and directed mode of story. The text is the text, and every reader will encounter every word. Sure, every reader will have their own layers of interpretation, but it’s not quite the same thing.
Disneyland’s ambient storytelling exists in the background, there if you want to find it. Theatre can do this a bit, with set details which can be picked out by the audience. Immersive theatre experiences such as Bristol’s fantastic Wake The Tiger take Disneyland’s storytelling principles to a whole new level (imagine taking part in a live Doctor Who episode).
What I’m most reminded of is video games. The Half life games are famous for their breakthroughs in environmental storytelling, whereby tales are told not through cutscenes and enforced dialogue sequences but through background details, set design, audio and carefully directed lighting. Again, a lot of it is optional - a player can run right past most of this stuff to get to the next shooty bit - but it’s there for people who want to play detective and piece together a world from clues.
The critical aspect, I think, is it being opt-in. Allowing the audience, or the player, to engage with the material on whatever level they want, and providing a realised space in which that optional story exists. The Pirates ride is a 3D space that each audience member explores. While the ‘ride’ takes everyone on the same route, each person’s experience will be different based on what they take in with them, where they’re sitting, which way they happen to be looking at critical moments. It’s the same in a video game, where the player is controlling both movement and camera angle.
I used to make videos about games. If you’re not a gamer, you might not be familiar with what I’m on about, so here’s one on Portal 2, which highlights the immersive benefits and storytelling potential of the player controlling the camera:
Frankly, I’m jealous. Games and Disneyland designers get to create layers of optional exposition. The detail exists for those interested, and can be ignored by anyone who is only there for the drops and thrills of the ride itself. Prose fiction writers don’t have that luxury: we have to figure out ways to incorporate exposition into the main text, interweaving it into the narrative in ways that hopefully won’t be noticed overtly by the reader.
Readers also don’t get a choice: the text of the book is the same for everyone, in terms of the actual words on the page. There isn’t a way for a reader to determine their particular level of interest in those background details.
The same goes for film, or comics, or audio drama. They are all entirely directed experiences, with all information carefully curated and delivered by the creators.
Then again, the idea that the viewer/player has total agency in a game or on a Disneyland ride might be illusory. Valve use all kinds of tricks to direct players in the Half Life and Portal games, using subtle cues to get the player to do what they want while providing the illusion of choice.
Here’s the inimitable Game Maker’s Toolkit to explain it:
Nintendo do similarly sneaky things with the most recent The Legend of Zelda games. Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are enormous open worlds in which the player is allowed to go anywhere and do anything: the ultimate form of this kind of ambient storytelling. There are all sorts of story details to discover in the world, apart from the core plot. But even in this case, there’s a lot of clever behind-the-scenes design working hard to make sure players aren’t lost or bored.
Here’s GMTK again:
I can’t help but recognise some of those techniques in the Pirates ride. The use of lighting and of obscuring elements such as walls and caves to encourage audiences to look in the right direction at the right time. Although people can in theory look anywhere during the ride, invariably they see all the key beats. The last thing they want is for someone to be disappointed having queued for thirty minutes to get onto the ride.
One day I will get round to making a (simple) game, specifically so I can explore these other storytelling techniques.
And yes, there are a surprising number of bins at Disneyland Paris. They’re everywhere.
What’s you’re favourite piece of interactive storytelling? Games, immersive theatre, rides, escape rooms?
You could maybe make an argument that footnotes and appendices do a bit of this - see Tolkien’s lore-heavy background material that exists outside of the main text - but it’s not really the same thing. It’s all-or-nothing, and it’s still entirely dictated by the writer.