From Disneyland to immersive theatre and video games
I love me a great escape room! However, theme parks and theme park rides are perhaps my favorite form of immersive storytelling. When the designers care to craft the ride as a story from the line entrance to the exit through the gift shop, patrons experience the story in a much more visceral way! It’s even more awesome when the theme extends beyond the ride itself and into an entire area of the park. My favorite theme park is Islands of Adventure for this reason. Each land is immersive. Even the food is themed! Have you been there?
Games are definitely my favorite interactive medium. Even for more structured and linear games there's different forms of background or subtle storytelling. What's interesting is that there are even some where it's impossible to see everything on a single playthrough.
DanganRonpa for example is a murder mystery death game where between main story beats you can spend time with a character to learn more about them. But with multiple characters dying each chapter and the length of the game, it's impossible to see all of the free time events in one playthrough, which helps drive in the impact of the deaths when you're cut short from learning more about your favorite character.
I really like the storytelling of fighting games (and other multiplayer focused games) but lots of people into the genre seem actively opposed to it. I'm just glad we're coming out of the period where any sort of single player content was ignored in favor of esports, and major fighting games have single player modes of actual substance again. I love reading different character profiles and piecing together connections, how stages inform the wider setting, and how basic moveset design can reveal connections between characters.
And moving on from fighting games, some MOBAs tell bits of stories through descriptions of character's alternate outfits/skins. Heroes of the Storm is my favorite example because they basically offered glimpses of full on alternate universes with the skins, either what ifs for the original games or putting characters in brand new settings. I saw a Heroes of the Storm fanfic based on the premise of two versions of the same character meeting which inspired me to do my own, but most players probably didn't notice or didn't think twice about the lore for the skins.
For my own writing Battles Beneath the Stars is an odd example with it's faux fighting game approach. In theory people can only read one character story for a complete experience, and do them in any order, but my guess would be that most would at least make an attempt to read all in the table of contents order because that's what comes naturally, to me at least. The profiles and win quotes are more out of the main path and more likely to be genuinely optional. But hard to tell how much people engage with any of it.
For theme park's what interesting is how there are some activities with a bit of story outside of the rides. Galaxy's Edge has this whole thing with using an app to complete missions around the park and choose a faction, Super Nintendo World gives you a whole side quest to do challenges to unlock a fight with Bowser Junior, and I know the main Disney park stuff has something similar with dueling villains.
I also haven't observed it myself, but apparently Disney has a narrative thread connecting a lot of original rides through the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, including Thunder Mountain Railroad and Tower of Terror.
I feel that a written story is the most immersive and interpretative of all art forms. Every reader interacts and reacts to the words personally. I'm not a fan of overly detailed descriptions like Tolkien's lush landscapes or American Psycho's overt pages of dismemberment. Less allows the reader to imagine more. I've caught myself giving a sci fi feel to a Dicken's classic in my mind, and just by your intro, I was already imagining an "adults" version of it....😜
Every other artform I think presents a specific and preset environment, it's up to the audience to capture the nuances - whether if its the setting of a theme park, the shade of the curtain in a movie scene, or the tambourine in the background - but words due to their subjective nature morphs fluidly.
We've discussed how Disney uses a full sensory blast for storytelling at length on Substack, so I just quickly note the "dark side" of the Imagineer's skills - carrying the storytelling into subliminals to encourage consumption... Pumping out certain smells near food vendors to make you hungry, or (using Disneyland Anaheim as the specific example), carrying on the storytelling of Pirates to make sure you get dumped into three gift shops on the way out which are always full of tourists buying swords and plastic gold. I don't remember when they stopped selling the guns.
I'd argue writing is still more immersive than you seem to credit it with here. Even writers who bog down in detailed description still rely on the reader's imagination to fill in details. In your own work it's come up a couple of times on how I'd visualized character/location/object XYZ one way and you'd do an illustration which would be different from what I'd imagined.
But, we'll continue with other franchises and use fan art as the example. If one could still easily find fan art from BEFORE the release of "Game of Thrones" you'd see huge variation in how all the "Song of Ice and Fire" characters were rendered. Now, they get drawn as their respective actors. A singular vision replaced individual imagination.
As soon as live-action Thrawn or Mara Kade appears you'll see the same thing happen in Star Wars fan art. Although there isn't as much variation with Thrawn, because the Imperial uniform is a known design. Still, lots of different face shapes and hairlines.
I don't really play video games anymore, but, yeah, I've seen effective storytelling tricks. I'm sure advancements in tech over the last decade have made the audio/visual elements stronger.
Love this! Personally, Disney’s recent Rise of the Resistance ride really feels like a fantastic piece of immersive theatre.
I love this observation! Also, the Pirates ride and the movies are completely unmatched, and I agree-I think it's because of all the genius little details.
After watching The Last of Us on HBO, I have been playing both the first and the second videogames. I'm typically not much for videogames, but I have been blown away by the storytelling in TLOU. I loved the show, but there is something to be said for being able to engage with the environment myself, pick up and read letters, and just generally explore the world.
It’s funny you mention footnotes and appendices. I tried reading House of Leaves, which is rife with both of those as an integral part to the storytelling and I couldn’t do it. Every reference to a footnote or an appendix or whatever else just pulled me out of the story. I know a ton of people who LOVED the book, but the storytelling style wasn’t for me.
Simon, I always try to tell a little bit of a story in my nonfiction pieces. The "poetry of prose" is important, but even more so is getting the setting right. The reader needs to come along with me to where my story (history, usually) begins. I think the best nonfiction writers use all the best devices from fiction in their work too, so I always appreciate observations like these.
Ah, knew I was forgetting something!
Escape rooms. Always wanted to do one, but Laura and I always wanted to get a full team together and never made it happen. Hmmmm... Something to think about while we're still near Galway, because, after we move the nearest Escape Room will be two and a half hours away.
That opening tram car ride in HL1 and immersion into Gordon's world and routine remains one of the greatest experiences in a video game. So good.
Didn't know you'd made videos about games, Simon. That's great.
Also great to read about the storytelling in Disneyland on your trip.