Narrative, Media Art and Donald Duck

In which I go looking in Halloween USA for the pumpkin spice of contemporary media art, and find that interaction design is better done with personalities than push-buttons.

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I’m in Los Angeles. Touristing, but following the hunch that contemporary media art is best studied from leading commercial practitioners than any academic project. That is, if I want to observe the cutting edge, I’m better off at Disneyland than Carnegie Mellon.

A commercial entity has no excuses – it has to study, set and hit strongly defined goals. If an audience doesn’t respond to the work, it gets fixed or folded. There is constant war between companies to seize the state of the art. If one creates the leading experience, the others are in quick pursuit. But by itself technology is not the key to their success, and I am keen to understand the storytelling design that underlies the best work.

(There are of course ‘living museums’ – that understand the join between the two worlds. They are also inspiring sources).

I’ve no illusion that I can produce anything that compares, but I’d rather fall short of the target than the periphery. I’m keen to understand commercial ‘360 degree’ media design – experiences, movies, rides, and merchandise, so I’ve been studying the two most successful theme parks (by audience) operated by Disney and Universal.

The full essay would be much longer than you’d bother to read here, so let me just provide an executive summary and some points.

In the best case, the narrative rules for storytelling hold true for 360 experience – people care for, and identify with a hero or group of heroes, they prefer a narrative that conveys learning and morals. I believe that the centre of any interactive media is the character (rather than e.g. the mechanics of interaction). This is why e.g. it’s called Harry Potter’s Wizarding World – immersion involves identification with a person or persons, in a world that is formed to illustrate their personal journey.

The audience does not care for interaction without meaning – it must be in the context of the narrative and world. And this Interaction must involve the same cascading levels of jeopardy as set out in a linear narrative.

The Narrative Arc is across all outcomes

I always come back to the standard lead line: somebody, somewhere, wants something. They discover a gift, which then involves them in conflict. In overcoming an antagonist, win or lose, they gain insight and are uplifted beyond the power of the gift. This progression is obvious in movies – but it is found in roller coasters as well.

In all the cases I’ve seen in LA, the movie (incorporating book, play, TV series) is the first outcome but there are alternate cases such as the game Five Nights At Freddies. In creating the movie, the designers necessarily come up with the elements that serve all the other formats.

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Is this a hero? Or scenery?

There is a someone who wants something. The hero. What do they look like? What’s their past? What do they want? What instead do they need? Harry Potter is 11 years old, an orphan, treated like a slave – copied from Cinderella (which addresses the same teen yearnings) he will be given a gift – with consequences. When the battle starts, hubris may bring him down. The character is crafted with a back story, desires and motives, a physicality, emotional weakness and so on.

The Character is the store of narrative ‘reality’, and includes at least

  • motivations (goals, back story etc.)
  • limitations (lack of insight, point where their risk-taking tips into failure)
  • embodiment (colours, physical attributes, clothing, etc.)
  • totemic items (things that illustrate the gift)

By defining the motives and limits of the hero and villain, the plot will mostly write itself. A movie follows a segment of the inevitable action up to the moral outcome set in a third act, after which a sequel will hopefully be required. The experiences are endless, a perpetual storytelling.

Harry Potter land

Harry Potter land. Bring your haptic controller, pardon me, magic wand.

This action needs a somewhere, and I’d argue that it too is generated when the characters are properly defined. In film these are generally called worlds. The theme parks I’m visiting are divided into lands, each being a confined sub-area in which the features are strictly designed to appear part of a world. Examples include Disney’s Fantasyland, Pixar Pier, and Universal’s Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, and Springfield. Usually there is a gate to each land, or at least a bend in the road that obscures one land from others.

(It’s reminiscent of computer game design, with walled levels, NPC’s, collectable weapons etc., and tempting to think that RPG gaming inspired this physical immersion. But the theme parks are much older than gaming – Disney derived his park in the mid 1950’s from older European parks he saw on his own study tour. Instead parks and games have common requirements and have cross pollinated.)

(When Disney broke these rules in Disney California Adventure, they suffered badly. The changes made since that ill-fated opening illustrate the point being made here).

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My hunch is that the tale of Nemo requires an ocean in which to be lost, and Toad requires a shiny automobile. Or, more accurately, the attributes of the character, such as Toad’s vanity and privilege, demand a situation in which they can be presented as a morality play. Design questions are answered by asking ‘what can, and would the character do in this situation, given their motives and failings?’

Rides

The Incredicoaster is the latest part of DCA to be reformed from the disastrous ‘mock California’ launch. It now has a story line based around the physical abilities of the Incredibles characters, expressed as movements of the coaster through chapters, defined by figures placed in tunnels on the track. The ride is narrated by speakers built into each seat, presenting a moral about the family working together. Notably the ride itself is not made longer or faster than before – it has instead been improved with an arc.

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The scream tubes first enforced to reduce noise pollution were made even longer to add in the narrative elements.

Jeopardy points in the story-line become the (apparent) jeopardy in the adult rides. For example, in Universal’s The Mummy a tussle between good and evil is enacted by throwing of the riders into a dark abyss filled with scarabs by the god Imhotep, from which they are retrieved (backwards!). Splash Mountain, Forbidden Journey, even The Simpsons Ride – all are narratives where a machine shakes emotion into the story. Some of the small children rides like Snow White’s Scary Adventures are obviously also narrative, while the carousel doesn’t seem to suggest any at all.

I also couldn’t see the jeopardy expressed in most of the lands, where the audience is free to wander. Perhaps events like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are the start of something, which could be expanded outside of the horror genre.

The last point I can fit here, and one that still puzzles me, is about totems. The bears, mice, dogs and whatever-the-hell Goofy is supposed to be are all well within the long tradition of fables. Rabbits have been heroes all the way back to Africa, so that’s well documented. I wonder if the modern cartoon character – Minions for example – are the same psychological device and I think, yes, we have now adopted machines as we once did creatures.

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The second question is about totemic objects or ‘merch’ – the hats, t-shirts, lanyards, plushies etc. that bulge throughout every land. Are these simply souvenirs, or do they bring identification with the hero, or some more complex process? And what is their role when used inside the land, such as the wands used in Harry Potter than are actually haptic controllers for various ‘magical’ events?

Still a lot more to think about.

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