Monday, April 18, 2011

Backstories: Oblivion at Alton Towers Part 1

Here is a transcript of the queueline video which plays at Oblivion - the world's first vertical drop roller coaster, themed as a secretive government test facility in the X Sector land of Alton Towers. The video can be watched here on YouTube.


Welcome. You have been designated for Oblivion. The decision to come here was not your own. It was ours. The thought was implanted in your brain by auto-suggestion. What you are about to see will prepare you physically and psychologically for the most intense ride experience ever devised. If you wish to survive Oblivion, we advise you to observe the screens at all times.

This is the world’s first vertical drop rollercoaster. During the ride, you will freefall face first into blackness. A freefalling object is something which falls under the sole influence of gravity. Unfortunately, in this instance, that object will be you. Freefalling objects accelerate as they plummet downwards. This is a ticker tape trace of a ball falling taken at 0.1 second intervals. The fact that the distance the ball travels is increasing shows it is speeding up. Unfortunately, unlike the ball, people do not bounce. When there is air resistance, large objects fall faster than small ones and as you’ll be falling vertically on a ride car which weighs more than a large elephant, this could be some cause for concern. In fact, if Newton’s second law of gravity is applied to your predicament, this could mean you are about to be trashed.

During the drop into blackness, the gravitational pull may exert excessive force on body tissue. For instance, you may experience a reduction in skin moisture. Dehydration may lead to an evaporation of essential protective brain fluid. This may cause the brain to rattle around in the skull a bit. In stressful situations such as these, the body’s fight or flight response system is activated. Muscles tense. Heart rate increases. And there is an increase in body temperature. For those about to ride Oblivion, extreme anxiety may even cause spontaneous combustion. Make sure you are wearing flameproof underwear. At the same time, adrenalin levels also rise and the brain’s chemical messengers go into overdrive. Adrenalin junkies may O.D. on the excitement.

G-Force is another factor. Take a pilot for instance. The maximum G-Force a human being can withstand is plus or minus 9g. 9g means that a pilot is undergoing a force nine times that of Earth. If he weighs 200 pounds he will suddenly feel as if he weighs 1800 pounds. The force involved makes blood flow to the feet and the pilot will experience a grey out where he is unable to discern any colour, or even a temporary black out, or if the plane is upside down the increased blood flow to the brain may cause a red out, where his vision is replaced with a red screen. The maximum G-Force experienced on Oblivion is 4.5g. This is not drastic enough to experience a grey out, a black out or even a red out, but it may be enough for some people to experience what is known as - a cop out. This psychological state usually occurs when the moment of truth arrives and it’s their turn to drop into Oblivion. False bravado is replaced by weak excuses at the prospect of a sheer vertical drop into the abyss. If this happens to your friends it means they have zero g tolerance, or that they’re just soft.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Defining Story

A quote by Marc Davis in Didier Ghez's book Walt's People Volume 10, “Walt knew that we were not telling stories. You know, he and I discussed it many times. He said very definitely ‘You can’t tell a story in this medium’” prompted me to write down some existing difficulties I've found with defining story in the theme park sense, and how it is variously used to describe different elements, even when used by a single company like Walt Disney Imagineering. This is certainly an area I feel I will expand on in some detail in the future, and I have already written a piece critiquing the common view that Pirates of the Caribbean has no story. The quote was posted by Edde Sotto in his excellent thread on the WDWMagic message boards.
I think the topic of Story in theme park attractions is difficult because the word can be used in so many different ways. I'd essentially break it down into three facets:
BACKSTORY - The fictional explanation of how an attraction came to be. Imagineering seems to use this definition when it discusses the 'story' behind Prince Charming Regal Carrousel (he had the contraption built to practice jousting) or attractions like California Screamin' which don't have anything actually happen on them narratively.
STORY PREMISE - I'd think this is the 'old school' definition of story within Imagineering. Essentially its a set-up: "what if you explored a haunted house", "what if you sailed with pirates in the Caribbean". No explicit narrative is communicated but an environment, theme and atmosphere is created, peppered with events, moments and vignettes that populate the world. A specific narrative is open to translation by the audience.
STORYLINE - This is the modern definition of story used by Imagineering, which seems to have come directly from Eisner's background in film. It's a movie style plot of explicitly connected building moments. Nothing is really open to interpretation because everything is communicated and linked cinematically. Every audience member receives the same experience. Generally these attractions can be slotted into a story structure, most popularly "...And Something Goes Wrong".
(I would certainly say that it's a sliding scale between the three. How many events needed to be added to / removed from Space Mountain for it to switch between backstory and premise for example).
The best example of two and three I think is the Haunted Mansion (DL/WDW) vs. Phantom Manor (DLP). In the first, we are the main character; it is about our experience as we tour this haunted house stumbling across events (the seance, the party, the hitchhiking ghosts) that impact on us, even remotely. In the Phantom Manor however, it's no longer our story but the story of Melanie, the bride. As we move through the house we are given pieces of the puzzle that reveal her story. We're not peeking at 'A' ghostly ball (which we can claim as OUR ghostly ball), it is HER ghostly ball. This switch from internal/implicit story to external/explicit story was particularly damned by Marc Davis.
Now I'm one of many who thinks the third has vastly dominated the second in the past two decades, but I do think the third has a place in the theme park even though so many fans berate it. Because of that I wouldn't jump on Walt's quote as proof of anything other than how open 'story' is to interpretation.
Maybe Walt meant story as in film and literature; the introduction of characters, their internal and external struggles, their dialoguing, their adventure and so on, which of course is vastly unsuited to the theme park. We know that Marc detested the third style, but I'm not convinced we can use 'Walt's authority' to write it off. Star Tours, Muppets and Splash are all examples of effective attractions that use the third definition of story, Splash particularly - we are ENTIRELY external to the story, passive observers following it along, the emotions we feel (other than the non-diegetic anticipation of the big drop) being essentially mimetic. Really - why on earth is this log we're floating in disconnectedly following the story of Brer Rabbit; do we feel part of the story other than sharing the plunge Brer Rabbit endures to escape; how much better is this than just watching the film*? But it's still popular.
* Assuming the DVD was released!
Follow-Up Note: Since writing this I've been quite seriously looking into story within theme parks and my ideas have grown quite significantly. I hope to post a (much larger) update to this sometime in the future.