Tuesday, 26 July 2016

VR is Anti Theme Park and thoughts on VR usage in Derren Brown's Ghost Train

I can’t remember where the murmuring of VR coming to theme parks began; all I recall is that I felt repulsed by the concept from the start...

I’m not really a fan of screen based attractions full stop, to be honest. Only Universal do them well and even there I find their prevalence annoying, having to put on 3D glasses for what feels like every single attraction. I sometimes wonder if my dislike for them is just defiant principle. Somehow, using film cheapens the physical, spacial experience that makes theme parks special. The acclaimed Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is so good due to the use of projections to do what conventional dark rides cannot - to keep up with an intensely physical, fast-paced experience. The sets are really there; you navigate through real space and interact with real scenery. The screens display the action and interact with surrounding sets and the whole thing is seamless, or… Well, near enough. It would be ridiculous to say that it's difficult to tell where the set ends and screen begins, but that's part of why Spiderman’s cartoon styling makes for a better attraction than Transformers next door. It helps my brain excuse the screens, lending to that “suspension of disbelief”. Of course, both are really outstanding, well made attractions.

Spiderman's elaborate physical sets.
Photo credit: Heavy Structures

Sadly, most things are not really well made. As anyone who’s ridden Spidy or Transformers as well as Busch Williamsburg’s DarKastle can tell you, the gap separating the rest of the industry from Disney and Universal is so vast that it feels unreasonable to even compare. The sad part being that Darkastle is good - or should be - but is somehow lacking. Darkastle is itself a league above most dark rides, yet a league below the industry leaders.

Voyage to the Iron Reef at Knott's Berry Farm.
Photo credit: Triotech

Last year I got to ride that Iron Reef dark ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, and it was expectedly mediocre. It wasn’t bad, just utterly pointless. I found myself uttering that awful rhetoric “it’s good for where it is”, words not needed when something is actually good. I was impressed by how well it seemed to keep up - the tech worked well and the very fact I am saying that with surprise and positivity speaks volumes for the “dark ride shooter” genre as a whole, they are too common and they are almost always garbage. I find it so annoying that in place of quality theatrical scenes or engaging narrative, “interactive” guns feel like little more than a scapegoat for distracting guests and keeping their attention. And that's how I feel about pretty much all dark ride shooters. What made Iron Reef worse than most was the technology. There was absolutely nothing about the experience that warranted it being a theme park ride, moving through real space. I was shooting a screen and the very nature of the attraction kept my focus on the screen at all times, so even if there was framing scenery, it was irrelevant by its own damn design. I could have had the exact same experience in an arcade. In fact, the attraction was reminiscent of an interactive simulator that used to be at SEGA World in London, in the 90s, which I believe was called Aqua Planet. There's something depressing about new, “groundbreaking” tech feeling oddly nostalgic. Designing genuinely good experiences and using tech where it is useful, rather than trying to build around tech for the sake of it, is a much better methodology, resulting in attractions that stand the test of time. Another attraction that springs to mind here is that Antarctica thing at SeaWorld Orlando. I've yet to try it, but people seem to universally pan it for being a techy gimmick with no substance.

SEGA World London Promotional Video.

I can watch film footage at home, theme parks are tangible and real, I want to experience - or at least feel like I'm experiencing - the tangible and real.

So, VR is different, right? Because it feels tangible and real? But I'm not convinced that will be the case. The act of having to don a heavy headset is rather removing from the narrative (even if attempts are made to write it in like they are so often for 3D glasses), but even once you've got the thing on, you've got quality issues to deal with. Outside of Universal and Disney, can you think of a convincing and well animated piece of CGI footage in a theme park? Because I can't. I've not tried VR at the time of writing this sentence, maybe it doesn't matter if character models move awkwardly to make the experience feel real. Watching the film from Europa Park’s mine train VR experience on YouTube, the awkward movement of the character models infuriate me. They're not fluid or natural and their physics are absurd. I've discussed this with a few people and I seem to be fairly alone in my intolerance of less than stellar animation. A lot of people say of Europa’s mine train what I do of Spidy - that the cartooniness is what makes it work where others fail.

Alpenexpress Enzian VR Coaster footage from Europa Park.

But my main gripe with VR as a concept, right from the start, is that so much of what makes theme parks special is their social nature. It is woven into the authentic heritage of the amusement park. Even in the early days of Coney Island’s amusements, pioneers saw the importance of the visceral nature of rides. Watching others make a fool of themselves, be thrown about by machines for fun and listen to them laugh and scream - spectatorship is the fundamental joy that makes theme and amusement parks unique entertainment. It's why we put our hands in the air, why we scream. Being able to see and hear and feel - not only the space around you, but the people around you - is the amusement ride’s best, most unique and most emotive aspect. VR kills that dead by its very nature. It is alienating, removing from real space and fellow guests in favour of a virtual, lonely world. VR and theme parks are not conceptually compatible entertainment.

And paradoxically, if VR takes off big time, these attractions will be all the more pointless as people increasingly have access to VR in its appropriate setting - at home. It’s obvious that the fast majority or VR ride experiences are intended as short term plussing. I highly doubt that Six Flags seriously intend to keep the VR they’ve installed on a handful of their coasters long term, but other VR experiences at least seem to be more permanent. The most obvious of which being Thorpe Park's Derren Brown's Ghost Train, a purpose-built VR experience.

A big issue that lots of people seemed to share are concerns about hygiene. Are the headsets adequately sanitised between uses? I don't believe there is the time to adequately clean them, personally. And that leads into a bigger concern for me… Operations.

There is no conceivable way that VR won't drastically affect the number of people-per-hour an attraction can handle, what with having to put on and adjust headsets, all the possible technical problems they add, the sanitation (however slight) between uses. When Six Flags announced they would be installing VR on some of their coasters - a chain renowned for appalling operations at the best of times - I could not comprehend the stupidity. It's shit like this that makes me wonder whether those making decisions are simply oblivious to the easily predicted implications (seems unlikely) or just don't care. I guess the marketability was deemed powerful enough and I have nothing but anecdotal evidence to prove that no one cares, although that might just be my friend circle. Usually though, I get quizzed about anything in the industry by non-enthusiast friends… Not so with VR. No one seems interested.

The problem with all these criticisms, of course, is that I was yet to try out any of the new VR attractions for myself. I don’t really think that devalues my opinion, because much of that negative opinion is based in logical predictions of poor capacity and the like. But also, “it doesn’t appeal to me” is a valid criticism in itself. I can respect a thing when I am not the target audience, but that isn’t the problem here. VR usage in theme parks isn’t unappealing because I’m the wrong demographic; it’s unappealing because it sounds like a terrible idea if you spend more than 30 seconds thinking about how it would be implemented.

After passing up the opportunity to ride Six Flags America’s VR Superman: Ride of Steel… Despite having a Six Flags season pass and passing by, because the very idea of SF operations and VR was literally comparable to hell, my first and so far only taste of VR would be Derren Brown's Ghost Train at Thorpe Park.

I was pretty certain Ghost Train wouldn't blow me away and that all my concerns about VR would be proven right, and I'm not going to lie, I spitefully hoped that was the case too, because I love a good "I told you so". But I also hoped to see the foundations of good ideas that were lost to budget constraints as is usually the case with the industry here in the UK. I'd heard rumours of some awesome non-VR aspects the attraction had to offer.

But what I got, along with the "I told you so's", was disappointment that grew as the experience went on. Derren Brown’s Ghost Train features two VR experiences sandwiched by some pretty - but still flawed - physical sets, ruined (of course) by the same cheap scare tactics used on Nemesis: Sub Terra at Alton Towers. Shouting at people to hurry in an attempt to induce chaos and separation anxiety is cheap and nasty filler to patch holes in a poorly paced experience, but I digress.

To keep things short, I just want to focus on the VR here. I may have to discuss Derren Brown's Ghost Train on its own, because the more I think about the attraction’s lacking cohesion, the more I realise it would make a great target for a lot of the things I discuss on this blog. No promises though.

I guess I went in expecting to just inherently dislike the VR part, but during the experience I could not stop wondering why the technology was wasted on that choice of footage, on that choice of narrative and those moments. It was pointless, just utterly pointless, to have VR headsets viewing such mundane happenings, with nothing going on around you and no way of interacting with the space itself. A London Tube train carriage seemed an inherently limiting setting for the opportunities VR could have provided.

The setting for the VR portions of Derren Brown's Ghost Train.
Photo credit: Total Thorpe Park

When I first picked up the headset, I examined it for any sign of gross… And actually, it was perfectly fine. My fears of there being grime in all the crevices were unwarranted, but it is early days yet. Maybe once it's been open a few months I'll take that back. Putting it on it was surprisingly comfortable, if a little heavy on the nose. So again, comfort wise, it's way better than I anticipated. A few seconds of a loading screen and then I was greeted by a recreation of the carriage I was physically sitting in. I look around. The group who I’d boarded with, the people I could still hear chattering around me and my neighbour, whose arm I could feel against mine, were of course not portrayed in the VR footage. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but that was really weird. And when I look down, I don’t exist either. Rather than leave me feeling vulnerable, isolated and confused by conflicting stimulus, it just flat out killed the believability of what I was seeing with my eyes dead. It ruined any chance of immersion for me. At no point throughout did I feel “there”. Instead, I was hyper-aware I was looking at a screen the entire time, more so than when I'm just looking at a screen on something like Spiderman, or even Iron Reef, or even now as I type this, thinking about it. Because in those other examples, I ignore the screens. Here, I went through the action of putting the screen on my face and my environment keeps reminding me it's there. The pressure on my nose, the sounds of outside of the VR world, etc.

Yes, cling to the people who don't exist. That makes sense.
Photo credit: PR image for Derren Brown's Ghost Train.

When a man and his dog enter the train further down the carriage, taking a seat across from me, and then proceeding to talk at me for a lengthy period of time, I could not believe it. No - I don't mean as in it looked so good I couldn't believe my eyes; I mean I couldn't believe this was chosen as the subject of the VR footage. It was so incredibly boring. You look around and nothing is happening, no little Easter eggs - nothing - just an empty carriage with no purpose for the VR’s capabilities. This lecture would make a poor preshow, let alone part of the main event. He keeps talking about gas, or something, I lost interest long ago...

A creepy girl appears at the window behind him, smashes her head into the glass and then clambers in amongst flickering lights. Man and dog mysteriously vanish at some point without explanation and I'm kind of glad. I can hear my fellow passengers screaming as the girl appears in front of me - so I know everyone is seeing the same as me - but I'm not spooked. Then she’s gone. I feel a slap on my knee and if it wasn't for the footsteps of staff running up and down, it would have been quite creepy when I glance down and the girl is clawing at my leg. This was without a doubt the best part of the VR experience and, I'd argue, the only part that utilised the VR capabilities in any meaningful way. I didn’t find any of this scary, because I couldn’t suspend the knowledge that I was looking at a screen, but given the screaming of my fellow guests - part of the reason I was unable to be immersed ironically - I guess the majority were finding the girl frightening.

Then all of a sudden I’m being shouted at to take the headset off because I need to escape. There’s an emergency! Quick! ...I hate this, this is Sub-Terra all over again.

The second portion of the VR is like an escape from the infected tunnels. The rush to board this second train, find a seat and put on the headset was chaos. I was separated from my group as every seat I chose nearby had a headset out of use. Now, one could argue that this chaos enhances anxiety and with that the reception to be terrified… But that is just unpleasant and unpleasant is never a word I want to use to describe a theme park attraction. Ever. Maybe that’s just me, but it is especially true when the unpleasantness is caused by poor operations, and not any part of the intended experience.

So I finally find a seat with a working headset, put it on and off we go again. With no explanation, monsters attack my empty train and rip the side of the carriage off. And my god does it look bad. The fire, especially - a friend commenting how it looks like PlayStation 1 graphics. It’s sort of out of focus and everything is samey in colour, the creatures are not convincing at all, neither is the hole in the train, nor the cityscape beyond it. There was a smoky haze for a long, long time; something I assumed was filler whilst the path ahead was cleared. But speaking to others, it happens to every load.

Derren Brown counts you back in and now I think I understand the plot. I've been under hypnosis, which is why everything makes such little sense, like a dream. Sadly, though, I don't feel the same way one does about a dream. I'm expected to suspend my disbelief and pass the flaws off as a psychological confusion from mental manipulation. I'm barely willing to ignore the fact that I know I'm in a theme park and play along even when experiences are really well done, let alone here. If the narrative itself - that I'm being put under hypnosis - is reliant on me being fully immersed, it needs to be outstandingly well done. I wouldn't even trust Disney with that task, because I'm not sure it's even possible. The narrative requires you to literally believe you've been hypnotised and thus write off all absurdities and nonsense like you would in a dream. No. This is the same problem I've been discussing for years, most recently in my post about Dinoland USA at Disney's Animal Kingdom. There, guests perceive Dino-Rama's tackiness and grime as authentic, when it is actually themed to look that way. Here, guests will perceive the nonsense as authentic, when it could be an intended part of the narrative - though I'm not sure what's worse there. It is so painfully obvious that all these kinds of attractions are the way they are because it is cheaper than creating a beautifully crafted world and "it's supposed to look like shit" just doesn't cut it within theme parks as a medium, nor is it pleasant, and it needs to stop.

Even that second VR portion doesn’t make use of the technology well. Just sitting watching what is effectively a window out into the city, with the occasional creature reach in, could have been done better with a conventional 3D screen and surrounding physical sets. VR doesn't belong in Derren Brown's Ghost Train, yet it was designed into it, not slapped on it years later. I don't understand why this attraction is the way it is, at all.

VR should be about interaction with a virtual world - that’s why it is such a groundbreaking thing for gaming. Video games have always been about being inside an interactive virtual world. With hindsight, I can even see how roller coaster VR makes sense - you’re moving through and thus interacting with a virtual world. Sat on Derren Brown, you’re just watching a movie play out in front of you. Looking to the sides, up, down, behind you… It offers nothing; it isn’t built into the experience how it should be. The attraction narrative and setting itself is inhibiting a good VR experience.

That said about coaster VR, I still believe that what makes roller coasters special is their movement through real space. But I now believe that VR coasters have a place as a quirky gimmick, but it needs to stay far away from signature rides or those with poor capacity. I'm now a little sad I didn't try out Superman and I’d really like to go try Galactica at Alton Towers now, just to see how it works, because Derren Brown's Ghost Train has left me feeling like I’ve not tried VR yet. I just sat and watched a video.

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