Connected storytelling: extending narrative beyond the boundaries of a themed attraction
Twenty-first century consumers are used to connected experiences. Our apps and devices talk to each other to ensure a smooth transition from home, to television, to mobile, to car; our online services and entertainment platforms are constantly improving their ability to provide algorithmic recommendations based on what we might be interested in; and advertising is increasingly customised to target the individual, a phenomenon that seems sure to quickly find its way from the web to the ‘real world’ with the emergence of AR and other technologies.
While themed entertainment is often significantly ahead of the curve in several areas, with numerous examples of forward-thinking technology being first showcased in an attraction before finding its way into everyday life, due to the sheer scale of these operations it can be slower, as an industry, to move ahead with certain, more structural or systemic developments.
As public discourse about the frequently misunderstood, so-called ‘metaverse’ becomes more common, the conversation will naturally extend to the world of themed and immersive entertainment. While large-scale brands and organisations will almost certainly seek to own as much of the consumer’s attention within this new set of spaces as possible, it may be best to look upon its development as an addition to the storytelling toolkit. Along with skills like architecture, landscaping, attraction design, writing and so many more, we now have a means of crafting virtual spaces which can serve guests by extending narrative beyond the boundaries of the physical environment.
Vince Kadlubek briefly touched on some of these ideas as one of his hopes for the future of Meow Wolf, in his recent interview on the Future of StoryTelling podcast: “We’re going to be able to connect a network of like-minded creative experiences that all sort of sit within the same experiential universe.” With the buzz around Meow Wolf and the seemingly vast worlds and stories they are beginning to invite guests to encounter, it seems likely that they will be somewhere near the forefront of attractions finding new ways to immerse us in their experiences.
To me, this growing set of tools represents an opportunity to go even further; to navigate towards and eventually achieve a level of connected storytelling that has been tried before, but never quite mastered. These opportunities can be as low-tech as merchandise, scavenger hunts and letters or other physical items being delivered in the post (I’m looking at you, Hogwarts Acceptance Letter and Wizarding World Vacation Package), or as technologically advanced as scanning a QR code at the end of a competitive attraction, to claim a unique NFT that unlocks an otherwise hidden area in a virtual land. Of course, as solutions like facial recognition and near-field communication continue to develop and improve, the barriers to easily accessing such experiences will reduce further.
Here’s what a real-world use case might look like:
- A guest books a ticket to a location-based experience, with an emphasis on fantasy Live Action Roleplaying (LARPing). Let’s call it Snowscape; a mythical, wintery realm where ice giants rule and the howls of Arctic wolves ring in the trees. The ‘ticket’ is a virtual rendering of a gold coin, tarnished and discoloured, and the obverse image faded, as if it’s been passed between rough hands through the ages. The back is imprinted with a unique code, the guest’s name and the date of their visit.
- In advance, they are sent a map — the Known Lands & Boundaries of Snowscape (which could realistically be a physical product as a premium add-on, and a printable digital version for the majority). I still like printed maps — more on that in another piece.
- They are invited to access an online portal that serves as an entryway to the story, accessible only to those who have booked and are planning to visit the experience in person at a later date. For Snowscape, being a fantasy setting, this would probably be kept lo-fi and minimal.
So far, this is not wildly different from the experience I had in preparation for attending Secret Cinema’s Stranger Things event, minus the physical map. After booking, I was provided with a unique password, opening an online page that gave me various options and tools to begin preparing for the event — all ‘in story’ (ie, I was invited to attend an Independence Day reunion at the Starcourt Mall, Hawkins, not to dress up and go to a secret location in North London.)
Back to my example.
- Certain elements of Snowscape are available for guests to visit in advance, virtually. If they’re viewing in 2D on a computer screen or tablet, it’s through a ‘portal’; if they’re donning a VR or AR headset and walking into the 3D, 360° version, they’re prompted to wear their ‘snow goggles’ or ‘brass binoculars’.
- The full land is there, but it’s not available to explore in its entirety until after they’ve visited. This is a preview; a teaser; perhaps even an elaborate pre-show— a chance to wander the outskirts and start to plan their approach, and perhaps connect with some of the group they’ll be attending with, and to meet the characters of the story they’re about to play a key role in.
- When it’s time to look away from the portal or remove the goggles, but they just need a quick fix of the excitement, the printed map comes into play. An augmented alternative map exists on top of the printed one — viewable through any AR-capable device, even a smartphone — with 3D landscapes rising from the paper, roaming characters and vehicles, and a birds-eye glimpse at what’s in store for them when they visit. And of course, the AR map is seasonal and updated in real-time, featuring the latest show information, new and ‘coming soon’ locations that might not have been on previous iterations, and perhaps even details specific to that guest’s visit, such as their chosen character name and a countdown to their trip.
- They might also notice subtle changes in these virtual pre-show elements to reflect the story that just happens to be unfolding in the latest season of the Snowscape show on their favourite streaming service, in recent issues of the comic, or episodes of the podcast. Perhaps a line in the show becomes the secret phrase to enter a previously hidden lair, or an easter egg turns up that makes sense to only the sharpest-eyed fan. Rest assured, these changes are also being reflected in the location-based version.
- Again, potentially a premium option, but an interesting idea worth exploring: the guest has the opportunity to collect items in the virtual version of Snowscape and assemble a pack — in gaming terms, an inventory. When they finally arrive at the gates of the physical, location-based experience, their custom pack will be waiting for them, with the unique combination of items they’ve collected.
- The day comes. Our guest arrives at the Snowscape experience with their friends and family, collects their pack, checks their pocket for the map they’ve been studying for weeks, and approaches the gates. In-character cast members wait expectantly for them to display their gold coin — the token that permits them safe passage between worlds — before waving them gruffly through, and into the fantastical landscape beyond.
- The coin — whether it’s the virtual version on a device, or a physical one they might have collected with their inventory pack — is more than just a ticket. It has quietly tracked and kept a record of their engagement with the pre-show activities, and perhaps even their consumption of some of the other Snowscape media offerings. In short, it understands their familiarity with the story, and their place within it, and can use this insight to inform the interactive elements of the show which is now unfolding around them.
- As missions, battles, games and attractions are completed throughout the day, the next steps on the guest’s journey are being constantly calculated and calibrated to create the deepest, most immersive experience possible. Successes and interactions are tracked, and their progress is marked on the AR version of the map, as if someone has drawn thick lines along the route with a pencil.
- The experience comes to an end with an epic finale — a shared, simultaneous encounter for all guests, into which each can attach and weave individual meaning and significance, having been a participant in their own unique version of the story throughout the day, and in the time leading up to it.
- In the following days, several custom paragraphs of prose are automatically generated and delivered to the guest — a written summary of the experience, recounted as a historical tale, as if told by a Herodotus-style narrator.
- Next time they look through the portal, or hold the goggles or binoculars up to their eyes, what they’ll see is an accurate virtual representation of the entire world they ventured through, complete with additional, peripheral areas to explore that weren’t accessible before. Characters they fought alongside thank them for their assistance in the skirmish, and creatures they successfully conquered are no longer troubling the locals. This living land continues to evolve and develop, until someday, they might just hear a hopeful voice from within Snowscape, beckoning them to return…
As has often been said, any technology applied in these settings should be in service of the story, regardless of how advanced it might be. Guests, on the whole, don’t want to see the inner workings of the worlds they’re experiencing; they want to be immersed.
Likewise, trying to enforce a strict canon across a wide range of interactive media might be a fool’s errand, a waste of time and effort, or worse, a way to make the whole thing less fun. Finding the right balance between a believable experience grounded in authenticity, and an easily enjoyable one designed to entertain on a number of different levels and encourage re-rideability/re-playability, might just be the more important challenge to focus on.
At its most successful, connected storytelling will be executed in a way that offers guests and audiences a variety of entry points into the story. Whether they’d prefer to dip their toes in from time to time, or feel like they’re truly part of a connected fictional universe with ‘real’ locations they can visit, the ideal execution will be welcoming to all, and provide a rich landscape for them to delve into at their heart’s content.
Additionally, while it would, in many ways, be easier to apply these ideas to an existing IP with a built-in global fanbase — putting to one side the potential complications of trying to retroactively connect the stories depicted on the screen or page to a newer, location-based environment — there must be huge potential for taking a story or original IP within a themed attraction, and building it out into other areas of entertainment. Think of the hugely successful global rollout of Pirates of the Caribbean, with the added potential for interactivity available to consumers today. Disney’s S.E.A. property appears to be heading in that direction, with a series of novels planned and a variety of touchpoints for the expansive story spread throughout numerous worldwide theme parks, cruise ships and resorts.
I can also already feel myself becoming an advocate for new themed experiences being built on two levels. One for the guest who wants to use every available element to become as immersed as possible, both in advance, during and following their visit to the actual location; they’ll engage with the additional layer of interaction that exists to amplify the physical world through their own phone or AR device, and they’ll already know the backstory of the characters they get to meet.
The other level is for the guest who may not know the backstory and isn’t necessarily interested in further gamifying an already themed experience. They want to look at the physical space they’ve entered through their own eyes without having to use a device, enjoy the attractions and shows, and the level of immersion already provided by leaving the real world behind.
Good design and thoughtful planning can simultaneously provide an incredible experience for both of those guests, and that should be the minimum expectation. However, it’s exciting to think about just how far the idea of truly connected storytelling can be taken, and I’m willing to bet that a significant proportion of potential guests are just as interested in finding out how deep the rabbit hole goes.