I disappeared from the internet for a week. Not in one of those “What happens when a dyed-in-the-wool millennial tries to live off the grid for a trivial amount of time” articles or anything. Just to visit some theme parks. Unsurprisingly I came back with a notebook full of ideas about my experiences there. There isn’t much about games here – need to play catchup on my missed week before I can start posting games stuff again. So instead here’s an assorted list of free-form, barely edited thoughts about a visit to Universal Studios Orlando and their associated Halloween Horror Nights event. Each one could probably be fleshed out into an entire essay if I wanted to, but this is a videogame website and I’m trying to focus on getting back into the swing of that, not writing about theme park rides and events.
Surprising no one, the line between theme park rides and big-budget video games is blurrier than ever. They both cost millions to develop, they both depend heavily on established franchises, they both struggle to tell stories (but that’s never stopped them), and they both tend to target the same youthful demographic that has more spare money and spare time than common sense or critical thinking skills. But more to the point, the emphasis of both is the same: to push a visceral illusion of presence rather than true interactivity. Feeling like you’re there or empowered or endangered is more important than having an impact on or poking around in systems. And that can be thrilling in its own way – certainly being jostled about in a 3D simulator or running for cover in a game can be intense. But the idea is to show you expensive content in a way that amplifies the emotional impact of that content. In video games it’s through mechanics – you shoot the puppets and you jump around and avoid the puppets or perform sequences of button presses to make the puppet do the right animation. In rides it’s done by making the puppets pop out at you or present an illusion of peril.
This isn’t a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s notable how much games – with their 3D Oculus Rift glasses, haptic feedback systems, and full-body motion detection schemes – are starting to look more like strap-in rides than games like Chess or Go. Meanwhile, rides like Men in Black, Buzz Lightyear’s Star Command, and Toy Story Midway Mania are effectively live-action versions of on-rails shooters. E.T. will shout your name in thanks as you pass by, while Rip-Ride Rocket lets you enter a code to select your musical score (complete with a “secret menu” of songs for those in the know). Games are striving to increase their content’s impact with more visceral feedback while rides are trying to do the same with shallow, half-hearted interactivity. Neither is particularly interested in what makes them inherently enjoyable, and both are striving to make all that expensive content emotionally engaging as if it justifies the costs.
Theme park rides are multimillion dollar investments that tend to stick around for at least a decade – and in effect they’re time capsules of the era of their production. The Carousel of Progress, for example, is a glimpse into an optimistic 1960’s view of the future presented by animatronic robots. Epcot’s Spaceship Earth was all about the rise of global communications networks in the 1980’s. Interestingly, the original version framed a return to the Moon and satellites as the expanding scope of man’s reach, but was reworked in a few years ago to end with the emergence of the internet and an instantly connected globe as the pinnacle of our communicative efforts. So yeah, rides largely reflect the values of the cultures and times that create them.
So during my visit I found the contrast between two rides – Terminator 2 3D and Transformers – particularly striking. They were only made 15 years apart, yet represent two radically different ideologies. In the world of Terminator, the military industrial complex is the enemy. New weapons don’t bring safety but escalate the probably of mass death. The merger of corporate marketing and financial insentivization with massive weapons systems and military strategies literally leads to a war that could end all of humanity. It is civilians who fight for the value of human life that stand between peace and a slickly marketed Armageddon.
The Transformers ride is much the opposite. The entire queue is framed as a military base and you (and your family and loved ones) are all signing up to be extra special agents! And Decepticons are attacking right now – and the only thing that can save you are designer sports cars that can also turn into death-dealing robots! The merger of slick corporate product placement and military super-weaponry are literally the salvation of man here. Transformers get their heads cut off in brutal fashion right in front of you, and at the end of the ride Optimus Prime tells you: “Your bravery saved the planet. Well done, freedom fighters.” And, well, you know what they say about one man’s freedom fighters…
The idea that a post-9/11 America is a more militarized America isn’t exactly a revelation. But these two rides operating in such close proximity to each other (and having been constructed only a decade and a half apart) underscores the differences between American culture 15 years ago and today. Terminator was a product of a barely-finished Cold War (remember that Judgement Day happens only because Skynet launches nuclear missiles at Russia so they’ll fire all of their missiles back). It was a time when direct engagement with our most likely enemies meant the end of life on Earth as we knew it, and a time when indirect engagement led to quagmires like Vietnam. Now attacking the enemy is framed as a moral imperative, technology is seen as a path to superiority over one’s opponents, and military combat defends rather than destroys. Transformers gets off on being military porn, basically. Again, not a new idea, but so starkly reflected in these monolithic icons of their time – theme park rides that double as cultural core samples from the years they were built.
Along those lines it’s probably worth noting that the entirety of the Marvel Super Hero Island (completed two years before 9/11) features a Saturday Morning version of the Marvel universe, with quips and camp intact. It’s a colorful vision of super powers as light-hearted escapist fantasy in a way that these days almost feels naive. Marvel Island crystallizes some of the last moments of American culture seeing super heroes as good Samaritans rather than agents of the state’s power or the triumph of military prowess. The more recent Avengers films, for example, heavily feature SHIELD as a secret military organization whose tech we’re supposed to envy and whose agents we’re supposed to sympathize with even as they plan to build ever-greater weapons in secret. Batman’s new Batmobile is derived from military plans for an all-terrain vehicle and is heavily fetishized in the films (not to mention that little cell phone tapping stunt in Dark Knight). Even Man of Steel manages to have Army men give a begrudging salute to Supes before he turns around and helps military officials plan a strike on Zod’s plan. Our heroes really are more militarized now than ever before. And even if things begin to change and our culture turns towards a distaste for war that Transformers ride will likely be encapsulating this era of military combat worship for the next decade or more.
So the wandering monsters at Halloween Horror Nights this year were all from The Walking Dead. Well, there was a small contingent of chainsaw guys, but it was almost exclusively Walking Dead zombies. And the imagery at times got kind of hard to write off, you know?
I mean, Dawn of the Dead is set in a mall for a reason – drawing comparisons between consumers and mindless hordes of undead. Dead Rising does much the same, criticizing an American love of conspicuous consumption through game mechanics and outrageous wardrobe and weapon choices. And it’s no accident that both Dead Rising games have resort elements in addition to . If there’s one thing that reflects crass, disposable consumer culture it’s theme parks. Overpriced, hard to get to, laden with merchandise and hidden fees – it’s a status symbol to go as much as it is a vacation.
So naturally we were walking around seeing tired, limping, unshowered travelers peppered with a few zombies and having a hard time telling them apart. There were a few scripted events – a fire burst every few minutes in the lake, a “shoot out” or “helicopter flyover” would happen with lighting and sound effects – that would drive the throngs of walkers to the flashing lights and booming noises. I don’t think I’m going anywhere in particular with this thought, I just noted that the imagery seemed really resonant and flirted with being self aware without getting there.
Perhaps the most famous walker in the television version of The Walking Dead is the bike zombie from the pilot. She’s not only been torn in half, but is frail and emaciated and clearly in pain. The imagery of zombies as both sympathetic and horrific resonated with people and she became something of an icon for the show during its first season. At Halloween Horror Nights this year they have a woman with no legs playing her. And I’m not sure what to think of it.
On one hand dressing up like a zombie looks like it’s a lot of fun. It’s like getting paid to cosplay a character. It’s rather limited hours – she was only out there for a half-hour at a time or so – and it’s a popular character to boot. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to run around as a popular fictional character with professional make-up for money as a part-time gig? So I really want to emphasize that I’m not outraged at this or anything – it’s a woman doing what she presumably wants to do, and I can totally see why it’d be a fun, amazing temporary job to do for a few weeks.
On the other hand, I watched as asshole kids came up and asked, “Where’s your legs?!” in a taunting tone. Others lilted and slanted their heads, certain there was a special effect at play. Throngs of people surrounded this woman – who was up on a pedestal for display – with iPads and camera phones and digital cameras snapping photos and videos of her as she pretended to writhe in pain and desperation. And there’s something… disturbing about that? I mean, sure, there’s the fact that it’s an iconographic character from a beloved TV show complete with some great make up, and that’s a cool thing people want photos of at a theme park. But there’s also sort of this hint of “how do it live?!” sideshow voyerism and objectification that goes beyond just taking a photo of a cosplayer.
Like I said, I don’t know what to think. I hope she’s having a great time doing an amazing job at a memorable character, but that imagery of throngs of people taking happy-go-lucky Facebook profile selfies with a lady dressed up to emphasize her disability made me deeply uncomfortable. A monster designed to evoke pity along with revulsion when placed in a theme park becomes recontextualized by audiences as a Kodak Photo Moment Landmark and not a person or a character.
I tweeted about this briefly, but I sort of want to see a tower defense game built around haunted houses. So much of my experiences walking through the houses was based around flow – the faster the line moved the more likely I was to be genuinely scared. When lines slowed down I could case a room and note the likely places a scare actor would pop out of – that hole in the wall, that clearly arbitrary blocked crevice, that doorway. I could see the scares happening ahead of me, but with a fast moving line I would skip that scare but be utterly surprised by the next one. With a slow moving line the monster that scared the two guys in front of me would moments later lunge at me from the same angle and with the same sound trigger, dulling the effect.
Really, it’s sort of a reverse tower defense game? In Tower Defense you want your towers to slow enemies as much as possible so they can soak damage. Here, though, you’d want to keep pushing your audience through so they’re “surprised” by each scare. Scares slow things down – strobe lights and dark passages disorient and weaken people to fright but force them to move more slowly, choking up the line for people behind them who will end up seeing the same scares as those in front of them.
Haunted Houses do sort of feel like places where people who have never experienced true horror or trauma go to flirt with the idea that maybe it could happen to them, then be comforted by the reality that no, their lives are in fact pretty awesome. Or at least that’s the guilty feeling I get after enjoying them – that I’m exposing myself to terror out of boredom and all of the horrible things that says about me.
If you do go, though, make sure you visit the American Werewolf house. It’s absolutely fantastic (though you’ll want to see the movie first for maximum effect).
Okay, enough theme park talk. Video game stuff to be forthcoming.