Immersiveness & Interactivity on a Galactic Stage

When Bob Iger appeared onstage at a shareholder meeting in St. Louis on March 7th, 2019 and declared that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, repeatedly touted as “the largest single-themed land expansion in the company’s history,” would open at Disneyland ahead of schedule, just a few months from then, the storied response from many employees working diligently on the project at the time was a confounded, “exsqueeze me?”

As has become a company tradition dating back to 1955, the land would not be ready in its entirety for opening day. (At no fault of those making the magic happen.) The world’s first “Star Wars Land,” as it is colloquially referenced to this day, was fated to open as Palpatine warned the Republic would become in the face of a looming war he himself had orchestrated: split in two.

The land’s physical sprawl, including quick-service food options and a bevy of shops, would open alongside their most ambitious foray into ride interactivity, Star Wars: Millennium Falcon — Smugglers Run. This meant that the most anticipated attraction within Galaxy’s Edge, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, would not be ready in time for opening. It was trumpeted as a large-scale dark ride, and word quickly spread that the attraction would encompass multiple conveyance methods and ride technology, representing the pinnacle of modern Imagineering.

At first blush, the decision to split the release was a stroke of genius. Temper demand by opening an admittedly incomplete land, develop a robust reservation system to manage crowds, and add months of additional food and merchandise revenue. In a cosmic irony equalled only by The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, their efforts to ensure a successful opening in terms of guest experience backfired into a preposterous media frenzy which deemed it a failure due to lack of infrastructure-crushing crowds.

With Disneyland’s expansion fully open as of January 17th, 2020, following its fraternal twin in Walt Disney World on December 5th, 2019, the entire interconnected experience of Galaxy’s Edge could now be assessed in context, albeit a compromised one: Eleventh-hour cutbacks kneecapped the project’s live entertainment budget, which was to be the connective tissue of its experiential narrative.

Walt Disney Imagineering had spearheaded a truly historic development of infrastructures that would enable interactivity between the digital and the physical on a scale never before attempted in a theme park. But the performers needed to manifest those affordances would be relegated to little more than roaming meet-and-greets. The individual pieces were set on the board, but with no guiding hands to move them from space to space. The actors stood in the wings, ready to step onto the most advanced stage ever conceived, but the show wasn’t to go on. A massive, canonical story that will remain largely untold.

A Rising Resistance

In the mythic Star Wars tradition of finding balance between the light and the dark, Rise of the Resistance does indeed represent the pinnacle of modern Imagineering design. For better, and for worse. Apropos, the delineation between Lucasian ambition and Igerian literalism falls neatly on either side of the ride’s boarding process: beginning with a multi-chambered preshow queue experience through the heroic Resistance base (the likes of which have not been seen since Star Trek: The Experience in Las Vegas), and ending with a trackless amble through a bleak space vessel of the villainous First Order.

This stark attraction divide harkens back, as a counter-example, to the designer bifurcation of The Haunted Mansion between the house-bound horrors of Claude Coats and the sweeping lunacy of Marc Davis’ graveyard jamboree. In that legendary case, thanks to the unifying influence of X Atencio, the designs worked synergistically to produce one of the most uniquely balanced genre tones in the history of entertainment. (As evidenced by the vast number of attempted imitators across mediums who failed to capture its unique blend of humor and horror.)

In this case, there is a profound dissonance as Rise of the Resistance attempts to maintain an extreme level of immersive realism throughout, despite its climactic thrills relegating you to the inherently unrealistic path of a traditional dark ride. As that commitment to immersive realism carries over into the often representational locomotion of dark rides, the core experience of being restricted to “sitting and looking” is at odds with the design of the environment through which you are passing.

I propose that there is an uncanny valley of the embodied experience, and it exists at the intersection of immersion and interactivity. I hold that once a certain threshold of immersive realism has been crossed, it demands a corresponding level of interactivity to preserve the suspension of disbelief and maintain embodied presence.

In short: immersion begets interactivity.

As you make your way through the Resistance base, you are existing as that space might exist in fiction. The high degree of realism is matched by what you might really do. You’re walking between rooms, you can scan crates to discover what resources are at the cause’s disposal, you’re receiving emergency comminques and being rushed into an escape vehicle, and at the lynchpin moment of this forthcoming experiential dissonance, you’re placed into an interrogation room and tasked with protecting information you were given earlier. It’s dynamic, it’s active, and it’s fun. What you’re doing in reality is reasonably related to what you might do in the fictional world. The aesthetic realism of the space is complemented by the relative realism of your actions.

Once you board your escape vehicle, you are whisked into a series of spaces which also prioritize aesthetic realism (the degree to which it has achieved its aims are up for debate), however now your role has been demoted to the traditional attraction status as ride passenger. You’re moving through vast spaces which have been designed to prioritize that high level of immersion established in the preshow, while eschewing the inherently unrealistic, expressionistic, and often representational elements of traditional dark rides.

It is a curious path to have the guests’ previously central role suddenly reduced to “sit & look around,” while also rejecting the design tradition which gave them something to look at, interpret, and reinterpret. How can spatial realism alone, without affording realistic agency or any significant level of variability, reward repeat rides? Regardless of the aesthetic skin precipitated by the budget, there is a distinct difference in experience design between moving through a representational series of moments and spaces, and moving through moments and spaces that are literally continuous.

The fragmented tableau of dark rides lives in the interpretability of unfilled gaps, like the framing gutters of a comic page. This is where design becomes art. It invites you into the story-making. Rise’s “realistic” level of spatial “completeness” is not a technological leap that was unavailable to early Imagineers. Their sparsity was a design decision implemented purposefully to invite the guest into the interpretative dance of the physical narrative of placemaking.

In Campbellian terms, they allowed the metaphor of the space to be “transparent to transcendence.” I only wish the climactic ride of Rise allowed space for the guest to dance with the narrative in the grand Imagineering tradition, at least as much as its own first act. Once you’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of interactivity, it must be designed for. (Or against.)

Story First, Plot Last

Over the years, it has become clear that modern Imagineering has a story problem. In specific terms, they tend to confuse or conflate the narrative concepts of “story” and “plot”. It is an unfortunate phenomenon to observe when so much of the company’s identity has been defined by putting “story first”. But story is not plot. And narrative can be reinforced most effectively in different mediums through prioritization of the elemental advantages offered by them exclusively, as opposed to those afforded by others.

The ways dark rides most profoundly offer a narrative experience, indeed the only methods by which they have been able to effectively convey anything resembling story, are not through the borrowed elements of movies, radio, or any other traditional disembodied medium. Rather, it is through the correlation of character tableaus and world-defining details of placemaking. Unlike cinema or theatre, it is an interpretive approach to narrative that more closely resembles the sequential art of comics and the dimensionality of sculpture.

In the Disney parks, previously wordless expressions have been weighed down by expository dialogue and strained plots added during periods of refurbishment. Atmospheric lines which once added a sense of character, merely another gracenote in a rich soundscape, are repeatedly sacrificed on the altar of plot.

The brilliance of how Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion address narrative as dark rides once lived in their structure, seeping into every nook and cranny of their environments. Their sense of story came through the observation of curated visual and behavioral correlations. Guests were given the pieces, and allowed to construct meaning in their own minds.

Pirates needn’t tell you that its experience is a non-linear one. You simply exist in the abandoned caverns of skeletal excess, then emerge in the open, romanticized past which lead them there. The insertion of a half-skeleton pirate “transforming” into a living human pirate only serves to make literal that which intuitively never required explanation. The interpretive possibilities of an ensemble cavalcade of piratical tableaus are not expanded by the addition of Jack Sparrow — they are exiled to a singular identity as supporting players in the narrow plot he’s foregrounded.

Attractions are living spaces which will always require not just refurbishment, but updating and recontextualization. However, these opportunities to reimagine are squandered when used to fill in the spaces in which the audience was once allowed to themselves imagine. The pirate Redd can absolutely replace the auctioned Redhead without saddling her with the expositional weight of dialogue that serves the strictures of an imposed plot rather than speaking to her presence in a shared moment. Why fill the attic in Mansion with the evidence of foul play if the Bride is scripted to simply announce her deeds?

In the progressively immersive pursuits of attraction design, story has found another canvas in the mythologization of the previously proscenial ride vehicles themselves, and the guest’s role within them.

In Rise of the Resistance, the story role presented to you, as a recruit who mustn’t share the location of a hidden base, is resolved before you board the ride vehicle. The moment you are rescued from your interrogation room — my personal favorite moment of the entire experience, despite resting its drama entirely on the performance of a non-performance cast member — your motivation for the duration of the ride is solely “escape.”

Smuggling Fun

Unlike the experiential divide observed in Rise, there is a more holistic design approach to interactivity present in its less celebrated counterpart, Smugglers Run. If there is any dissonance ringing through the advanced flight simulator attraction, it lies only in the degree to which it has yet to capitalize on the historic possibilities afforded by its platform.

Taking a hyperspace jump forward from the prerendered (albeit delightfully randomized) adventures of Star Tours, a powerful new game engine offers a real-time rendered view out of the Millenium Falcon cockpit, and the controls are in your hands. You turn left, the ship turns left. Fail to dispense with a pursuing enemy? You’re going to be in for a bumpier ride. Is your fellow passenger assigned to the mechanic role negligent in their repair duties? You may feel the blast of a shift in cabin pressure.

On a technological level, the control of the attraction truly lies in your hands. In terms of game design, your degree of influence can be frustratingly limited. You can really pilot, shoot, and repair … but only within a strictly predetermined path. Its visual scope extends far beyond what is physically possible, but the direction you travel is as routed as any dark ride. The general shape of your experience, the progression of events and thrills, would be unchanged if nobody in the crew participated. Sit on your hands, and very little of consequence changes out the window.

Addressing this concern needn’t compromise the accessibility of the attraction to less invested riders. On the contrary, if the base mission remained the same, it could be the difficulty of achieving a “fail state” which results in unlocking unique events. Completing the “run” can always be the inevitable conclusion, but what shenanigans could be afforded for those united as a group to achieve some alternate goal?

The system as it exists in no way precludes a series of branching paths through the ride’s digital space, or a variety of solutions to the challenges and conflicts presented to the rider/gamer, but the design opted to give everyone roughly the same content in their experience. Allowing pilots to choose even a single fork in the road would engender a real sense of personalization and strategy. As it stands, the only boon for performing your role well is additional “credits” earned — which are transmitted to you in an undeniably magical moment.

That magic, and the complementary miracle of the attraction’s host character remembering you on subsequent rides, are made possible by another foray into game design, running to the interactive heart of the Galaxy’s Edge experience….

Datapad Builders

Star Wars: Datapad was to be the bedrock of interactivity throughout Galaxy’s Edge. A game nestled inside the Play Disney Parks app, the public-facing successor to the Disney Kudos internal project which pioneered the company’s ingenious bluetooth-beacon-enabled, in-park interactivity, a concept further refined by the Ghost Post experience.

But while those previous experiments were grafted onto existing theme park spaces to varying levels of success, this was to be the first time a land was built from the ground up with this technology in mind. A vast network of beacons allowing for land-wide communication of guest participation to cast members and physical installations. The innovative foundations of an all-encompassing connectivity that placed you at the center of an unfolding daily story, and enabled the discovery of the fictional setting’s secrets. A persistent reputation accrued through engagement, stored in your mobile account. It was to be a video game come to life, ambitiously bridging the gap between the digital and physical like never before.

It was a monumental task, and pushing forward the Galaxy’s Edge opening date represented a significant loss of development time for the Datapad team to finish their app. All hands were on deck to plug holes in the hull of an unfinished ship that was launching ahead of schedule. And as anyone who has launched an app can attest, those two months lost can’t simply be made up after launch, a period during which all resources are dedicated to fixing and maintaining what’s live. That lost time has proven to be a nearly irreparable blow.

It’s a miracle this app exists at all. As Portfolio Executive Producer Robin Reardon recalled at the D23 Expo in 2019, “Scott Trowbridge, I don’t think he was ever in a meeting where he didn’t talk about this connectivity.” Managing Story Editor Margaret Kerrison added, “Thank goodness for Scott not giving up on that, because there were many times that we’re, like … do we have time? Is it in the budget?”

There were multiple points at which the Datapad would have been cut in the normal course of development, but it had an advocate at the very top. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the history-making infrastructural investment that enables it has gone largely unleveraged since the land’s opening. Partially due to the limited digital opportunities available for cast members to interact with guests, and partially due to the second half of this puzzle into which it was designed to play….

The Show Musn’t Go On

As has been glimpsed at select press events, the character performances and stunt shows created to take place around Galaxy’s Edge were intended to play out in daily operation. What’s more, their drama was to be affected by the guests’ participation in the Datapad’s landwide mobile game.

Lessons learned in the Legends of Frontierland experiment were to have informed the guests’ interactions with live characters, but with the added support of a digital quest management system. Cast members were to become an army of non-player characters, all enacting a day-long immersive narrative adventure set on a specific date in the Star Wars canon.

Even the land’s attractions have a canonical order, which would have become clear in the context of the live performances throughout the Westworld-esque repeating day. As it stands, this order lives only in the documentation of the Lucasfilm Story Group.

Their decision to frame Galaxy’s Edge in such a specific narrative window within the larger Star Wars tapestry is emblematic of Lucasfilm’s current attitude toward interactivity, which is at odds with the immersive priorities Disney has been championing. The former has pursued little more than cosmetic customization in video games which cleave to largely cinematic frameworks, and the latter has boldly offered their audience the keys to the kingdom.

You’re invited into this new world, a whole planet which was conceived for the sole purpose of enabling you to “live your own Star Wars story”, but as it stands your Star Wars story will always be secondary to The Star Wars Story. Every day you visit Galaxy’s Edge is the same day on Batuu.

This daily reset was hardly a forgone conclusion. The general spectre of “canon”, to the degree it is wielded in the company’s contemporary efforts, could have been satisfactorily preserved within many interactive structures. For example, a persistent setting in which the treatment of the larger era (the sequel trilogy being as good a choice as any) is broadly fixed, with the day-to-day story unfolding in virtual real time, or in seasonal chapters that press deeper into that fixed era. The volume of existing narrative content would be identical, but the experiential design emphasis would be placed on facilitating play, and would allow for more nimble future narrative expansions than a single day allows.

If the attractions had prioritized storymaking systems (or, to use their phrase, “storyliving”) rather than traditional one-track storytelling practices, guests would share in the responsibility of authorship, and the stories of Galaxy’s Edge would live in those told to each other. They built an interactive system that would enable an open world, but placed it on narrative rails as fixed as the series’ cinematic origins. A sandbox with handrails.

To a large degree, the fan community treats the space as if that freedom was already the case, but if their innate behavior was reinforced by the values of the narrative experience design itself, it wouldn’t require the strategic ignorance of discordant elements that affirm the primacy of a story that isn’t their own. The tenor of Lucasfilm’s participation in Galaxy’s Edge makes it clear that they aren’t yet willing to curate a space in their world for the audience to exist and share authorship at the level theme park experiences increasingly demand.

The Greatest Teacher

Beyond the guest experience, what lessons can designers of experiences take from all of this? Beginning with the obvious, I believe great care should be taken with how an idea is announced to the world, particularly if the core selling points are especially vulnerable to cutbacks during implementation. The relationship between Imagineering and parks operations is a turnkey one, rendering all but physical necessity at risk.

Neither can the fault be laid at the feet of those who must maintain the continued reality of operating these attractions — it is the designer’s responsibility to account for their needs as well. A design must address concerns of operational demand, such as capacity, and I honestly believe they did in this case. Last-minute budget reductions are a managerial decision, not an operational one.

We must assume that anything that can be cut will be cut. Beyond physical immersion, if your primary aims are to afford the narrative immersion of interactivity, a question emerges:

Rather than designing a space to be built to enable interactivity, how can we design spaces that require interactivity to be built? I anticipate we may see one potential answer to that question soon, in that same galaxy far, far away.

I have taken to heart that we must heed the scope of our “minimum viable product.” Our legacy will always speak to the least of our realized aspirations just as loudly as our unrealized ambitions. Dreams of a connected experience are a whisper against the critical cries of “highly themed shopping mall.”

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

And so I return once again to that uncanny valley of the embodied experience, existing at the intersection of immersion and interactivity. Like a prerendered 360-degree video that places you believably in a space only to bolt your feet to the floor. A claustrophobic experiential barrier between your eyes believing you are somewhere and your mind knowing you can’t behave as the space would have you. A line of immersive reality which, when crossed, demands a corresponding level of interactivity to survive.

The generosity of suspension-of-disbelief required to exist in a heightened, representational, or expressionistic space indicates an intuitively playful, complimentary level of causal participation in its behavioral story. But fully render that space in exquisite, realistic detail? The limits of the behavioral proscenium become less clear, particularly when they have not been mindfully or cohesively curated. The necessity to define the circumference of your magic circle becomes exponentially more important when the ground you are drawing it on is seemingly made from the very real dirt of another galaxy.

They set the stage but never started the show. This is a recurring theme throughout Galaxy’s Edge. They invented the world’s most advanced, real-time rendered interactive ride system, and placed the game on unbranching rails. They installed hundreds of Bluetooth beacons to communicate player state — something nobody has ever done before — and almost never leverage that information. They built literal stages through the physical land setpieces and cut the shows planned to take place on them.

I remain ever optimistic that Galaxy’s Edge, if never developed to its full potential, will represent a stepping stone to a more interactive future for theme parks. A lineage not just physically immersive, but narratively as well. Whether through internal iteration, or industry competition, someone is going to grab that torch. And hopefully they pass it to us.

Despite a few humbling years of dashed hopes, I still believe that’s what the future looks like:

Spaces that leave room for story, and stories that leave space for us.

Writer. Designer. Rabbithole cartographer.

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