This was a talk originally given at Play by Play Festival in 2016.
Who am I and why am I talking to you? I’m a freelance environment artist, and I have a lifelong love of themeparks. As a child in England, I went to many weird, wonderful and sometimes creepy themeparks and I’ve been fascinated with them ever since. This presentation is based on over three years of personal research. But why themeparks? Video games are often talked about using cinematic terms. True, games borrow a lot from cinema – their use of cutscenes, scripted quicktime events designed to show off an action sequence and the like. But games are much more than that, they can have whole worlds in three dimension for the player to explore every corner of, much like themeparks do. This talk was partially inspired by Jeremy Vickery’s GDC 2016 talk on lighting. He was the first person I’d heard reference the Disney parks in relation to video games.
And why Disney? Disney has been building themeparks for over fifty years. Their first park, Disneyland, opened in 1955 and invented the concept of themed entertainment. They are the best in the business, and have pioneered many technological and artistic advancements in the interactive entertainment industry. And who builds these parks? The Imagineers. A portmanteau of “imagination” and “engineer”, these specialists are artists, engineers, writers, storytellers, designers and craftspeople. All of my research here is based on their work and the stories they’ve told about building the parks. All of the real life examples in this presentation are from Disney Parks around the world, and these aren’t hard and fast rules to live by, but ideas to think about.
The Art of The Show
The Art of The Show is the core tenant that every Disney park is built around. So what is it? In themed entertainment every element of the space contributes to telling a story. To quote Imagineer John Hench, “Walt [Disney] realised that a visit to an amusement park could be like a theatrical experience – in a world, a show”. Much like a video game, guests at Disney parks progress through a visually told narrative, interacting with their favourite characters, visiting exciting areas. The guest’s, or in this case the player’s experience, is The Art of The Show. Everything must be designed around this, or it fails. The Art of the Show must be applied to everything, from the broadest concepts to the smallest details. The designer must provide the player with the appropriate information to make the environment convincing. In some cases this is simple, a wide open field only needs some grass, and maybe a sheep or two. But in complex cities or far off space stations, it’s the details that draw the player into the world.
The above images are of a small area of Disneyworld, based on the 2010 movie Tangled. The buildings are sculpted and painted to evoke the fantasy oil painting style of the movie. The detailed lanterns and flags could have come directly from the film. You can even see Rapunzel’s tower in the distance.Small details are hidden everywhere. There are grafittied wanted posters, with inside jokes about the characters. There’s even a game guests can play, they can try and find Rapunzel’s chameleon friend Pascal hidden in the foliage. And what purpose does this beautifully detailed and evocative area serve?
It’s just a bathroom. You can also charge your phone there, but that’s about it. There’s no big ride or show that happens here, the Rapunzel and Flynn characters in the park don’t even meet and greet guests here. This is a wonderful example of the Art of The Show in action. A simple bathroom and charging station has been turned into a wonderfully detailed environment that is a really memorable experience for visitors.
So what sort of impact can this thinking have on a game? Take a look at this Bloodborne screenshot below. There’s four different types of statues in this shot, along with two different coffins, a whole stack of crates, two different tombstones, a wheelchair, some books on the ground, a carriage. Not to mention the detailed brickwork and iron railings. But for all of the love and care that’s gone into this little corner, there are maybe one or two enemies to encounter here before you move on. Bloodborne has been rightly praised for its beautiful and memorable environments, and it’s easy to see why when this little corner has the same care and detail put into it as a larger set piece.
Details are vitally important. To craft a well designed environment, it must be larger than life and more vibrant, enveloping the player in a sensory experience that stretches right down to the details. Video games have an advantage here – they don’t need to be physically built. It’s much cheaper to build a giant virtual castle than a real one, and you’re not restricted by flight paths and the Federal Aviation Administration. Make sure details don’t contradict themselves, or player’s will feel confused and not be able to navigate your environment as well, or even worse they’ll feel deceived.
Now then, we need to talk about The Wienie. Walt Disney coined the phrase The Wienie as a lifelong lover of hot dogs. The Wienie is a big set piece that intrigues the player, it’s the beckoning finger. And it promises a reward for the effort taken to get there. You need to be sure to reward the player with something if they do reach your Wienie, nobody likes reaching an exciting area to find it permanently inaccessible. Your Wienie must be established with the surrounding scene, it shouldn’t stand out because it doesn’t match the rest of the environment, and it should be intriguing and welcoming. Make sure to differentiate between geometry the player can get to, and what’s a background. Movement is a good way to catch someone’s eye, which we’ll come back to in a minute.
The most obvious Wienie at Disneyworld is the castle itself. It’s sat at the very end of a nice even street, encouraging guests to keep walking down it. You can’t see it in this picture, but a large carousel is visible through the tunnel at the base of the castle, enticing guests with that movement I mentioned earlier. EPOCT’s giant geodesic sphere is another Wienie. Although you can go inside it, I think this one is memorable for its “What the fuck is that?” effect it can have on people. Disney’s Animal Kingdom themepark even has its own Weinie. Representing the Tree of Life, this isn’t actually a tree but an oil rig with a sculpted exterior and fake leaves.
The Dark Souls series is excellent at making Wienies. With the first game’s interconnecting environments, the player knew they were guaranteed to eventually reach some far off castle or tower. And not all Wienies have to be huge centrepieces either. The bridge drake turns an otherwise unremarkable piece of castle into a focal point, and its movement demands your attention. Although this Wienie isn’t exactly welcoming, it’s certainly intriguing.
One last thing I want to talk about before I move onto the next section is the crossfade. Even if your game is set in a relatively similar environment, you should still think about transitions. And this is something you definitely need to consider in games with a wide variety of environments. At Disneyworld, 3D transitions are handled with background music, small props, and by changing the style of footpath or walls. These things can all be applied wholesale to games. The key thing to remember is to gently guide the player into a new environment. Jarring scene changes can leave them confused and at worst lost. If you really really must have your desert sitting next to a tropical rainforest, be sure to think about transitions. Now I’m about to get really nerdy with these next examples, so fair warning.
Railings! Railings in Disney parks do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to transitions. On the left you can see the generic green railing of the entrance area giving way to detailed, themed railings. The top picture shows the start of Adventureland, foreshadowing the area to come with a rough, natural finish and some exposed brickwork, which is a very nice detail. Below that is the Fantasyland railing, the pretty blue and cream stonework matches the castle, and there’s even a nice lamp to give you a sense of what’s up ahead.
One game that really thinks about transitions is SOMA. You start the game very unclear about your location. Are you in the future? A spacestation? An abandoned laboratory somewhere? As you move through the environment you get subtle clues. The dripping noises and leakage from the walls and ceilings, the diving suits hanging up, the references to it being a geothermal powerplant.
Eventually the game reveals its location to you via this tunnel section, saying “Hey, if you don’t already know, you’re underwater.” This tunnel also serves as foreshadowing to the later sections of the game, where you walk around underwater. It’s during these water walkabouts that you encounter airlocks. Whenever the player needs to move from an underwater section to an indoor section, or vice versa, they need to go through an airlock. Doing this lets the player mentally prepare for the next area, as the drainage or filling animation is unskippable. Each state also has its own soundscape, the underwater and indoor audio design is completely different, and the klaxon of the airlock is a transition between the two. It’s also important to note that airlocks are not used often enough to become annoying, as this sort of prominent transition can be. They’re used sparingly to retain their impact.
The next thing I’m going to talk about is form. Form defines the show.
It’s shapes and stuff, really. Form includes not only buildings, landscape and architecture, but also time and space. Form is defining the play experience of the players, when properly designed to communicate effectively, it can have a powerful effect. To communicate story in an environment, time and space need to be accounted for. How long will it take the player to do things? What will fill the space, and how will the player interact with it? All of these things give form to the environment in the same way a building or a rock does. You also need to consider dynamic relationships, and the impact movement can have on players and storytelling. Games aren’t a theatre where your player is sitting down, watching a story unfold, they actively moving within it.
On Disney rides, the experience is tightly controlled. The foreground, middle ground and background are readily distinguished, and attention can be drawn with visual emphasis. Although a ride has many similarities to a linear game, here Disney is controlling the speed in which the guests experience the narrative. In the queue areas for each ride, the guests move through at their own paces. This example is a better comparison for linear games. If they want to, guests can stop and study single story elements, like the skeletons of previous adventurers or the murals on the wall. Uncontrolled experiences, like the guests wandering around the park can be compared to more open world games. They can still be guided with visual forms and their relationships to each other. In the picture above, Big Thunder Mounatain’s rockwork is a wienie which will give guests a destination to head towards.
I’m going to use Skyrim’s map to show how time and space can be thought about in an open game. How long does it take the player to reach the nearest town? How will this affect the story the environment is telling? What might they encounter along the way? How big is the town itself? How does it sit within the surrounding area? How many narrative elements or quests are inside the town, and how long will it take the player to run from one side to the other? How long will it take to go over that small mountain? Are the mountains the right size for the scale of the environment? These are all tangible examples of how time and space can form the environment.
Forms have distinguishing characteristics which give them identity. We can easily identify the outline of a palm tree, or the turrets of a castle. Is the form manmade and square, or is it organic and natural? This identity, whether familiar or not, can have an emotional appeal which facilitates decision making. If there’s a giant spiky looking thing to the West, it might be dangerous, so maybe I don’t want to go over there. Identity is communicated at three levels: symbolism, representation and sensory information. Form covers symbolism and representation, while details like colour fill in the picture. More on that later.
Disney parks are designed around a central hub. All of the different environments surround this central hub and are separate from it. The hub gives the guests a chance to stop and make a decision about where to go next. The forms visible from this hub are part of the decision making. On the right you can see part of Tomorrowland, there’s a spaceship looking thing and lots of tech looking stuff. To the left is the Matterhorn, a fantastical snow capped mountain.
Even without colour, if you’ll excuse the awful Photoshop, you can identify the forms. The broad, natural peaks of the mountain versus the intricate manmade shapes of the rocketship.
This same decision making is present in game environments. In the image below the player has one goal here – to get into the building. There are multiple way to do this, all communicated through form.
At the top you can see the forms of the narrow platforms and air ducts protruding from the building. Although this is the most direct route, the narrow forms communicate danger. The play might slip and fall, or the ledge might break. To the left is the large, solid form of the rooftop garden. Although you’d have to take out a guard to get past, it’s a solid and dependable route relying on solid and dependable gameplay mechanics. At the bottom is the garden, with its fluffy and natural forms. This is the proper entrance to the building, so it looks inviting and unintimidating. All of these forms communicate different things about the environment to the player, facilitating in decision making.
Colour is our final, and perhaps most important section.
Colour is a language that people respond to both consciously and unconsciously. Player’s have countless associations with colour, some of these will be personal and some cultural. When we’re making environments we need to remember to go beyond our personal associations and make the colour choices serve the world and the player. Colour tells stories – it identifies the place, time and mood. Through doing this it can reinforce the story’s meaning. We can only see colour with light, and every time and place has a different quality of light. The murky gloom of a forest is different to the winter sun on a mountain top. Light and colour work together to create emotion, moods and meanings. They are essential to creating environment and visual storytelling.
Nothing in a themepark is seen in isolation – every facade and ride is seen in relation to each other. The colours need to work with the neighbouring buildings, the pavement, the landscape, the sky and the weather. This is a picture of the American Adventure pavilion at EPCOT. If I was to ask you what colour the trim was, what would you say? White?
That’s not quite correct, the trim is actually four different shades of white and grey. Starting with the lightest at the bottom, the shades get darker the higher they go, to counteract the strong Floridian sunlight and sky. It looks natural to us, but it requires a little bit of manipulation from the designer. With proper lighting, bounce lights or reflections that distort your carefully picked colour. Always look at your colours within the environment they’re going to be put in, it’ll probably look quite different from the flat colour you thought you’d picked out.
Colour also assists with identification. Form can get us part of the way there, but colour makes everything obvious. When things are depicted in their natural colours, we enjoy the feeling of identifying the familiar. This is a powerful feeling, and it can be used to great effect in environmental storytelling. To make something seem unnatural, unexpected colours can mask its identity and create unease. Depending on the environment and mood you’re going for, this can work wonderfully. If it’s an accident, it might not be so great. Old, tattered and aging forms can look incomplete without colour to identify them. If we can’t readily identify the form because of disrepair, colour needs to come in and do most of the work.
One of my favourite examples of subtle colour manipulation in environments is Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. This stately manor house is painted a cool white, which already gives off a chilly feeling. The real magic is that it’s shadows are artificially deepened by painting the undersides of the trim and balconies with a cold blue. This helps telling the story of a haunted mansion, the very building itself is unnatural.
And so, we come to our conclusion. We’ve taken a look at some of Disney’s best tricks and seen how they can apply to games. So what have we learnt?
The art of the show is about suspending disbelief. Just like games, Disney’s parks work because they make you leave reality behind. Every broad stroke and minor detail is there to further this cause. Form and colour, along with lighting, are some of the major components in achieving this. Time and space give form to the environment as much as buildings and landscaping do. Colour and lighting help fill in the rest of the picture. By taking these lessons and ideas, we can not only craft beautiful and functional environments, but make environments that work WITH and FOR the player.
Now this talk barely scratches the surface of themepark and environment design, but I hope it’s given you some interesting things to think about. If you want to read more I highly recommend these three books as a starting point, and there’s also a ton of websites and blogs dedicated to fanatically picking apart Disney Parks.
Designing Disney – Imagineering and the Art of The Show by John Hench
Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making The Magic Real by The Imagineers
Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making MORE Magic Real by The Imagineers