I’ve been thinking a lot about immersive storytelling lately (as you do). Whilst many producers and companies are focusing on VR, AR, or Bandersnatch-esque media, I think what is often overlooked is the mentality behind this kind of immersion and our desire to escape reality.
A recent article from Forbes got me thinking, especially with the term “Uber-Immersive” – in case it wasn’t immersive enough for you. With the recent opening of “Galaxy’s Edge,” we have a case of the truly escapist fantasy of getting to live out your Star Wars dream. You can high-five Chewbacca, take a selfie with R2-D2, or get your hand sliced off by Darth Vader (that last one may have been a joke … or it’s still in development).
The theme park concept is nothing new. Disneyland – the best example – was designed by Walt Disney to be immersive as possible (obsessively so). Tunnels lead under the parks for costumed characters to move around, performers remain in character all day, and even smells and scents are piped systematically to create a more “Disney Magic” feel.
But it seems that this philosophy has evolved, not only with the advent of new technologies, but with how fans interact with pop-culture in the social media age. Star Wars best exemplifies this, with new announcements and events having the same fervour of a modern political rally.
Now, instead of just watching the films, reading the comics, or playing the games, you can “Uber Immerse” yourself in the Star Wars universe.
It’s a true transformation from product to experience.
That’s why I wanted to look at the “Uber-Immersive” and what it means for brands and how we engage with franchises.
THE UBER-IMMSERIVE THEME PARK
One of my favourite quotes describing Disneyland comes from Walt Disney himself: “Disneyland is like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass; to step through portals of Disneyland will be like entering another world.”
I believe that quote embodies the appeal of the theme park. Of course, that was a quote predates our immersive VR/AR/interactive entertainment, but certainly created a philosophy. Now, half-a-century later, we have “Galaxy’s Edge,” and the upcoming “Avengers Campus” recently announced at this year’s D23.
In true transmedia fashion, it appears that there’s actually a “story” with the different Avengers Campuses in different countries, with the Quinjets “connecting” the parks around the world to find the “next generation of heroes.”
Most interesting to me is the idea of the Disney hotels. There have been talks about a Galaxy’s Edge hotel that might be shaped more like a spaceship, where you can actually live day and night in the Star Wars world.
Of course, it’s not just Disney adopting this approach. Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure at Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter similarly boasts the ability to uber-immerse yourself in a fantastical world and enhance your experience; butterbeer and all.
This isn’t purely a Western phenomenon. In Japan, there have been similar announcements for a “Studio Ghibli Land” that is coming for 2022; no doubt similar levels of storyworld immersion will follow; being able to explore a physical Howl’s Moving Castle, ride Totoro’s Cat Bus or visit the bathhouse from Spirited Away.
But, for the most part, we’ve had the technology for a while. We’ve seen hotels designed to blend into a theme park, we’ve had the ability to take pictures with our favourite characters for decades now, so what’s changing, and why do we seemingly crave total immersion?
A TRANSMEDIA ECONOMY
I want to start by addressing the economic elephant in the room. We live in an age where we don’t really have home video anymore, and the subscription service has taken over our entertainment sphere.
With monthly fees, your typical (mainstream) customer will access original series and films through Netflix, Amazon, and soon Disney+ and Apple TV+.
There are of course more niche services out there that cater to a specific audience. Shudder is a great horror-subscription service, and similarly DC Universe offers comics, original series, films, and behind-the-scenes access to loyal DC fans.
Going to the theatre now is more of an event, and if this year has taught us anything, has a very lop-sided box office. 2019 has already been Disney-dominated, with their properties so far taking the top five spots and Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Really, the only things capable of drawing a theatre crowd are Disney, properties with a nostalgic fan base, remakes, horror – or a combination of this list.
For studios like Disney and Warner Bros, it makes sense to transform IP into a theme park event or attraction. But the fans have a different motivation.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Aside from the economic point, I think what’s really driving this push for “Uber-Immersion” is how fans and audiences respond to these franchises; and it has to do with escapism – more specifically “Digital Escapism.”
To quote the article: “I was relying on content to escape my own bland, uninteresting reality.”
Whereas you had things like Disneyland in the past, it was really more of a one-off event; maybe a holiday destination. But now, with global mass media, and constant access to digital media, it’s easier than ever to immerse yourselves in a “perfect world,” whether it’s wizards, Jedi, or whatever. That’s even before we address the potential in VR-generated worlds.
Unsurprisingly, studios have caught on.
This also has to do with an evolution of fandom, and the rise in toxic fandoms. As with politics, once you entirely immerse yourself in a franchise it can become integral to your identity – I suppose the fandoms for Rick and Morty and Steven Universe are the best examples of this, with both having such a prominent pseudo-political presence online.
Fandom may seem like a bit of a tangent from theme park attractions, but the core philosophy is the same – creating an entirely immersible reality out of a franchise; be it digital or real-world.
I never like to be too negative about media brands in that regard. Ultimately, one of the big draws of transmedia storytelling is that the audience can determine how immersed they are in a story. As someone who isn’t the biggest Star Wars fans, I can say that I’m OK just watching the movies, but that doesn’t mean I need to binge The Mandalorian or book the next flight for Galaxy’s Edge.
Sure, you can view these theme parks as escapism, but that’s what they’ve always been to some degree. It just so happens that we live in a world where the combination of global communities, technological innovation, and a world where (for lack of a better term) politics sucks.
I suppose a comparison could be the world in Ready Player One – a dystopian society where the global population distracts themselves with the “Uber-Immersive.”
We have more to escape from, and more ways to do it.
BACK TO REALITY
With all this in mind, there have been mixed reports with the levels of success these theme parks have garnered, and early theories about what’s going on. Galaxy’s Edge in particular has been underperforming according to recent estimates.
Personally, I take theme park turnaround with a pinch of salt. Even Disneyland had a disastrous opening. Most importantly, these attractions bring franchises into the everyday, with the potential to adapt new film and series instalments into a broader story context.
But with a transformed fandom, and the era of digital escapism looming, we’re heading into a new age of immersive media; beyond the film, beyond the theme park, and beyond the everyday.
There’s potential here to not only expand and develop these universes, but if Marvel and Star Wars have already succeeded at this for decades – across multiple mediums no less – then I imagine they can go for more.