Thursday, June 17, 2004

Environmental Storytelling, Part II: Bringing Theme Park Environment Design Techniques to the Virtual World

By Don Carson
April 7, 2000

In the article "Environmental Storytelling Part I," I discussed the similarities and differences between the world of 3D computer games and that of theme parks such as Disneyland. In Part II, I would like to talk about some specific techniques used by the designers of physical "real world" spaces and how they might be used in the creation of immersive virtual environments.

Sub-Intuitive Elements in Design

Years ago, while studying Commercial Illustration in San Francisco, I had an instructor who discussed the use of "Arrows and Pathways" in illustration. Up to that point the concept was completely unknown to me. He used the works of N.C. Wyeth, specifically his paintings for Treasure Island, to demonstrate how, through the use of perspective, value, and color, the artist could force the viewer to look where he wanted him/her to look. Not only did N.C. Wyeth have draftsmanship and his ability to wield a brush in his favor, but he used an underlying structure that would draw his audience helplessly to the conclusion that he desired them to reach! In his example, my instructor used Wyeth's painting of Blind Pew

In the painting the blind pirate is standing in the road just beyond the Admiral Benbow Inn where he has delivered the fateful "Black Spot" to Captain Billy Bones. In the story, Blind Pew is struck down by a carriage on the road outside the Inn. Wyeth's painting successfully captures the moment, immediately before Pew is hit by that same carriage. Although the carriage does not appear in the painting, you can sense the tension in the air. Your eye is drawn to the face of Pew and despite his murderous reputation you have sympathy for the man as he cries out in the night.

Looking at the illustration, it appears to break many of the rules of design. Pew's face is one of the smallest elements in the painting, so it's size does not draw your attention. It is not the brightest, or darkest element in the painting, so it is not contrast that makes you look into his face. Even the overall muted quality of the painting proves he has not used saturated color to draw you in. Deeper in the design of the painting lies the secret. If you look at the elements that surround the figure of Blind Pew, you notice that every line of perspective, every crack in the road, and every pitch in the roof of the inn points toward the face of Pew. Notice how the line of his cane stretches up through his arm, and points to his face. Even his tricorn hat, blown to the ground, acts as a giant arrow pointing to his head. Like a spiraling drain, your eye, no matter how much it may wander will be inevitably sucked right back to the one place the artist demands you to look.

Our class looked at other examples of Wyeth's work as well as pieces from other famous "Golden Age" illustrators. In every case, these artists grabbed you by the collar and dragged your attention to those elements that were most important to the telling of their story. Without knowing, the viewers have handed over their will to the artist's design, and allowed him to take them on a pre-orchestrated journey.

At that very moment my mind was completely blown apart. It was as though I had been introduced to color for the very first time. No longer was design a matter of creating pretty pictures. Now I understood it to be a marvelous tool, a slight of hand, a jujitsu trick, the power to draw an audience deep into my design, to work my will and bring my internal vision to an audience and let them live inside of it for awhile.

Although I might sound a little like the BBC's Sister Wendy discussing the finer points of art, that is not my goal. I wish to set the stage for a conversation about the very same concepts and techniques which are available to the designers of physical spaces, both real and virtual. Like the Arrows and Pathways in Wyeth's paintings, the world around us is filled with equally engaging tricks and traps that can help a designer draw his audience deep into the story he wishes to tell!

Architectural Archetypes

The trees outside Don Carson's studio.
Outside my Oregon studio is a gently rolling grass covered hill. Where the lawn meanders to the sidewalk of an adjoining street there are two tall trees, approximately eight feet apart, and leaning slightly away from each other. From time to time people will walk up the hill to reach our house from the back. When they do, they are confronted by these two trees. Although there is an expanse of several hundred feet to either side of the trees, many have admitted that they had a compulsion to walk between them. Others have said that they would purposely avoid walking through them. Either way, they were faced with a choice, and had to act upon deep emotional responses to the natural "threshold" created by the two trees. In many ways, they had to give into feelings that defied their common sense and make a decision based on a more primal part of themselves.

Like the example of the paintings, our every day world is filled with physical "archetypes" which force us to respond in predictable ways. These archetypes are powerful tools that can be used to draw your audience to experience certain "feelings" about the space you have designed, and weave them through the story you are trying to tell.

An undeniable mystery.

Imagine you have a pair of columns side by side, like our two trees, and have placed them in an open field. It is easy to predict that any passing hikers would find the sight of the two columns intriguing and potentially walk over to them. In the process of examining them, they might even walk around them several times. Now, Imagine that you add a lintel bridging the two columns, making an archway. Now the sight becomes more intriguing, and worthy of further investigation. Add a threshold stone to the base of the archway and you have created an irresistible mystery. With the addition of the threshold, you have created a door, and I defy any passersby to continue on without passing through it.... and once passing through, somehow feeling as though they have left one place behind and entered a new place all together. This occurs with the knowledge that they have not left or entered anywhere. They are still in the same field as before. If a passing person were to have the will power to avoid walking through the threshold, they might forever wonder what might have happened if they had.

This is powerful stuff. More than just a doorway, we have stumbled over a root relationship we all have with the physical world. We may feel in control of how we interact with our environment, but in truth we can be easily lead to a conclusion by having our primal understanding of the physical world played with. Now add a sign over the top of that threshold that reads "Entrance to Hell, " or simply "Forgiveness, " etc. and watch the needle go off the chart! You have discovered how even the simplest architectural element can be used as a vehicle to reinforce your story! You have added the first arrow pointing to your inevitable conclusion!

One of the problems facing most game and theme park designers is how to coax your audience through your story and still give them the feeling they are on a unique journey. A quest that is theirs alone, and one worth retelling once the adventure is over.

One of the methods is to create the "Illusion of Complexity." I am sure you have had the experience of visiting someone's house for dinner and at some point in the evening having to ask, "Where's the bathroom?" Even after being told where to go you still find yourself getting lost. You might even think, "For goodness sake, this is a two bedroom house, how on earth could I not find the bathroom?" Even though you are in a small house, your lack of familiarity creates a mystery in an unlikely place. For the first time visitor to your environment, you have this lack of familiarity to your advantage. In the beginning, there is no need to create mind-bending labyrinths to lose your visitors in. The fact that they are unfamiliar with the space will be mystery enough.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, it was the first themed environment of its kind. Being the first meant that its designers learned as they went and, in hindsight, realized that they made the streets and byways just a little too intimate for the park's summer crowds. In subsequent parks, like the Magic Kingdom in Florida, they fixed these problems, but in doing so, lost a lot of the charm that the original park still possesses. It was Walt's desire that each guest create his or her own experience. It was his wish that the park consist of high and low roads, or alternative routes to any and all of its various "lands."

Some of the most straightforward
ways to get to Fantasyland.

If your desired goal is Fantasyland, you have up to five different ways to get there. You can take the alpha/photo opportunity path, up Main Street, across the draw bridge and through the castle gate. You could enter through Frontierland or Tomorrowland, or you could sneak through either side of the castle by way of two narrow paths. On one of these paths you will stumble upon Snow White's interactive wishing well. Multiply this "multiple paths" concept to each and every land, and you can see what a web Disneyland actually is. At the end of the day, each visitor will create his or her own linear visit to the park, one that is completely different from any other guest's day. Even within a group of visitors, each member may have an experience unique to them. An experience they can share, but that is still distinctively theirs.

The goal (in this case, Fantasyland) has remained the same; what are unique is the paths offered on the road toward that goal! As in the attached diagram, a "one pathway" experience can be broken up into many, giving choices to the visitor of your created environments. If you then vary the width and length of these alternative paths, maybe even adding a distracting element in the middle of one of them, you have then empowered your visitor to create their own experience.

New Orleans Square

If you have had the opportunity to visit Disneyland's New Orleans Square, you have experienced a shining example of the "Illusion of Complexity." It was the desire of the Imagineers designing this land to capture the feel of wandering the meandering streets of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Faced with a limited amount of space, they needed to create the illusion that the park guests could explore aimlessly, with every turn revealing something new. By viewing the diagram of New Orleans Square (Fig. 3), you can see that the land's layout is really quite simple. Notice that there are no right angles anywhere in the layout, and that if you were to wander through the land you would be looping in a figure eight pattern. Within the layout are also several in-cut patios, courts, and grand southern stairways (Fig. 4), which lead nowhere. As a guest visiting the land, you are constantly confronted with seemingly new things to look at, when in fact, it's just the same stuff over and over again, seen fromdifferent angles. Consequently, the bathrooms are just as hard to find as they were in your friend's house.

Multiple Jiminy Crickets

There is one paradox that is unique to the art of environmental storytelling alone. This happens when you try to pepper your environment with reoccurring, story-driven characters.

When we go to see a movie or have an evening at the theatre, we instinctively know to suspend our disbelief before we sit down. We leave a lot of what we know about the real world at the door and allow ourselves to be completely transported by the events on the stage and screen. If the stage curtain closes and we are told upon its reopening that 10 years have passed, we happily buy into the notion. If the screen fades to black and a morning scene magically turns into a night scene, we don't even think twice about it. Unfortunately this is not true of physical places.

For some perplexing reason, when we eliminate the presence of the proscenium separating the audience from the story, the audience transforms from willing participants into shrewd skeptics. In the case of a theme park attraction, if we desire to use a reoccurring character throughout the linear length of our ride, the audience will not easily buy into it. One example is Disneyland's Fantasyland attraction,"Pinocchio's Daring Journey". We, as guests, get into a ride vehicle and are conveyed through the beginning of the story. We witness Pinocchio captured by the evil Stromboli, and then are launched into a blacklit, hairpin turning journey to escape all the various nasties who wish to capture us as well. Throughout the attraction, Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio's friend and conscience, pops up to steer us towards the "straight and narrow" path. As the story unfolds, Jiminy appears a half a dozen times, finally arriving to congratulate us at the ride's conclusion. Unlike the filmed version of this story, where such events would be common place, the spatial nature of this story and our linear movement through it leaves us disillusioned. We are not left with the feeling of having been guided by a single Jiminy Cricket, but by multiple copies, sprinkled throughout the ride! There is something about our having experienced the story spatially that refuses to allow us to believe that these events are "real."

The 3D computer gaming world must wrestle with this same phenomenon in every new project. Unless the passage of time is indicated with a cinematic cut-scene, it is quite a challenge to make your audience believe the events that are happening around them are "real." Just as we instinctively know when there is the slightest flaw in the animation of a human character, we are equally judgmental when it comes to the passage of linear time within an environment. Although we never think about a stage actor disappearing backstage to paste on a beard and age make-up before reappearing on stage, we do make such judgments about spatial events. If a character reappears too quickly, or in too many places, our carefully crafted illusion is shattered. The audience knows when "something is not right", even if they are unable to articulate it.

When we watch a play or movie, we sit back and allow the story's events to flow over us, but when the events are happening to us, we are quick to judge! We might ask ourselves, "Hey, why did it get dark all of sudden?" or "Wasn't that guy upstairs just a minute ago?" There are strict rules to our own real world environment, and we take these rules with us when we enter 3D computer generated ones!

Another challenge to overcome in the computer generated world is that of the "triggered actor". When we play enough of the games out there, we come to expect certain limitations within the medium. In many games, "actor" characters are placed within a map to interject important story elements, advice, or warnings. These actors are usually triggered into action by something we have done, or by our proximity to their location. Like in the 3D Shooters of the past, our progression is determined by our unleashing beasts from a cage, battling them, then moving through that cage onto the next until we reach an exit. The seasoned gamer knows to look for these tricks, and the act of looking can pop the illusion you are trying to create. Although this is the easiest and most effective method for introducing characters, it is worth your time and effort to try to hide what you are doing with some digital sleight-of-hand.

There is always the potential for you to rise above these limitations. You can create new rules at the onset of your game. You can tell your audience that gravity does not exist, or that time travel is possible, or that everything in this world is upside-down. You can create worlds as wacky as Dr. Seuss, and have your audience completely give themselves over to it, but you better establish the new rules early, or you will arouse their skepticism (and nobody wants that).

Please Ignore That Man Behind the Curtain

Another unfair advantage stage and screen have over computer environments is their ability to transport an audience with little or no visual content. In the play "Our Town," by Thornton Wilder, the audience is given an empty stage with several metal folding chairs and a ladder as the only set pieces. What's worse is that they are told that these meager props represent an entire midwestern town, with all its buildings, trees, and landscape. Amazingly, the audience unanimously agrees to this, and happily projects onto these items whatever the director desires them to see and experience. The ladder magically becomes a tree, a rooftop, and a church steeple, all in the audience's own imagination!

Tomb Raider does a fantastic job of creating impressive vistas with very few polygons, although sometimes the telltale hand of the puzzle designer is still visible. On the other hand, Quake 3 Arena will periodically sacrifice architecture for pure game play functionality.
Now, computer games have had their years of metal folding chairs and ladders too. We have played tennis with only a handful of pixels, and shot down asteroids in only 8 colors, but today's audience has become a bit pickier, and savvy to the tools of our trade. The gamer who anticipates triggered AI actors is also aware of badly tiled textures, obviously placed platforms, and 128 x 128 pixel crates for pushing around. After exploring an environment for awhile, the player is pulled away from the immersive qualities of your world and starts to view it as just so many cubes, doorways, and ledges. They may be inside the most amazing Aztec ruin, hung with vines and theatrically placed shafts of light, but having solved the puzzles before this one, they ignore the finery and hunt solely for the telltale signs of the puzzle designer. They know that game designers like to work within set parameters, such as 128, 256, 512, and that their character may be limited to jumps of a set distance. Rather than using their wits to navigate your Aztec temple, they are using their knowledge and experience of its limitations to solve your puzzle. One could argue that this is enough, and is part of the gaming experience, but if you have the opportunity to pull your audience into your story, rather than allowing them to sink to what they have learned from other computer games, I say go for it!

Environmental Storytelling's Bag of Tricks

Gentle Reminders.

One of many environmental storytelling tricks, used by writers of everything from novels and movie scripts to self-help books and political speeches is, during the course of your story:

Tell them where they're going,
Tell them where they are, and
Tell them where they've been.

At times you might think that you are repeating yourself, but it never hurts to gently remind your audience why they are there, and where they are going. This can be done with a cut scene, interaction with an in-game character, or by having the game player stumble on something that reminds them of why they took on your adventure in the first place. This little bit of nudging does not have to take up very much of the game players' time, but strategically placed reminders throughout your game will keep them on the right track and make them less apt to lose interest in where they are going.

Speaking of where they are going... it doesn't hurt to give them a clear idea of their destination (if there is one). In the case of the Blizzard's Diablo, it is right on the box! From the moment you pick the game up off the shelf, you know who you are after, and having defeated him, you have the sense of having accomplished something. I have heard of another game which had a goal of reaching the illusive and climactic "Pleasuredome." Now the "Pleasuredome" had little to do with the actual game and once you got there, there wasn't much to look at. That was almost beside the point, considering the prestige achieved among your friends by boasting you had actually been there!

Forced Perspective...... Use It!

In the computer world, size is relative. As long as the poly count remains the same, it doesn't always matter how big you make your buildings. Just because you can create "real world" scaled environments, doesn't always mean you should. Disneyland's Main Street USA is famous for its 5/8th scale buildings. They didn't design these small sized buildings to save money. They used the scale change to create charm and contrast the size of Sleeping Beauty's Castle at the far end of the street. How you design the scale of an environment can tell you a lot about the people who exist there. If the buildings are small, their inhabitants might seem vulnerable, compared to a bigger structure in the distance. To reinforce the relationship between an oppressive ruler to his subjects, you could scale down the size of the buildings of the village in contrast to the gigantic scale of their ruler's nearby mansion.

Something to keep in mind while you are designing is, in the case of a first person perspective, your own scale is sometimes hard to determine without some familiar object sitting next to it which the viewer can relate to . While visiting the giant rocks of Oak Creek Canyon on the road to Sedona Arizona, I sat and sketched a rock formation just beyond the parking lot where we were sitting. As I sat, a woman walked past me heading towards the same rock. While I sketched I watched as the woman got smaller, and smaller, and smaller until I realized that the rock I was sketching was the size of the Chrysler Building, and the woman was the size of a pebble at its base. Another incident happened while watching a friend play EverQuest. While watching, I pointed out a spider not far from him. I said, "Hey, there's something you can bash!" My friend informed me that he would be doing no such thing, and as he approached the beast I realized that it was the size of a small two bedroom house and two game characters were valiantly waging war with it! Without the presence of the two figures, like the woman standing by the rock, I would have never been able to relate to either the rock or the spider's actual size in space!

Frame It

Although you are working in a 3D environment, it is sometimes helpful to utilize some of the same tricks that 2D artists and filmmakers use. If you are approaching an architectural element that is important to your story, you don't necessarily need to reveal it all at once. In fact, it can be much more dramatic if you only give your audience small glimpses of it at first. Guide your audience to small windows or gaps that will allow them to see only a fraction of the overall environment. Carefully crop these views so that the window frames this larger subject, in a way that alludes to the majesty of the whole, without giving it away. This is a powerful tool to allow your guest to start anticipating what lies ahead, without giving it away entirely. In the beginning of the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," our hero Charlie stands outside the closed gates of Wonka's mysterious factory. Like Charlie, we are given an opportunity to begin to wonder about what lies just beyond the iron bars. Although we never again get a good look at the whole exterior of the factory, we almost don't need it, because our imaginations have filled in the blanks for us.

When we think of art students, we often imagine a stereotypical young bohemian crouched in the hallways of the Louvre, madly copying the works of the great masters. The reason they do is because there is no better teacher than the artists that have come before themselves. Once they have studied the masters' technique, composition, use of light, and understanding of the human figure, they can then move on to create a unique style of their own. To ignore this phase of learning is to cheat oneself of the hard earned lessons of years past.

The same is true of the virtual world. The last 5 years have been filled with opportunities to observe what has worked and what has not. Many things about the creation of computer generated worlds has improved. There may be some elegant solutions we once learned, but have now somehow forgotten. We all remember past favorites that had some wonderful element or item that we wish we could take into some of the games we play today. Why did they die out? Becoming a designer of 3D worlds means walking the virtual streets of games both past and present. Turn off those Bots and really explore. Wedge yourself behind crates, scour the dark corners, and examine how the textures are applied. Be critical, but not so much so that you are blind to a level's brilliant moments. If your 3D game will be competing in the market with a similar game, find out all you can about it. Read their articles and play their demos! The kiss of death comes when you stubbornly hold onto the false belief that your game will be so much better that you don't need to look at your competition. New ground is being broken weekly, and to deny the potential learning from your peers is to cheat yourself of innovations that could only help your product in the end. The more time you spend studying the work of master level builders, even if they work for your competition, the better a designer you will be!

Lastly, get up from your computer and examine the real world around you. Watch how the light changes during the course of a day. Examine the tactile difference between surfaces. Notice how you "know" whether an object will be soft or hard before you even touch it. What makes a place feel hot, or cold? How are your emotions triggered by where you are? What is it about certain vistas that leave us speechless? Watch how movie directors light their sets. Notice how stage actors draw you into the drama. Look for the hidden methods painters and photographers use to sway your attention to those elements that are most important to the story they are trying to tell you.

Become a master of observation in the physical world and then bring that knowledge back into your work as a creator of the virtual. Combine this knowledge with your experience and your vision for what is possible and you will create spaces that will compel, delight, terrify, and set our imaginations on fire!

Don Carson is a freelance designer and conceptual illustrator. For many years Don worked as a Senior Show Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design arm of the Walt Disney Company. Some of the attractions he helped to design are Splash Mountain for Walt Disney World Florida, and Mickey's Toontown for Disneyland California. Don continues to work as a consultant for Disney from his studio, as well as for companies like the Jim Henson Co., Universal Studios, Microsoft, Zowie Intertainment, Sierra, and Coca Cola.

You can reach Don Carson at:, or visit his online portfolio at


At 11:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don, thank you for There -- the witty details, overall strength of design, and instant appeal must have meant that you and your team worked very hard to get it right. I can see you approached the design problems with love, humor, and a great deal of thought. I have felt gladness, as an artist, while wandering through that virtual world. Thank you.


Post a Comment

<< Home