About three months ago, a Disneyland cast document leaked detailing a then upcoming game called Legends of Frontierland. The document described a game in which Disneyland guests were supposed to create a character for themselves, buy “land” in town (which could include several of the real-world businesses), could run for government office, and even throw other players and Cast Members in jail with or without reasonable cause. At the time I was positive that this would all result in spectacular failure. You can’t give guests at a theme park that level of power – even if imagined – without causing major logistical problems. Chaos was bound to ensue; fights breaking out when a guest is told to go to jail, Cast Members being dragged away from their positions by unruly guests, or guests getting territorial about a piece of property that they now “own.” There was no way any of this could work, you can’t just create this kind of sandbox in a public space and expect people to play nice, so when I came to visit that first day I was prepared to see a train wreck of colossal proportions.
I have never been more pleased to be dead wrong.
As you may recall, things were certainly imperfect on that first day – the mechanics and objectives of the game were not always clearly conveyed and there were unforeseen “bugs” that caused some occasional hiccups – but I was able to see something by being there in person that completely eluded me in that leaked document. Legends of Frontierland had the potential to be a truly meaningful way of engaging guests in a theme park, the likes of which the world had never seen before. And in the eleven-and-a-half weeks that followed, that’s exactly what it became.
So what exactly is Legends of Frontierland? I’ve been accused of providing unsatisfactory descriptions of it in my previous few columns, and the truth is that there’s really no easy way to describe it. How do you describe something that is effectively the first of a new category of media? Sure, there are other things we can compare it to – it has elements that are common in alternate reality games, some overlap with live action role-play, a bit of interactive theater, and a lot of similarity with video games – but none of these quite get at the unique things that Legends offers. The best way to understand it is really just to play, but since the game has concluded for now, and many of you were unable to experience it, I’ll do my best to walk you through what it’s like.
At its core, Legends is about characters. Yes, there are the surface level mechanics in the game found at the various stations, whether it’s the sending and receiving messages at the telegraph office, collecting or posting bounties at the sheriff’s office, or buying land at the trading post, but those only get you so far. These mechanics are all crucial to bring people into the experience and give them a tangible goal to strive for, but once you’ve bought your first plot of land, there’s not a lot of inherent desire to go out and earn bits to buy another one. Instead, these mechanics all become tools that more experienced players can use to further other ends, ends that often tend to involve character interactions. Legends is populated by a rotating cast of truly spectacular performers who have created fully realized characters specifically for this game. It’s shockingly uncharacteristic of the way Disney has run the parks for the last decade, but it’s incredibly refreshing to see original content created again for Disneyland rather than a synergistic tie-in to a major marketing brand. Also uncharacteristic, but incredibly smart, was the decision to have each character played by a single actor. Obviously this means that not every character is in town every day, but it provides an opportunity for players in the game to forge meaningful relationships with these characters over the course of the game rather than the fun but ultimately disposable interactions you typically get from performers in theme parks.
It’s hard to articulate just how powerful this is. I liken it somewhat to the way it feels at a summer camp when people you barely know suddenly feel like they’re your best friends in the world. Similarly, character interactions in Legends are technically artificial. They’re based on a performance from actors who are paid to portray a character in a fictional environment, yet despite being grounded in artifice, the relationships that develop between the performers and guests are very real. Going back to the idea of things that Legends does that are truly unique, this is perhaps the big one. I can’t think of any other media that has an element even comparable to this. Sure, we all can probably think of a fictional character that has at one point or another felt like a friend, but there is no actual interaction there; it’s all strictly one sided. Here, though, there is real interaction, and it’s something that is at once incredibly exciting, but also potentially dangerous. For all the joy I’ve gotten from these characters who do *feel* like friends in a very real way, it’s easy to see how it could turn ugly if someone does not respect the inherent unreality of the game. In other media, characters exist either solely in the imagination of the audience or are portrayed by a performer who does not directly interact with them. Here, though, that barrier is taken down, and it is sometimes easy to forget that this character you’ve spent weeks interacting with isn’t the same as the person who goes home to family and friends after taking off the costume at the end of the day. I bring this up mostly as esoteric musings on the nature of this kind of media, not necessarily as a comment on anything that happened in the game, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind as we see this kind of experience repeated.
The other crucial aspect of the game is fostering a sense of community. In addition to the relationships created between players and performers, the game is designed to bring players together with other players. As you progress in the game and start to move away from the surface mechanics of buying land you have the potential of becoming a character of sorts yourself. This is the payoff for the somewhat awkward idea I mentioned earlier of players creating a character for the game; as players spend more time in the game and become more familiar with its mechanics and its characters, they begin to build a reputation for themselves and establish an identity that carries a certain amount of meaning. Now this can either be something the player intentionally crafts, or something that just naturally develops out of their play style, but at a certain point your role in town really does progress beyond being just another guest. This is reflected in the various “levels” that players can achieve – by the time you reach the rank of “legend” the idea is that you’ve effectively become a presence in town that is worthy of their own story.
For me, this progression came in large part with the discovery that if I was willing to dig deep enough, there were potential stories I could uncover. It effectively began when one of the characters in the game mentioned something about a fire that had burned down her home 20 years ago, and her suspicions that there may have been foul play involved. The goal of solving this mystery piqued my interest, and I thought it would be something that would play out over the course of the day and then be resolved, but it ended up being merely the starting point for a massive series of interlocking mysteries that played out over the course of weeks! It was in this process that I established myself as a “private investigator” in town, and before long, characters in the game would direct other players to me to get them involved in the investigations. That’s only one example, though, eventually the town became populated with artists, business owners, newspaper editors, people organizing games and competitions, and more; and all the while, the game adapted to accommodate them. Virtually any interest you have (within reason) you could find an outlet for in Frontierland, and in more than a few cases the independent work of players ended up inspiring new features and mechanical adjustments to the game itself.
Returning to my personal example, it has since been made known to me that these mysteries were very much being crafted on the fly based on the directions I was digging at any given point; there was no pre-established story, but rather the story was being written simply because I was looking for one. It still kind of makes my head spin thinking about that, yet it was all so compelling that I completely bought into it, perhaps even too much. I erroneously began to get the impression that all of this would culminate in some major event at the game’s conclusion, and when it became clear that this wasn’t the case it was slightly disappointing, but even that speaks to the power of what this game can accomplish. While I would certainly like to see a game like this that has a clear endgame in mind from the get-go, the idea of something that can dynamically change based on what its audience is interested in is kind of incredible, and the community involvement this very thing created is astounding.
Sure, there are certain people who don’t “get it” and never allow themselves to become that kind of presence, but the game is surprisingly efficient at weeding these people out. Put simply, the people who aren’t willing to play the game for the sake of the community just end up getting bored with it. Once they earn enough bits to buy a plot of land, they’ve gotten as far as the isolationist approach to the game can take you, and if they’re unwilling to play the game right it stops being rewarding. I’ve talked extensively about the monetization issue in the past, but this is another example where moving to a pay to play model would hurt the game. Because the game is “free” there are no strings attached and if people aren’t into it, they can leave. If there’s an investment of money, though, you’ll end up with people who continue to play simply because “I paid for this, dammit, and I’m going to get my money’s worth.” The way it is, the community of dedicated players are almost all people who really understand the point of the game and how we all benefit from each other.
All of this became very real to me when the community of players banded together to organize a (fictional) wedding in the game between two of the main characters. Songs were written, props were created, jobs were assigned, and in the end a make-believe wedding constructed with paper and crayons became a major event that fooled more than a few onlookers into thinking it was an actual ceremony. These players were not told to do any of this by the characters, it was not built into the central mechanics of the game, but rather it was something that sprung organically from the community, and the amount of unsolicited cooperation and teamwork that created it was really quite beautiful.
As someone with strong opinions who doesn’t shy away from sharing them, I’m occasionally accused of making up my mind ahead of time that something will be bad and then willing it to be such. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I never, ever want to dislike something, because who would want that? I always hope that I’ll fall in love with a new movie or game or theme park attraction, and even though I may sometimes expect a work to be bad, I never want to be right about that. That’s why the fact that I fell completely, head-over-heels in love with Legends of Frontierland despite my initial skepticism thrills me to no end. It’s sort of funny, my name in the game was “Dautful David” – a bad pun based on the endless number of bad puns I’ve heard throughout my life as a result of my last name – and one of the characters today admitted that she had always taken as a comment on my initial skepticism of the game. That was never really the case, as the reason I chose that name was primarily an inside joke for the benefit of a handful of friends on Twitter, but it’s true that I did have doubts going into the experience. Fortunately, my hesitations about the game were rendered completely irrelevant through stellar work from the cast, the formation of an amazing community of players, and tireless work from the game managers to consistently adjust and refine the game. This has all been an amazing thing to behold, and it’s been a tremendous pleasure to participate in. I never in my wildest dreams imagined this game could impact me on such a profound level, but here we are. My hat’s off to everyone involved in making this happen. In these past eleven-and-a-half weeks I’ve made memories that I will cherish forever, met some incredible people, and been a part of something that feels truly revolutionary.
Beyond that, this has been a major morale boost as a fan of Disneyland and the Disney theme parks in general. It’s no secret that I’ve been frustrated by much of Disney’s work in the parks over the last year, from the decimation of New Orleans Square for a misguided Club 33 expansion to the final and complete thematic bastardization of EPCOT Center for the sake of milking the Frozen cash cow. Legends of Frontierland, though, represents everything I’ve ever loved about the Disney theme parks. It’s Imagineering once again sticking out their neck and doing something that no one has ever done before, it’s Disney putting guest experience ahead of profit margins and trusting that profits will follow, and it’s a return to using theme parks as their own unique means of creating art and entertainment rather than as a vehicle to further a branded product. If Disney can stay true to these principles and refine the experience without screwing up the formula, I’m really excited to see what else they have up their sleeves. I eagerly anticipate the potential return of Legends of Frontierland and any other similar experiences Disney might have for us in the future.