Interactivity – it’s the big new buzzword for theme parks these days. Spurred on by the rising popularity of video games and the changing nature of how we consume media, the new wisdom is that it’s no longer enough to just be a passive observer, instead, one must be an active participant.
The problem, however, is that most of the interactive attractions we’ve seen to date have felt fairly uninspired. Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters is just a ride-thru shooting gallery, while attractions like Toy Story Midway Mania and Knott’s Voyage to the Iron Reef are little more than video games surrounded by some simple sets (or, in the case of Toy Story, no sets at all). These attractions don’t use interactivity in unique, meaningful ways, but rather attempt to shoehorn a new gimmick into the same type of thing they’ve always been doing. Even the interactive games at Walt Disney World that take place outside of dedicated attractions (“Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom”, “Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure”) suffer from feeling disconnected from the space they exist in. They may or may not utilize the space well in terms of aesthetics, but in terms of theme, the game and the setting are divorced. “Agent P” comes closest, since globe trotting is a big fixture of the spy genre (though, not so much a fixture of Phineas and Ferb), but the game doesn’t do much to play into the theme of World Showcase which, ostensibly, is sharing and celebrating our diverse cultural experiences.
For all of these attempts that miss the mark, there was one instance where they got it right; where they were able to integrate an interactive experience into a theme park that was wholly unique and successfully married the objectives of the game with the objectives of its setting. It’s a game that should have started a revolution in the theme park industry, but instead it was generally dismissed as little more than an oddity.
I am, of course, talking about Disneyland’s “Legends of Frontierland”.
From the very beginning, Disneyland has been a celebration of mid-20th century American culture filtered through the lens of Walt Disney’s personal vision, and there were few things more omnipresent in 1950s American culture than the TV Western. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that in the earliest years of Disneyland, most of the park’s D-ticket attractions (the highest tier at the time) were located in Frontierland.
Even with the introduction of the E-ticket in 1959, Frontierland attractions made up nearly half of the park’s highest tier offerings. There was a huge appeal to entering the fictionalized version of the American West and living in that world for a brief time.
But over the years Westerns have gone out of style while other areas of Disneyland benefitted from increased cultural relevance. In fact, by 1975, Frontierland had been dropped off the E-ticket entirely, and that’s largely how it’s been ever since. Frontierland is that place you walk through on your way to basically anywhere else, stopping only to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, or perhaps to ask a Cast Member where Pirates of the Caribbean is.
However, one year ago, “Legends of Frontierland” managed to do something few could have expected: it made it once again compelling to pretend at being a cowboy. The ideals and objectives of both “Legends” and the land it existed in were intrinsically linked. Unlike Disney’s previous attempts at interactive games where the gameplay and the environment may have been linked aesthetically but not thematically, “Legends of Frontierland’s” entire goal is to make you feel as though you are a citizen in Walt Disney’s vision of the American West.
This is part of what set “Legends” apart from all of Disney’s previous attempts at these kind of games – “Legends” is specifically about the space it takes place in. “Agent P” isn’t about World Showcase and “Sorcerers” isn’t about Main Street, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, etc., they merely use these as elaborate backdrops. They are separate experiences that do not enhance the theme each of these areas is trying to convey. But the entire point of “Legends” is to bring Frontierland to life in a way it never has been before. To populate the town with people and allow guests to interact with this space in a way that was totally unprecedented.
This pairing may at first seem somewhat odd, but when you get into the mechanics of how theme parks work, it makes a ton of sense. Despite the fact that theme parks as we know them today were largely invented by people who were imported from the world of cinema, their design principles are in many ways much more similar to video games than they are to film. Both video games and theme parks drop you into an artificial environment and allow you the freedom to explore largely at your own pace. Unlike film, where your perspective is limited to the camera’s field of view, in both theme parks and video games you can look any way you please, so the designers have to develop a whole new set of tricks to get you to focus where they want you to and away from where they don’t. Despite these similarities, though, theme parks remain a largely passive experience. You have the freedom to explore, but ultimately you are just a voyeur. You have no impact on the world you are inhabiting.
This is the essential appeal of interactivity, and it’s where most of the industry’s attempts at it have failed. The underlying compulsion behind interactivity is the desire for agency – the feeling that, in some small way, your involvement matters. This is what fuels pursuits as varied as cosplay, fan fiction, and the increasing desire for long form serialization. These pursuits are about inhabiting a space rather than simply observing it. Toy Story Midway Mania may tout its interactive nature, but it fails to understand the reason why interactivity is compelling. Sure, it’s fun to shoot targets, but you can do that for free on your phone.
On the other hand, “Legends of Frontierland” offered something different. For those that allowed themselves to really invest in this game, the idea of being a “citizen” was not just a superficial gameplay category, but something that, on some level, felt true. The mechanics of the game encouraged players to role play and create their own characters who could serve unique roles and functions within the two towns. You were no longer just a visitor in Frontierland, but a member of the community, someone who was recognized by not only the game’s dedicated cast of characters, but by other players as well. This led to a town populated by school teachers, criminal rehabilitation counselors, journalists, casino owners, artists, entrepreneurs, and private detectives. These were not roles that were in any way assigned, but instead roles that sprung up organically based on the interests of the players and the needs of the community. The mechanics of the game encouraged players to make a name for themselves, but it was up to the player to determine how they would make that happen.
This is true interactivity, interactivity on a scale I’ve never seen exist anywhere else. You’re not just being led through a series of pre-determined actions, but you are instead being given the freedom and agency to chart your own course and affect this world in ways that are wholly, truly unique. That is, again, the beating heart at the center of our desire for interactively – to feel like you have a voice and that your voice matters in a way we often don’t get to experience in the real world. What’s most fascinating is that all of this is something that exists outside of the game’s basic set of objectives.
The central game mechanic of two teams purchasing land in an attempt to achieve victory over the other was the simple, easily digestible objective introduced to new players. It was something that was easy to drop in and out of, and as long as you made your way back to the Golden Horseshoe by 6pm, you could have a fairly complete experience. It’s the right format for a guest just visiting for the day, and likely the way they expected most people would wind up playing the game. The idea of a larger, persistent game world – a world that would recognize returning players and reward them for continued involvement – was something that was in play from the very beginning, but I have to wonder if the team behind the game anticipated the nerve this would strike. Because, boy, did this thing strike a nerve.
The people who stuck around long enough to discover this persistent world went bananas over it, and this is what led to the community I mentioned earlier. For these people, the central land dispute quickly became almost irrelevant while the core appeal lied in the simple experience of being a citizen of this made-up western town. This is the kind of thing that blows my mind! For these people it was just enough to show up and participate in the daily affairs of this faux community. And it wasn’t just Annual Passholders with an excess of time to kill (although, they were definitely a large part of it). I personally witnessed many people on their vacations who tried this thing out on a lark, and then were back every single day until the end of their trip! I even heard rumors of people extending their trips for the sole purpose of playing this game a little bit longer. For these eleven-and-a-half weeks, Frontierland was vibrant and alive and filled with stories.
Yes, stories. I love poking fun at Disney’s constant abuse of the word, after all, these are the people who try to convince you that their new shopping mall is telling a “story.” But for all of Disney’s misplaced ballyhoo, insisting that these parks are telling stories, “Legends of Frontierland” was quietly telling new, unique stories every goddamn day. There was romance, revenge, arson, theft, shocking revelations, harebrained schemes, and even marriages (so many marriages). Every character had a story, and each character’s story intersected with others in interesting, compelling ways, whether it was Mac – the toughest outlaw in the west and don’t you say any different – who was trying to find what happened to her family after being separated from them as a child, or Zane, whose unquenchable thirst for gold constantly left him on the run from the law and, occasionally, from his wife, Priscilla. These weren’t “stories” – the term Disney often conflates with theme – but actual, honest-to-god stories with insights into who these characters are and their roles in the larger narrative world. Yes, it’s true that these were improvisational, invented piecemeal depending on which threads players seemed to be interested in pulling at any particular time, but that does not change the fact that they were genuine, compelling stories.
Despite all of this – the triumphs in interactivity, community engagement, and storytelling – the reaction from the outside looking in was at best bemused, at worst downright hostile. I think there are a couple reasons for this, the first is that, in some ways, the barrier of entry was set incredibly high.
Extra Credits recently did a series of episodes discussing the notion of a social difficulty curve when it comes to social, or multiplayer video games. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a difficulty curve is essentially a model which charts how difficult your game is over time.
Ideally it should start off fairly low in the beginning before gradually easing you into more and more difficult tasks as you become familiar with the mechanics of the game. Social play requires something similar because for many people, myself included, social settings are difficult for us, and we’re not going to be immediately comfortable approaching complete strangers to assist us with game tasks. This was a problem for “Legends”. The whole game revolved around social play, but there was no good way to ease new players into it; if they wanted to play, they needed to jump in with both feet. That being said, near the end of the game, they began offering some pre-established entry tasks with clearly defined objectives and rewards. This was definitely a solid solution to lowering the barrier of entry. These tasks allowed new players a way into the game that they could accomplish with as much or as little interaction with other players as they desired, while still getting them comfortable with the world and mechanics of the game itself. If this system had been around from the beginning, I think a lot more people would have been less likely to write the experience off early on, but hindsight is, of course, 20/20.
The bigger problem, I think, is just that “Legends” was so radically different from anything that’s ever been done in a theme park before. It’s not a ride, it’s not really a show, it’s sort of a game, but it’s nothing like the other games we’ve seen, so people didn’t know what to make of it, and when people don’t know what to make of something, the automatic response is that it must be bad. Hell, I was guilty of this early on as well, but I saw promise there early on that many others overlooked, and I was eventually able to witness how amazing this thing ended up being. It also didn’t help that the earliest version of the game, admittedly, wasn’t great, but all of these things go through growing pains. If Disney were to bring “Legends” or some other similar game back, building on the foundation they’ve established, I bet the response from people just trying it out would be much more enthusiastic this time around.
I hope they do! I sincerely hope that Disney hasn’t abandoned this concept, but are instead looking toward new ways to integrate this type of experience. I truly believe that this idea has the potential to change the nature of the way we engage with theme parks, and it’s only a matter of time before someone stands on the shoulders of what Disney did here to make something that sets the industry ablaze. And hey, if it’s going to happen, it might as well be from the people who laid all the groundwork. This is groundbreaking stuff here, and I’d hate to see its legacy end up as nothing more than something kids giggle at in a clip show 30 years from now. Give this another go! Bring back “Legends of Frontierland” or Legends of Fantasyland or Tomorrowland or Hollywood Land, it doesn’t much matter to me as long as you don’t allow this idea to die, because it’s simply too powerful a concept to be remembered as nothing more than a piece of trivia.