For Immersive Creators & Those That Want to Be One
So, you’re an immersive experience creator; you’ve already been one, or you want to be one. You have a good idea – maybe even a great idea. Now what? Designing an “immersive” experience can seem lofty and perilous, only possible for those with the money, time, and connections. Surprisingly, in the hands of “giants” these attractive factors sometimes get in the way of a good immersive story. Case in point: the theme park design business, which spends millions of dollars and countless hours trying to make visitors feel like they’re part of the story. Design teams and creators endlessly puzzle over immersion, interactivity, and engagement, frequently ending up in the same place they started. I should know… it’s my day job.
Does it work? This grand pursuit of immersion?
Sometimes. Only sometimes.
Universal’s Wizarding World is a “sometimes.” People will happily spend hours looking at all the intricate details: bricks, signage, window displays. Finding surprises in every nook and cranny. It’s no small wonder that it’s so tricky to craft this caliber of immersive experience. We (the creators) give ourselves a pretty tremendous responsibility: We want to hold 100% of the guest’s attention. (Also, we want to change the world. Because, hey, why not?)
What makes it possible? The more you explore, the more it becomes clear: it’s not money. It’s not time. It’s not connections. Not long ago, I became determined to find out why young, small scale immersive experiences are succeeding wonderfully while many theme parks are stumbling in the dark. So I moved.
I relocated from Orlando, Florida—land of mice, ducks, and… whatever Goofy is—to Los Angeles, motivated to escape my theme park box and partake in the Wild West territories of immersive theater and extreme haunted houses. Specifically, the kinds of experiences where your personal information is mined and exploited, you’re asked tough questions on the spot, you’re physically moved (sometimes aggressively), and various substances are put in your eyes, ears, and/or mouth.
All my theme park friends thought I was crazy. Climbing into strange vehicles? Getting suffocated and tackled? You did what? And then what happened? But here’s the thing: I absolutely loved it.
I immersed my career. Alongside credits with Disney Imagineering, Universal, Carnival, Kennedy Space Center, and more, I added Creative Consultant for companies like Heretic and Just Fix It Productions (CreepLA and The Willows).
Along the way, I collected thirteen rules that immersive theater is using to revolutionize a new medium and truly compete with the theme park “big guys” — at 1/1000th of the budget and a fraction of their corpulent schedule.
These rules are not remote, impossible aspirations. They’re right in front of you. They are lessons about good old fashioned, impactful storytelling. They’re for the new and the seasoned; the creators and the fans.
1. Blood from a Stone
Immersive theater creators in Los Angeles will most likely tell you the hardest thing about producing their shows is securing the right location. These artists have a vision in mind, and due to everything from film production to indoor medical marijuana growing, they almost never secure the location that fits their vision. So, what do you do? You can’t squeeze a good show out of a bad location, any more than you can squeeze blood from a stone. Right?
If you look toward some immersive success stories, quite the opposite moral comes forward with creators seemingly saying, “Location is only a limitation if you let it be.”
Scout Expedition Company’s The Nest created a magical location in the back shed of a house. Stepping into this location transported you into a new world; one filled with curios from an imaginary life. They focused on their strength in set design and purposely didn’t expand their scope to include actors. They started small; they didn’t try to create something huge on their first attempt, believing that their creativity, production value, and narrative would win out—no matter the scale.
Immersive creators are repeatedly proving that you don’t need blockbuster budgets to provide an experience that feels endlessly complex. You simply need to use the space you have. Screenshot Productions, The Speakeasy Society, Have You Seen Jake, and ABC Project have all used their homes for their early projects. The Tension Experience team didn’t try to hide their warehouse location. They didn’t transform it into something it was not. They let it be what it was, and allowed story to emerge from that.
With a strong show, the audience fills in the marketing cracks. Immersive amuse bouche. Small but mighty. Proof you don’t need 100,000 square feet to impact an audience. Tiny jewels can still shine. Audiences even start to look forward to shows with a “guerilla” approach. They feel secret, mysterious, exclusive. Weakness becomes strength.
2. Pre-Show is Precious
It’s that primal sensation of intermingled curiosity, excitement, and sometimes even dread. Maybe you haven’t felt it since you were six years old, hiding from monsters under the sheets or conjuring up a tea party inhabited by dozens of eccentric new friends.
There is nothing stronger than what your own mind can do to you. Smart creators know this, and they play upon it. Right after I moved to Los Angeles, I went to a production by Heretic Horror House. For me, the “worst” part of the show was everything before the actual ticketed event. Emails with precautions. The possibility of horrible things: waterboarding and electrocution. Liability waivers. Safe words. As a grown adult, knowing nothing truly terrible would happen, I was still second-guessing buying a ticket. Do you realize how powerful that is?
Every moment from when you even think about buying a ticket until you walk in is Pre-Show. The minutes after a Blackout purchase, your paranoia and anxiety are slowly ratcheted up to a fever pitch. In the parking lot prior to The Tension Experience’s Ascension, your friends may ask, “Has it already started?” (Yes. Yes, it has. Ask any participant in an Augmented Reality Game [ARG] leading up to Tension, or Have You Seen Jake, or Alone. Everything and everyone is suspect).
Theme parks are forerunners in the spatial pre-show game. They’ve been keeping you busy in the “waiting room” since the 1960’s. Famous examples abound: The Haunted Mansion blurring the line between ride and line as you encounter wall-to-wall creeps prior to boarding your infamous Doom Buggy. And they’re getting better and better – Universal’s Race through New York (the one with Jimmy Fallon) has cut the all-too-familiar “queue” in exchange for spaces to explore before it’s time to ride.
For immersive theater, the motives are different. With fewer long lines, it’s all about storytelling, functioning at a fraction of the cost but potentially with greater creative rewards. The Speakeasy Society’s The Kansas Collection: The Axe, where a bar fosters discussion and scattered puzzles, gives the impression that you probably, possibly won’t be catching everything. In the physical Pre-Show of CreepLA’s Entry, numerous “creeps” set the tone for the rest of the experience by introducing you to the narrative through conversation, art, and uncomfortably intimate moments.
There’s an air of mystery pervading the Pre-Show. Sometimes the mystery is: Who’s behind this? If you don’t know who’s behind it, you have a much harder time trusting them. You don’t know how far they’re willing to go. Creators have attempted to mask their identities for as long as possible, because Identity is Pre-Show. Seeing behind the curtain can diminish some of the magic, but it can also generate trust—the choice is up to you which stance to take.
The Pre-Show is when you’re expected to say everything you need to say, but design carefully. The whole experience that will follow is contained within it. In psychological terms, you are putting the audience in a receptive state towards the kind of story you’re about to tell. You’re priming your patrons, bringing them back to a childlike mentality where everything is pure discovery. Pre-Show should be cared for and fed properly.
3. Great Expectations
As human beings, we spend a large portion of our lives in at least partial confusion (or maybe that’s just me.) Even the sharpest among us are easily-confused when thrown into new and unfamiliar situations. It’s easy to forget how fragile our guest’s comprehension can be.
Immersive theater is a growing, evolving art form. The rule book is still being written. It’s tremendously exciting, but it means that every experience is just a little bit different. Over here, I should touch everything. Over there, I should touch nothing. Over in that one, I can touch everything except the stuff in Room C. None of this would be a problem, if only the rules of the game were clear from the beginning.
As creators, we must go the extra mile to illustrate what the “play style” is, especially if it shifts from room to room. In one recent experience, my group had just completed an escape room-style challenge. We then hurried into a new room and immediately began taking items off the wall—except we weren’t supposed to. We were in “escape room mode,” and nobody told us that part of our journey was over.
As quickly as possible, your audience member should know what they can and can’t do. Should they answer a performer’s questions, or are the questions rhetorical? Can they initiate conversation? Will anything happen if they do? Thinking these elements through and communicating them clearly will save a whole lot of heartache. There are times where creators want that tension and friction to be present, particularly in emotional scenes. “Can I speak up? I want to. But should I?” It can be valuable, but it must be deliberate in the design. It’s one thing to be vague on purpose. It’s quite another to be vague out of ignorance.
Setting expectations is a major task. There’s an overabundance of “first time” patrons in the immersive scene right now. If they enter with the wrong expectations, there’s a greater chance to be disappointed. I have heard some patrons complain that they didn’t like a show because they couldn’t interact with the characters; they were just a fly on a wall. But that’s not what the performance was. It was immersive but not interactive. I have heard others be disappointed that a show was not scary; but again, the show was not a horror experience. Telling patrons what the rules are and what to expect prior can do a lot to give people the right understanding going in.
4. Me, Me, Me
Let’s be real. It’s the age of Instagram. It’s the age of Facebook. It’s the age of social media unceasingly adapting itself to what it thinks you like. It’s a science. The science of “me.” You’ve wanted to be part of the story since you read that first “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. To be the hero. To be the villain. It’s the Westworld promise. You want everyone to care about you, and you want it to happen in someplace exciting that you couldn’t normally access.
Film and television have tried to do this – to put the viewer in a first-person POV. They’ve even given audiences the ability to text and vote to impact the story; however, more often than not, it comes across as a gimmick. In immersive experiences, from the park to the theater, it can feel much more natural to appeal to the “me” generation.
It all seems to be fed by the Internet. We have far more agency to make our identity known to others than ever before. We perceive this platform as not just a way to make ourselves visible, but to make our decisions visible. We hunger for our choices to make a real impact.
It’s like a drug hit, that small moment of “me” in an immersive show. We must handle it delicately. Too much “me” spoils the recipe, even though it’s what every audience member thinks they want. Think of it in terms of a points system with a limit. Too many points… your audience member gets genuinely alienated or, worse, bored.
I walk into a show and ten characters know my name and ask me questions all about my real life. That’s intense. It uses up a lot of points. Trickling these interactions throughout a show allows for more endurance. A little goes a long way. That first personalized The Tension Experience or Alone moment makes you wonder, “How much do they really know about me?” It’s the low-tech/no-tech version of what Disney has sought to do with their MagicBands.
There are times, though, where creators want to go all-in. Where it makes sense. In Shine On Collective’s Devoted, you walk into a room and are greeted by your own Facebook profile picture. The main character, Cara, comments on it. Ding ding ding. Lots of points. But it’s also authentic to the story of the show: Cara is infatuated with “me.” Real “me.”
This brings in another important distinction: there is a difference between “me” and “me – the character.” Let “me” explain: in Delusion’s His Crimson Queen, we played “us” – the children of Burke and Selene Sullivan. Wait. You’re telling me I’m “me,” but that means something new now? Interestingly, if you hold fast to that new role and design around it, then the audience instinctively catches up. It’s nothing different from the RPG roles that gamers have assumed for years. Why should it be any different when the screen is removed? This slight distance from guests’ authentic personalities slows the points system down to a trickle again.
There’s one more thing about that Facebook picture from Shine On Collective’s Devoted. Once you complete the show, a new picture is shared that will no doubt become a prized Facebook possession: a picture of you, blindfolded, with Cara, seconds after you looked at your original Facebook profile picture within the experience. That’s a lot of “me.”
This “after” photo or personalized keepsake becomes a crucial part in closing the “me” loop of the experience. Now the show is part of the guest’s identity and, with all that social media, they’re proud to share it. Alone fans covered in flour and face-paint. Heretic fans doused in blood. ABC Project fans with personalized poems and hand-drawn portraits. It’s memorable, it’s free marketing, and it brings “me” full circle – from my desire to be a part of the story to the proof that I was.
5. Involve Me Immediately, and Involve Me Immediately
In medias res. “In the midst of things.” Many immersive experiences “start” in the middle of an unfolding narrative. That’s not accidental – it’s by design. It’s a storytelling technique that literature, film, and television creators have been using beautifully for decades.
Immersive experience creators can push this technique even further. The moment you walk through the door, characters should be providing information, objectives, physical exchanges, even significant glances. The stakes should be as high as humanly possible right from the start. If creators want me to care about the story, make me a part of the story right away. I’ll catch up.
These shows give their audience a lot of credit to catch up, and it’s great that they do. For storytelling to evolve, the audience needs to be elevated. Have You Seen Jake brought participants in after the title character’s disappearance. The team didn’t hold participants’ hands. They were confident that the audience would catch up and care just as much as the fictional characters did very quickly. It worked – participants got involved beyond the creators’ wildest dreams.
The title of this rule is not an error or repetition. It means, “involve me right away, and involve me up close and personal with the story at hand.” If I walk into an unfamiliar space and am immediately grabbed by a character whispering orders in my ear, you can bet I’ll feel alive and present.
6. I Want to Lose Control (But Not Too Much)
When you’re on a theme park ride you generally have a solid sense of your overall safety and well-being. You rarely feel you’re “in danger,” which is fascinating in an industry where we’re frequently stuck in the middle of robot battles, falling off skyscrapers, and flying to Mars.
Why don’t we feel endangered? Because, even at the scariest of moments, we trust the ride manufacturers and know that they offer fear without consequence. We happily give up control.
When excitement and adventure are the name of the game, good experience designers need to pay more attention to subverting the guest’s sense of control. Because, when we sense for even a second like we’re not in control, we really, really enjoy it. Just as long as we trust the creator and we trust the experience.
It’s why people love roller coasters so much – they’re always seeking those precious seconds of “loss of control.” To some extent, it’s what all theme park visitors want. They want the park to take the wheel for a little while, so they can take a break.
Your audience is in your hands. They trust you. At least, they should. If I whisper in your ear in a pitch-black room, “Run forward as fast as you can,” you should be a little worried. But ultimately, you’ll do it. Only if you trust me. Only if you believe I’ll catch you at the other end of the room.
In The Tension Experience, if a man asks you to put on a hood and jump into a van, you do it. In a Heretic show, if you are driven to the desert and forced to dig your own grave, you do it. In a Have You Seen Jake show, if you are forced to be emotionally vulnerable to a character and support them through a difficult time, you do it. Immersive theater is about trust, vulnerability, and control.
Permission is king. Every guest has a “line” – no matter how extreme their preferences in entertainment may be. Permission is relevant across all cultures, and can come in many forms. If we don’t think about what the “line” is, designing for and through it, engagement will not happen.
Being handled and moved around in an immersive show is like being on a human roller coaster, and everything hinges on the control of the performer. Especially safety. Not only do they need to be in control physically, they need to be so on top of their stuff that it appears things are out of control. The task at hand for all live experience storytellers is to make the guest think that this stuff might really, possibly, be losing control.
There’s a caveat. As an audience, we don’t want to lose too much control. Shows such as Have You Seen Jake’s Therapy & Dreams have devoted energy to learning what each guest wants and specifically rehearsing based on these preferences. They know just how much you like to be handled… or, maybe, how much you’re willing to be handled. Theme parks and immersive museums can’t tailor their experiences that much – yet. But it’s happening fast. Disney has already filed patents for ride systems that read guests’ moods and react accordingly. The dialogue is occurring in all levels of experience design. With refinement of this catered approach to preferences, it is possible to make guests feel “out of control” in fantastical circumstances more persuasively than ever before.
7. The Live Performer Stands Alone (For Now)
The live performer is captivating. The live performer is surprising. Right now, the live performer has no equal (assuming they’re good).
Immersive experiences that use live actors correctly understand how multi-faceted they can be. They do more than just deliver dialogue. They are the temporary stage managers of the guest experiences in their scenes. They can command a scene even in the absence of props, lighting effects, and sound. Guests hang on their every word and movement. Best of all, they’re able to adapt spontaneously. They’re busy people.
A new type of actor is being born, capable of bringing forward multiple scraps of text depending on the situation of the moment. Capable of drawing upon many different acting styles. The Tension Experience relied on actors who could adapt to any scene, any audience member, any emotion. If an audience member complied or resisted—there was a path for them. The Speakeasy Society is another company who prioritizes strong, versatile actors, often resting their shows on the shoulders of these performers and not on sets or special effects.
Theme park attractions – often hybrid show-rides with one or two live actors – rarely capitalize on the remarkable capacity of their performers. They can tell a story to hundreds of guests, and then personally impact one guest up-close in the span of only a few seconds.
The big lesson here is that while we have amassed a considerable design tool kit, nothing currently beats the potential of one great performing human being. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are currently hot tickets. Everyone is trying to figure them out. VR aims to unlock a sense of spontaneity and experiential freedom without the potential pains of staffing performers… feeding them… changing their litter…
As of now, VR still carries too many technical and operational challenges. Artificial intelligence is being labored over to simulate the sensitivity and adaptability of a human. Too often, though, as with audio-animatronics, we enter the uncanny valley. The place where simulated interaction just gets weird. Until this valley gets filled and paved, we should not overlook the power of live performers to imbue experiences with thousands of minute and instinctive corrections – the direct result of conscientious listening-to and reacting-to the audience.