Most video games allow us to explore spaces. It is a medium that embraces spatial design as a means of play. But how do we make those spaces feel real? How do we tell you a story through the things you can see around you?
This question transcends genres and hardware generations. Whether it’s a side-scrolling 2D game or a 3D environment in an open-world game, we’re traversing through space, moment to moment. You are always going to tell yourself a story as you move through an environment, whether it’s conscious or not. The question is how well we’re able to translate the story we want to tell you, so that becomes the narrative that sticks with you.
I’m an environment artist, and that’s the question I ask myself just about daily. Part of my job is taking advantage of the world around the player to bring context to their actions, reinforce themes, and keep the story moving.
These challenges go back further than the history of video games. The best game environments leverage everything they can to connect with the audience. One of the places that just happens to have some of the best environmental storytelling, full stop? Disney theme parks.
I want to take you through one ride at Disney World to explain how Disney’s designers are able to tell you stories so well. But before we dive in, it’s important to also take a very quick, and hopefully helpful, crash course in the important elements of environmental design.
There is theme, there is context, and you need both
There are two pillars to effective environmental storytelling: context and emotional intent.
Emotional intent, usually presented in the form of a theme, is the core of everything we do. It’s why we react to art, enjoy movies, and love games. We react to the best work emotionally, and trying to coax emotion out of the player is the challenge at the heart of everything we build. What are we trying to get you to feel? That’s the emotional intent. If you find yourself laughing at a game that’s supposed to be sad, or vice versa, someone, somewhere, bungled the execution of the emotional intent.
Context helps us frame the intended emotion in a way that is relatable to the audience. Think of a game’s setting, characters, and even its genre. Each one is likely a familiar idea or known value, something that gives the world a sort of frame. It’s always important to remember that people feel things every time they walk into a space, and it’s our design that helps determine how someone feels. Context matters on a deep level: Imagine trying to create a game that’s set in a hospital that makes someone feel safe and calm. In that case, the context may work against our emotional intent, and that issue may point to larger problems in the game’s basic design.
Disney Imagineering, the creative group of artists and engineers behind the parks, has been doing this sort of work since the early ’50s. That’s longer than video games have been around in their entirety. In many ways, Disney Imagineering taught the rest of us what it means to tell effective stories in limited spaces, and its work set a standard of quality that many games still struggle to match, much less surpass.
That work is perhaps best seen in one of my favorite attractions: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The ride brings together many different layers of horror, nostalgia, and history, but as a whole, it’s also emotionally cohesive and tells a linear story. That story is communicated to park guests through the environments they walk through to get to the attraction itself, as well as a bit of brief video content. But most of us understand exactly what’s going on with this environment long before we get to that first TV. That’s the power of environmental storytelling: It gets in through your skin. You don’t even have to be aware of it, or looking for it, for the effect to work. You just have to exist in the space, and take in what’s around you.
This has always been one of the genius ideas of Disney parks: the decision to make the lines for the attractions almost as fun as the attractions themselves. Disney packs a lot of game into the loading screen, if we want to use familiar terms.
Here’s Disney’s official video of the full ride, if you’ve never seen it for yourself:
The theme of Tower of Terror is escalating horror, so let’s keep that in mind as we go. The whole thing should start lightly, and then draw the guest into the tension and fear that pervade the attraction. They should feel that mounting fear throughout the entire experience, and that experience starts long before they even step into the line.
This is the emotional intent: to make you feel escalating horror. So what’s the context?
This is one of those wonderful situations where the emotional intent and context line up perfectly. The high-level premise of the attraction is a drop ride, but those are pretty common in theme parks. It’s the narrative that makes Tower of Terror stand out.
The story is set in an infamous Hollywood hotel from the ’30s that was shut down when several guests disappeared in an elevator during a violent storm. The hotel has stood empty ever since this. Until you enter, of course.
This is what it’s like to experience the ride.
The journey is part of the story
You have to walk to the end of one of the themed areas in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Sunset Blvd., to get to the tower itself. This takes you down a long, one-way street, and at the end of the road is a massive, towering building. When I was a kid, I was convinced it had to be a working hotel; its back side was too big and detailed to “just” be a ride, especially one that only had to go up and down.
But it’s a trick. The linear path of Sunset Blvd. allowed the designers to perfectly frame the building in a three-quarter view, showing off its size; lining the straight street with tall palm trees helped to make the tower feel even taller. The placement of the building at the end of this street also plays into some other narrative and design ideas.
One, it’s placed in a significant location to make the attraction stand out as the showpiece of the Sunset Blvd. area, which is also themed to feel like the ideal image of 1930s-era Hollywood.
The other layer is a horror cliché: the creepy house at the end of the street. Tropes like these, when used correctly, are great for helping an audience relate to an idea. It’s something that’s familiar. They don’t have to be conscious of their mental connections to this idea, but they may have experienced this before, and they can bring that experience to the ride. They’re being shown the platonic ideal of a haunted house, and it seems that all roads lead right here. Guests are drawn to it in a way that feels natural, but hard to fight.
The entrance to the structure is covered by a wall and layers of foliage. This accomplishes two things: hiding the elaborate exterior queue area that’s behind the barriers, and giving those already in the line a sense of isolation. Once you go through the gates and get in the line, you leave the lively and wide-open Sunset Blvd. and enter the quiet, narrow paths leading directly up to the hotel.
Your context has changed, very significantly, in that moment. The theme of mounting horror continues to seep through every inch of the design.
You see pockets of statues through the overgrown plants and trees, a large fountain that has been drained, and large open passageways that guests might have gone through at one time. This place feels like a hotel, not the line to a theme park ride. I grew up in Los Angeles, and this exterior matches my expectations for that very real place. I feel like I’m near Franklin Avenue between Hollywood proper and Los Feliz, touring a hotel that has been left to decay. The details are spot-on.
One of my favorite things about Disney parks is how the atmosphere of a place changes with the time of day. At night, when all the lights are turned on, going through this part of the ride is a real joy. The eeriness is cranked up, with the well-lit areas of a long-abandoned hotel clicking on, as if for the first time in ages. Some of the windows of the building have lights behind them, the Hollywood Tower sign is pulsing, and you can even see the silhouette of a single person in a window. All the while, old big band music plays with heavy reverb, giving the whole thing a faraway, dreamlike mood.
You can see parts of the scene in this short video:
This is what it’s all about. It’s a powerful and nearly overwhelming mix of emotions. This isn’t a comfortable place to be.
Now we get to the most iconic part of the queue: the lobby, which is the first interior space you see as you enter. You may have seen pictures of it even if you’ve never been to Disney World. It’s well known for a reason; it’s just about perfect.
A mix of emotions, thoughts, and ideas forms in your mind the first time you go in. There’s just so much detail in this lobby. At this point, the idea of this once-lavish, now-rotting location is firmly stuck in your head, along with the added sense of walking into a time capsule. Each corner of the lobby has its own little vignette of abandonment that adds to the idea that people got up and fled the place, very suddenly, without worrying about what they took with them or what they left behind. They never came back for their luggage or clothes. They didn’t just take off, this implies — they fled.
A folded newspaper is hanging on the end of a table on which a game with tiles is being played. A table next to the couches has a cup of tea with lipstick on it, and a book that’s open with a creepy Shirley Temple doll sitting on the couch next to it. The check-in desk has an open guestbook, with a hat nearby. The beautiful planter in the center has rotted plants that appear overgrown.
I’m just beginning to list the little details and stories to be found here, but I’ll never get to them all. Each one of these scenes can stand on its own, but taken together, as a whole, there is an indication of a story. This place has not been touched since that incident in the ’30s, and now you’re here, trying to figure out what happened and why. It’s fantastical, but you’re also at Disney World, so who cares? Time feels like it’s standing still. It’s. So. Creepy.
I’ve mentioned the luxurious look of the hotel a few times, and I want to take a moment to talk about this aspect of the ride’s design. Craftsmanship plays a huge part in the emotional intent of this attraction. If the place were some cheap motel, the feelings would be totally different. When you juxtapose the melancholy scene you’re currently in with the glamour of not just the hotel or the Sunset Blvd. area, but the entire idea of that golden age of Hollywood, you get a remarkable sense of loss and fear.
Games like The Last of Us tap into the same feelings wonderfully, constantly reminding you of a familiar world that has been left abandoned, and the ways that abandonment has changed it. Whoever belonged to these items is long gone, and it’s clear that they’re not coming back.
You’re then brought into the smallest space you’ve been in yet, and most times, you’ll be packed in with a large group of people. This zone is themed to look like a small rest area, but its real function is to help deliver the “preshow.”
Disney attractions are famous for this idea. This is the space where you’re given an exposition dump about the story of the attraction and the role you’ll play in the ride. In Tower of Terror, it’s an old-time TV that will show you a video, explaining the events of that fateful night. The clip is framed as an episode of The Twilight Zone, with a moderately convincing composited version of Rod Serling (RIP) giving the narration.
As I mentioned, this room is tiny. It’s also very vertically oriented, with tall bookshelves that tower over you. Objects on the shelves above are lit from underneath, lending an unsettling feeling to the whole space. It’s mostly set-dressed with books, but there are also statues and some masks in the space. Some are even Twilight Zone Easter eggs.
It’s a room you’re only in for a minute or two, and you’re in the dark for most of that, but I love how this one small room still continues that escalating feeling of dread. That tension continues to build, with so many details adding to the mounting sense of fear. Whatever happened here, in this hotel, in the elevator, was very bad, and the hotel never recovered. And whatever that thing was, you’re getting closer to it.
After Mr. Serling sends you on your way with the Twilight Zone stinger, you enter the final room before you board the ride, and it’s a drastic change from anything you’ve seen so far.
You enter the back maintenance area of the hotel. All the glamour and production values put into the exterior and lobby area are gone. It’s cold and dark, with a giant furnace off to the side with its doors and grills almost making a face.
This might have the tendency to feel like a letdown after the decaying opulence that you just left, but come here on slow nights and the unsettling creepiness of this room will really be apparent. It’s one of the rare Disney queue areas that feels truly unwelcoming, as if you’re not supposed to be there.
The brickwork has the look of leaking grout, an element that was put in intentionally to make it feel like something is seeping from the walls. The metalwork seems rusted, and the only sign of human life in the whole space is the lone maintenance worker’s desk that some faceless, long-gone hotel employee personalized with photos and an old radio. The desk also shows signs that the person was working on a broken clock, its body lying open as if being operated on, tools spread out on the desk. It was a project the person didn’t finish, and another indication that things are breaking down, that time itself may be suspect.
Again, whatever happened here was very bad, and you’re getting even closer to it.
You’ll be entering the elevator for the actual ride at this point. But even this is designed to keep you off balance. You have to deal with the anticipation of seeing your elevator come down, while looking at the looming floor indicator. This part gets me every time. I’ve been on this ride more times than I can count, and it still gives me chills to stand in line, waiting to get into the elevator. The fear is still rising, keeping the emotional intent intact.
At this point, I could go into the specifics of the ride itself, but that seems kind of like someone talking about their VR experience. You have to give it a chance to see for yourself how all this tension and escalation pays off. It’s wonderful!
Whether you’re planning a trip to a theme park or an art exhibit, or exploring your favorite virtual worlds, we visit these places and then return because they make us feel something. The art comes from taking the emotional intent of the work and marrying it with context in a way that helps the player to feel what you’d like them to feel, to connect with what’s going on in the game.
Doing so is powerful: Disney took what might have been a silly up-and-down ride and turned it into something memorable, something with a story and emotion behind it, something epic. And it’s the details, the story, and the weight added by the environment around that ride that make it shine so brightly in our memories. This is why I love my work so much: I hope to be able to do the same thing in games.
See you at check-in!
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