Transformers, Radiator Springs Racers, and the role of conflict in theme park narratives
Published: July 4, 2012 at 8:55 AM
Transformers: The Ride in Universal Studios Singapore
In journalism school, one of my professors assigned me to read Jon Franklin's book "Writing for Story." Franklin describes what he called the "conflict/resolution" model for storytelling, suggesting that all great stories - fiction or nonfiction - describe a conflict and the quest for a resolution. We see this most clearly in theme parks with that beloved cliche, "and something goes terribly wrong", whether that be dinos running wild through Jurassic Park or Imperial troops interrupting our Star Tours.
Universal Creative designer Thierry Coup told me last December that such conflict drive the narratives that captivate audience. "It has to [go wrong]. It gives us a chance to be heroes, and to try to save the day."
Transformers at Universal Studios Hollywood
Universal's Transformers: The Ride embraces conflict from before we even board the ride. The evil Decepticons have found and attacked the NEST base we're visiting. They're after the Allspark that powers the Transformers, and it's up to us to help the good Autobot EVAC take it away to safety.
EVAC, our ride in Transformers
Unfortunately, "escape from the bad guys" is perhaps the hoariest cliche in theme park rides. I've lost count of the minimally decorated Six Flags roller coasters that use this conceit as their only acknowledgement of theme. It's especially weak when the ride upon which we're supposedly escaping unloads on the same platform where we board.
If attempted escape was all that Transformers: The Ride had offered, it likely wouldn't be resonating with visitors the way it is - winning our 2012 Theme Park Insider Award as the world's Best New Theme Park Attraction of the year. But Coup and his team at Universal Creative added a second conflict element to Transformers: The Ride, one that helped elevate the attraction to elite status.
After a wild romp through the battle between the Decepticons and Autobots, our host - EVAC - decides that he's had enough. When the Decepticon leader, Megatron, mocks us ("Cowards run. Heroes fight."), EVAC abandons our mission, breaks his orders and chooses to face Megatron instead. It's the classic "fight or flight" conflict, and as EVAC's passengers, we're in the middle of it. Thrust into battle as EVAC's accomplices, we resolve the second conflict by refusing the first. We refuse to escape and choose instead to fight back, defeating Megatron and returning to NEST as heroes.
Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land at Disney California Advneture
While Transformers: The Ride relies on conflict to establish emotional stakes for its riders, Disney's Radiator Springs Racers takes the opposite approach. This might be the most emotionally comforting thrill ride ever created. It's the ride where nothing goes wrong. There's no substantial conflict here - just a good-natured race between cars at the end of the ride. But the ride's main characters, Lightning McQueen and Mater, reject the notion of that race as conflict by telling us as we leave that "everyone won" the race, "because we made friends."
Lightning McQueen and Mater congratulate us at the end of Radiator Springs Racers
Radiator Springs Racers' purpose is not to challenge us to become heroes, as on Transformers: The Ride. It's to reassure us - to provide a gentle, welcoming space where we can feel comfort and confidence making new friends. While Transformers ultimately makes us feel good by telling us we have within us the heroism to overcome life's challenges, Radiators Springs Racers makes us feel good by letting us spend a few moments in a life without challenges. It's the theme park equivalent of Mommy hugging us, telling us it's going to be all right, and setting up a playdate with a good friend.
And I love them both.
Together, Transformers: The Ride and Radiator Springs Racers illustrate the narrative range that theme park designers can inhabit in a mere few minutes of our time. Whether we want a complex, multi-level, conflict-drive narrative, or a character-driven experience that triggers our emotions, Universal's and Disney's designers have shown that theme parks can deliver an ever-widening variety of narrative experiences for their visitors.