But trying something new inevitably entails trial and error. An effective first act and some unique “what just happened?” tricks led to a denouement that span off into the realms of video game fantasy, and lacked much in the way of fear as a result.
But if Thorpe were serious about trying something new, they were even more serious about making sure they got it right. Relaunching for this season with the subtitle Rise of the Demon, the ride almost feels like a 'back to basics' reboot, simplifying its concept and upping the scares.
Derren Brown's craft is all about misdirection. Although he's known for stage and television shows based around mind control and convoluted psychological stunts, his roots are as a performing magician.
As a student, I worked as an usher on one of his stage shows in the West End. The job was mostly selling programmes – arguably an act of mind control in itself – and sweeping up sweet wrappers, but seeing a show like that night after night was an illuminating experience.
The first time, you're left reeling along with the rest of the audience, wondering how on Earth he pulls off something so elaborate. By the fourth or fifth time, you've mostly sussed it out, and realised it's not nearly as complicated as it seems. That simplicity initially feels like a disappointment. But, as you start to put those layers back on, you realise how impressive the showmanship is – perhaps even more impressive than if the trick had been 'for real.'
So much of the best theme park attraction design follows a similar mould. We know we're not drifting through a Louisiana bayou, free-falling off a skyscraper, or soarin' over Monument Valley. Just as, on some level, Brown's audiences know there's a more simple explanation to his supposed feats of mind control. (Not least because he often says precisely that from the start.)
Good storytelling – regardless of medium – fires up the part of the brain that allows both things to be real for us at once. And successful horror stories demand that kind of engagement, or they risk becoming either unbelievably silly or downright unpleasant. In its reworked form, Derren Brown's Ghost Train gets a much finer point on that formula.
At this point, let's be clear: I'll withhold from major spoilers below, but it's an experience best had with as little prior knowledge as possible. If there's any chance you're going to ride this one, stay away from all information and photos until you have.
Aside from a slightly reworked batching process that's made the final stage of queueing much more effective, the first half of the experience remains essentially the same. Before the ride even begins, the scenario is established by protest posters in the queue line warning of the dangers of fracking.
Starting from something so grounded in reality is an unusual choice in an industry best known for escapist fantasy, but it pays dividends. It means our engagement with it works as the best horror movies do, taking the socio-political concerns of the real world and exploding them into something nightmarish.
(As a side note, can you imagine any other company being bold enough to choose such a potentially controversial topic as a starting point? I'd be lying if this hadn't already slightly won me over before I even stepped inside. This is one of the many moments where Brown's voice is clear throughout the attraction, both in its craftsmanship and ever-so-slightly political nature.)
The opening salvo of the ride is a technically-impressive monologue by Brown himself that makes us, the audience, conscious of our own experience. It tells us to immerse ourselves in the narrative, but to simultaneously be aware that it is just that – a narrative – and to question how we perceive and engage with it.
It's a theme park post-modernism of a far more sophisticated kind than the cheeky one-liners usually found in rides. Impressive, for a park usually known only for iron rides.
We're then ushered into a large warehouse, empty except for a full-size Victorian train carriage suspended only by a few chains. We're given a moment to let the seeming impossibility of that sink in before we summoned on board – where we find a pristine carriage modelled on those of the London Underground, each seat equipped with a Gear VR headset. (This year with upgraded headphones – and the difference is quality is noticeable.)
To talk in detail about what happens next would be full-on spoiler territory. All the tricksy first act stuff from its first season remains in place, effective as ever, showcasing what VR in attraction design can do better than anything else I've seen. But we've spoken on TPI in the past about the limitations of Virtual Reality as opposed to Augmented Reality. And the brand new sequence for Rise of the Demon in particular serves almost a preface to the use of AR in theme parks; a hint of the mileage designers will be able to get when that technology becomes accessible.
They've learnt from what worked in version 1, and built upon that. Whereas the second train sequence previously descended into the fantastical (and, to be honest, somewhat ludicrous) without the resources to really achieve that, this time around it takes things back to basics with a much simpler set up – one that works much better as result. It's a more intimate experience, playing to the particular attributes of the technology.
The changes were teased last season with adverts for a “terrifying new destination.” But this in itself is already a brilliant bit of misdirection. Like any good story, where you end up is less important than how you get there. By focusing on this, the ride's designers have managed to make the technology serve the story, rather than vice versa – and deliver some genuine jump-out-of-your-seat scares.
There's a surprise addition in the mix too, one that sees a concept Universal first toyed with over a decade ago taken a step further – and which becomes perhaps the highlight of the whole experience. Like many of us who spend too much time in theme parks, I'm pretty hard to fool by tricks on attractions – but I was totally taken by this one.
Although it's still not a perfect experience, the sheer uniqueness of the spectacle pulls you back in for a second go around. (Along with the desire to work out what the heck just happened.) Following on the heels of the flawed-but-bonkers "I'm A Celebrity..." attraction in 2015, it's heartening to see the park go back to the drawing board and give this ride the time and expense to fulfill its potential.
And viewed alongside Galactica at Alton Towers – the VR upgrade to flying coaster Air – I think it's fair to say that no other company in the industry right now is integrating VR into its attractions with the creativity and integrity of Merlin.
I'm sure the park will continue to invest in changes to the ride in the future to explore new ideas and technological opportunities as they arise. But it's already a unique experience, and a great example of what can be done with a commitment to innovation and impassioned storytelling in attraction design. Let's hope there's more of this from the park in the years to come.Tweet
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