Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Derren Brown's Ghost Train at Thorpe Park - Review

Founded Pessimism

Ok, feel free to skip this these first few paragraphs to the Expectations heading if you’re just interested in my critical breakdown of the attraction, but I really need to get this off my chest...

Why does everyone have such a hard time with other people’s prejudgements?

The moment anyone speculates that an upcoming new attraction looks mediocre or less, someone else will jump in to comment “you can’t know until you’ve ridden it!” Notice how no one will do this when your judgements are positive, because it has absolutely nothing to do with having an opinion of something before you’ve tried it, and everything to do with being “negative”.

Following the last post detailing my thoughts on Virtual Reality use in theme park attractions, someone noted that my preconceptions - my negative expectations - were “telling”. They said that if I was determined to dislike something, I would find a reason to dislike it. That misunderstands the entire point I was trying to make and I would hope anyone who read even half of that article would see that. I intentionally started writing it before I tried any VR attraction - or the technology in any other context for that matter - so I could capture what was more important than reception... My opinion, predictions and expectations prior to riding. I was as honest and blatant about that as I always am. It doesn’t matter how good something is if the very idea of it fails to appeal to the audience. Whilst it may seem like sound advice to not knock something until you’ve tried it, it isn’t logically sound. Making judgements based on past experience is realistic, not negative and my entire argument against VR was just that - comparing similar experiences and considering known issues to conclude it was a bad idea in the theme park context.

I had plenty of reasons to believe VR was a write off, but with only DBGT under my belt, I can’t be sure and I never pretended to be. I even stated in the article that I need to try one of the coaster VR experiences (hopefully Galatica at Alton Towers before this year is out!) because - I suspect - they will utilise the technology better. But whilst VR was a large part of my distaste towards Ghost Train, it certainly didn’t account for all my prejudices prior to riding, nor does it account for all my opinions post riding. 


Nothing about DBGT is my cup of tea, so take this as a warning… Even if it were good - which it definitely is not - I probably still wouldn't enjoy it. So if that’s “telling” of my determination to hate Thorpe Park’s newest attraction, cool. Whatever. I cannot be fake. I cannot pretend to be excited for something that sounds like a terrible idea. I tell it how it is here and that involves being honest about the fact that I went into Ghost Train expecting it to be bad and I came out shocked that it was worse than I expected... Spoilers ahead!

Photo by author.

Before visiting Thorpe Park this season, I’d seen a lot of criticism from enthusiasts of Ghost Train’s facade. I guess because everyone was so terrified of speculating anything interesting, the community got caught up complaining about the building exterior. Everyone had a huge problem with the unthemed portion of the building, but to me it was just never a big deal. My brain didn’t even see it, reading it as part of X's structure in the background. This is Thorpe Park, not the Magic Kingdom. I’m as apathetic about that unthemed corrugated wall as I am by hearing Nemesis Inferno roar behind me. The themed facade of the attraction is good, not perfect, but good. Whilst queuing, a friend pointed out how weirdly the facade is layered from the perspective of the queue, and they’re right - you can barely see the signage from the queue, but as a whole the finish and brickwork was impressive. There’s even foliage sprouting from the guttering. The detailing is wonderful. 

Official image from Thorpe Park showing one of the great photo opportunities in the queue.

After a bunch of awfully designed queue lines of recent, this one spends a lot of time under cover with nice signage, comfortable fencing and, whilst there’s not a whole lot to look at, the queue is segmented by photo opportunities. Rather than feel like money grabbing, they honestly feel designed to pass the time - they’re genuinely fun to get involved with. You’re not being forced to stand in front of a green screen and goof out, they require you interacting with a real stuff. Great distractions, spaced well in the queue. The musical score is… Forgettable. It’s another, as a friend remarked, “painting by numbers” dramatic movie style piece from IMA Score. Don’t get me wrong here, I love IMA Score, they’ve done some amazing work and brought theme park music into a high production sounding league, but many of the older attraction themes were so damn catchy and unique sounding, which just isn’t the case anymore. There’s a section in DBGT’s queue where the music is insanely loud, whilst in other portions you barely hear it at all. The speakers, rather than spaced evenly and playing the music at an acceptably low volume as background noise, are all clumped together blasting it loudly to cover a wide area. I really hate it when music - wait, any sound actually - is too loud, especially in a queue where I want to chat to pass the time. Another weird thing about the music is that I have absolutely no recollection of any music during the attraction itself. Hm. Anyway, so far, so good.

The queue
Photos by Martin C. Check out his review here.

Given the seeming flop that was Sub Terra - Alton’s 2012 dark ride, it was weird to learn Thorpe Park were to build a gigantic new dark ride. I guessed it would be another series of preshows followed by some minor flat ride, dressed well as a complete package, as is the case with both Hex and Sub Terra, rather than a more traditional style dark ride. In spite of its faults, I like Hex a lot and I actually think Sub Terra is better than most people gave it credit for, but… I’ve always felt that most guests spend the entire experience feeling like they are being delayed from the main event, the actual ride - which consists of a Vekoma Madhouse in Hex and a ABC Freefall Tower in Sub Terra. There is this anxiety about only so many hours in the day that claws at everyone's ability to just relax and have fun, especially true in the UK where our theme parks close so early. I think most people would prefer a more obvious ride that began from the second they leave the queue. In an interview in Theme Park Design, artist Tim Kirk, an Imagineer who worked on Tokyo DisneySea, comments “At one level, they just want to ride the ride” when discussing how much story guests want to receive.

So, what even is Derren Brown’s Ghost Train?

Well, I tell you what it is not: a ghost train. I think even calling it a ride is scraping the barrel of the definition. And whilst that shouldn’t be an issue, it just is. I don’t think an attraction like this can ever share the same worth as a ride and they never seem to be popular in the theme park setting anyway, like that Poseidon’s Fury at Islands of Adventure, for example. It just feels like an inherently weird choice of attraction for Thorpe Park of all places. I really liked the idea of having a dark ride at Thorpe, because the place is a sea of thrill rides currently, and anything to break up that monotony would be awesome. And I admire the idea of a “reimagined ghost train” artistically, too. That inspires me, but as a reality, the whole thing is just… It’s just a Dungeons-like, actor led, walkthrough. Toying with the concept of a ghost train sounds clever, but just sets the audience up for a disappointment really. This is a year-round haunted walkthrough set on the mundane world of a tube train. That’s not really what I was expecting.

The attraction consists of a series of show scenes. The first, where Derren Brown personally introduces the concept to you, seems to be the one thing everyone unanimously praises. I enjoyed it too and it highlights just how bad the remaining experience is. It’s the only time you’ll question “how did they do that?” - an important aspect of Derren Brown’s brand. It psychs you up to be a part of the famous mind tricks as he talks about the upcoming experience. He talks about the psychology of fear, he talks about the attraction as a theme park attraction, so I’m expecting this self aware abstract experience. Then, it wonderfully makes you question where reality ends and the simulation begins when Brown’s ghostly, projected form picks up what you thought was a physical object on the table. That was outstanding. The rest of the attraction fails - arguably doesn't even try - to have anything to do with any of this or it just awkwardly lapses focus.

Disappointing illusions

The next show room is the suspended train, a physical set presented as the main feature of the experience in both marketing and during the preshow by Derren Brown himself. This suspended Victorian carriage is supposed to be a big deal. Many praise this illusion, but I honestly wasn’t very impressed with it. If I didn’t know it was supposed to look like a suspended train carriage, I'm not sure I would have even noticed. The problem here is that we enter the room on the same level as a train. All the marketing showed the train from below, so that’s what I expected. I expected to see a train suspended high above the ground that we ascend towards, but experiencing it first hand, I have no reason to believe it isn’t supported by the same huge metal walkway we’re on, unless I intentionally peer over the edge of the railings and see there is nothing below us. There’s no creepy creaking sound effects that imply kinetics, there’s no attention drawn to the chains suspending the train, nothing. It’s just an old fashioned train. In a dark room. A room so dark my focus is entirely on the bright doorway to the train. I think, perhaps, that’s the point. Don’t look too long or you’ll work it out. But, in reality, I don’t get enough time to look to even notice there is anything to work out.

 Expectation Vs Reality. Official Thorpe Park marketing image on left, compared to how we see the train on the right. Right photo by Total Thorpe Park.

So we board the Victorian train and the interior is stark and void of personality or interest, just like a real, contemporary tube carriage. Everyone is confused by this - it’s the number one thing people comment negatively on and at the time it just came across as though the interior of an authentic London Underground carriage was cheaper and easier to recreate than one which looked old fashioned. There are no ornate details, no fancy lighting, none of that interesting stuff that we go to theme parks for. Why, on your day off work, would you want to be transported from this really cool looking train suspended in an abandoned warehouse, to your daily commute to work? Merlin continually do this - choosing mundane or dilapidated aesthetics over fantastical, historical or exotic ones. Even if each and every example were great, the aesthetics and mood across all their attractions becomes rather stagnant as a result. A Derren Brown themed dark ride had so much potential as a concept. His shows are about enigma, about wondering how he does it. Theme park rides, especially dark rides like Hex at Alton Towers, are so often about that too. But here, the confusion feels rather forced, the product of deliberately trying to confuse rather than genuinely mystify. I wanna feel like there is something I don’t know, but if I could work it out, it would all make sense. Here I’m confused because it literally doesn’t make any goddamn sense. And that theme continues throughout.

Photo by Total Thorpe Park.

Misused technology

So you take a seat and half the VR headsets are out of use, so you’ll probably be moved by staff and then you put it on and then maybe get asked to move again because that one is faulty too and then finally you’re ready and… I’m not sure what I was expecting really, but now I’m just looking at an exact recreation of the boring tube train interior, but this time computer generated. Except, of course, it's empty. I look down and I don’t exist either. I dunno, for me, I think that really broke the immersion potential here. I was now hyper-aware that I had a screen strapped to my face lying to me, because the world around me was noisy and I could feel the arm of my neighbour. I’ve heard others compliment this juxtaposition as isolating, adding to the fear and I suppose by extension the theme of the virtual and reality getting blurred - fair enough. However, given the fact the carriage is empty not by creative choice, but because it would not have been feasible to populate it regardless, I can’t help but critique of the choice of environment and set up itself. Aside from the VR portions, the entire experience is highly social, so it feels out of place. At times the attraction is self-aware, such as the name literally referencing an attraction type, or the pre-show when Brown treats it very much as a ride and not reality, literally telling you to just take off the headset if you get scared. I like that idea, but feel they could have taken it further to allow for more acceptance of the weirdness. Derren literally telling me “when you put the mask on, you will be all alone” as if that itself is an intentional illusion would have worked wonders. The story and conceptual, abstract nature of the entire experience is constantly fighting for dominance. You can find a more detailed explanation of the VR portions and why they don’t work in my previous post, I wanted to avoid repeating myself too much here.

The environment never transforms. The carriage doesn’t somehow morph into a victorian setting for example, alluding back to the physical exterior and making you question the real and virtual divide. It doesn’t change at all. Nothing really happens, even outside the windows, the majority of the space is totally unused. Essentially the goings on during this first VR portion is that a man and his dog sit literally across from you, taking at you, and then a creepy girl climbs in through the window literally behind him. She doesn’t clamber in down the other end of the carriage and slowly make her way to you, which would have been far more terrifying, and the different carriage passengers are all viewing the same experience at the same time judging by the noises they make. Just weird choices all round here. I sat thinking “what is the point of this being VR?” You look around and nothing is going on. It’s all happening right in front of you. The entire point of the technology completely wasted. Completely.

The issue of horror

The creepy girl only exists because a spaced out, young girly-girl is conventionally more creepy than something narratively relevant. The story, if you could call it that, is that mining has released some kind of toxic gas that turns those exposed into zombie-like beings and that we shouldn’t be down here. The first VR portion is a lot of lights going out and actors brushing your knee to simulate the physical interaction with the creepy girl - ruined by the fact we can clearly hear their footsteps. I didn’t find any of this scary, because I couldn’t get past the fact I was watching a screen. Plenty of people disagree with me here though, so that is interesting to note. It is very dependent on your ability to be immersed by the very nature of the technology, rather than the quality of the overall experience. Another problem, entirely my own fault mind you, is that I’ve learnt to be stoic during horror attractions like Halloween walkthroughs, because I don’t like the actor interaction or being made jump. I went in expecting to be made jump, so I was on guard the whole time. But, yeah, I’m just not sure what could be scary about watching this weird CGI movie. It doesn’t feel like anything gets that close to you, at no point did I feel threatened or a need to escape, but clearly plenty of people differ here. I think that a more convincing merging of the physical environment with controlled sound especially and more developed 4D than an actor slapping my knee might improve things here. I think it’s a problem with the type of attraction and the narrative not lending themselves to each other.

Not the creepy girl from the attraction itself, but this official marketing image for Ghost Train only helps to illustrate the "creepy girl because horror" cliche.

I'm gonna pause here for a moment to talk about how strange it is that DBGT is supposed to be scary in the first place. Let's not forget that Thorpe were on their way to becoming more family friendly with advertisements, before closing everything suitable for younger guests and later slapping the childish Angry Birds theme on Detonator - literally the park's most terrifying ride. Now the opportunity arises to do a grand scale dark ride and they purposefully make it unsuitable for children? I don't understand.

Misdirected focus… Realisations of what could have been

Next, we’re shouted at to remove our headsets and escape the train, offloading onto a convincing underground platform and the train exterior is now a tube train to match the interior. Something I have no recollection of, by the way. See, I watched a POV video of the experience before writing this to remind myself of what happened. All I remember from the time I rode it was being rushed off the train and waiting in a boring concrete room. With a megaphone in hand, actors literally tell us there is an emergency and encourage you to hurry. It blows my mind that I will be asked not to sit on a queue line fence, or not allowed to take camera on a ride, whilst it is perfectly ok to ask a group of people to run through a dark environment and pretend there is an emergency, but I digress. I really hated this part and I hated it on Sub Terra, too. It’s not my cup of tea, I guess, but I think an argument against doing this can certainly be made for the crucial stuff I missed because of it! Watching the videos, I noticed that the train exterior transformation turns out to be exactly the kind of ‘how did they do that’ illusion I wanted, but I completely missed it. I missed it! I guess it’s kind of obvious that the initial Victorian exterior is just a facade, but this reveal should be the focus when getting off the train. No one is asking ‘how did they do that?’ but instead ‘why did we get on a Victorian train that is modern inside?’ No one notices when you’re getting off because they’re distracted. We board this mysterious location - the suspended Victorian carriage - and are transported to a story world. Now I get it. Now this makes sense. It just isn’t communicated very well during the attraction when it really needed to be. I know I keep mentioning Hex, but it really is a shame that this attraction doesn’t have something as wondrous as that ride hardware. On Hex, people are genuinely blown away, their faces say it all as they grab hold of their hats and upon exiting the ride everyone is debating how it was done. THAT is how a Derren Brown theme park attraction should have been.

Inappropriate use of both physical sets and digital elements

This ‘quick, run, escape!’ stuff feels cheap and nasty because it is easier to induce panic from actors this way than to create more meaningful emotions through brilliant environments, illusions or story. It keeps the drama high as filler for lacking substance. It has been overused, spilling out of temporary Halloween attractions where it actually works into year round dark rides... We make our way into this huge spectacular set featuring underground train tunnels. This room works well - here is an environment people don’t usually get to explore. It is dark, creepy and large, with enough detail in the pipes along the walls and fake alternative routes into the darkness to be mesmerising, ruined by a terribly predictable element that comes across like a gag, but we’re supposed to take it seriously. After being collected together we are briefed on our planned escape route down a blocked off tunnel ahead, only for a train to come down that tunnel, crash, and retract. And it looks like it’s made of cardboard, wobbling slightly on retreat. The group I was with laughed at it. And it’s so weird because this kind of effect could have been done better with the VR. Like imagine if out the window you’d witnessed a near crash, or they even simulated a crash, which is why we had to take off the headset and get off the train, only to see a physical set with a smouldering, deformed train.

From Bad to Worse… The laughable inclusion of movie monsters

Amidst the smoke or gas or whatever is a moving figure. I knew there were 'creatures' involved with the plot, but this first sighting went over my head at the time, probably because I was reeling in pain laughing so hard at the cardboard train. More panic ensues, alarms going off, red lights flash, and we’re hurried onto another train.

I struggled to find a seat with a working headset near my group and was directed down the train with increasing stress from the actors. I don’t like that. It’s a tricky one because them remaining in character is important, but when something isn’t going right, I as a guest don’t want to feel like I’m an idiot for what isn’t my fault. It’s not my fault none of the bloody headsets work. You can’t have narrative panic whilst guests are expected to do something like this, it doesn’t work. It’s immersion breaking, operationally unsound and just unpleasant.

This second VR section is just appalling. The more I’ve thought about the attraction as a whole, I’ve come to realise things I didn’t at the time that improve it slightly. But there aren't any other words for the finale than appalling, really. It is so ridiculous and unconvincing it makes the first VR portion look outstanding by comparison. The side of the train is torn away - or explodes off, I can’t remember to be honest - by these comically humanoid creatures. They reach into the train a bit and there’s some poorly rendered fire and a whole lot of nothing happens. The mucky brown, CGI world beyond the train is a mess. I criticise the Transformers ride for being all one colour and not really being able to see what's going on, but my God - this is a joke. It makes criticising Transformers as any less than perfection seem beyond petty. You’re basically watching a poorly framed, poorly written, poorly animated film take place through the window torn in the side of the train, right in front of you, the entire time. There are no human characters in this section to offer commentary, so you’re just watching these things crawl about and wreck stuff, making noises at each other, for what feels like eternity. I was thinking how much better it would be if stuff happened in different places, forcing you to look around, but I guess the issue is that due to the seating arrangement, different people in different seats might then be inside the action? But how difficult could it really be to have the action vary depending on where on the train you’re seated? I can’t get over the lacking utilisation of the VR - there’s no point in me watching a film play out right in front of me with the headset, I could do that with a normal screen. I can’t interact with the environment at all. The creatures are just the icing on the cake, failing to fit with the otherwise serious tone. What can I even say here, is there a need to explain that adding CGI comic creatures that look like these to a serious psychological horror in 2016 is just a terrible idea? Eventually the entire train is filled with this green smoke… The gas from before I guess, and it goes on for so long everyone thinks we’ve broken down. It’s just awkward silence until eventually people start to talk amongst themselves asking if it’s broken. From what others tell me, it seems to do this every single time, so I guess it is just filler whilst we wait for the previous group to get out of the way? It’s such an atrocious note to end on.

Official marketing image from Thorpe Park.

Story isn’t King

Derren Brown counts us back in from hypnosis and the narrative begins to make more sense, but thats a cheap cop out for the absurdities which just took place. Surprise, it was all a dream! Eugh! The story is literally that you got on board this suspended old train in a warehouse and Derren Brown hypnotises you, transporting you to this story world where mining deep underground releases some harmful gas into the Underground network, infecting passengers and… I’m not sure where the creatures come in, I’m not sure it matters. Because hypnosis. That's why. I think the problem here is that no attention is ever drawn to elements we need to understand in order to willingly suspend disbelief. I’m never told I’m being hypnotised, and the environment doesn’t convey it well enough other than being absurd. Because this is a theme park attraction, I just take those absurdities as parts of the attraction sucking, not parts of the narrative. You need to tell me, or show me, or convey to me in some way, what the story is if you’re going to make it such a key part of the experience.
 Theme Park Design
So what would have been a better concept? Ya know, I think just an abstract, mind blowing show of illusions and ‘how did they do it!’s would have been infinitely better. It’s the narrative that causes real problems here. Derren could have remained with us, in our mind as a narrator, through a series of shows. Pointing things out, asking us to think about things, drawing attention to the spectacles. Imagine wearing the VR even, and having Derren in your ear asking you to look over there, and you turn and something makes you jump or is just really bizarre. The story could have simply been a Derren Brown show, but instead there’s this other layer that isn’t interesting nor does it work. “If your attraction relies entirely for its effect on people understanding some kind of story that involves them actually stopping and thinking, you run into big problems.” Says John Wardley in an interview published in Theme Park Design. (It's a fantastic book by the way, so many enlightening quotes like this one from brilliant theme park designers.) In that book, Younger breaks attraction story types down into 3 categories. Experiential, Implicit and Explicit. Derren Brown’s Ghost Train doesn’t really know what it is. It is technically Implicit in nature, because so little is explained, but bares more similarity with Explicit or high stories the linear narrative that needs to be understood in order to enjoy it. Such stories need to be forced upon the captive audience, as is the case with Hex’s cinematic preshow, to ensure understanding. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of this method of storytelling in attractions - I think most people find this to be a boring delay to the actual ride as I mentioned before. The thing about Hex is that you could zone out of that film altogether and it wouldn’t damage your enjoyment of the finale and it only really exists as a capacity boost. Because Ghost Train never explicitly tells you what’s going on, whilst expecting you to be invested in the very linear narrative, everyone is just baffled. I think they wanted that to be the case. I think it is purposely left unexplained in hope the confusion will emulate what it feels like to experience one of Brown’s shows. But it doesn't. Instead, it feels poorly conceived and executed. Knowing the intent of designers can often matter in how we interpret certain aspects. It being just a little more obvious that we're supposed to be confused would have improved things.


Ya know, writing this has lead to some realisations I certainly didn’t have at the time of riding. Now Derren Brown’s Ghost Train doesn’t seem as ill conceived as it first came across, but that’s a problem in itself. How many people are going to give it as much brain time as I just have? I envy those who enjoyed Ghost Train, because I’m a little heartbroken at this £30million plus, grand-scale dark ride not being my cup of tea. I think that’s the real problem here - I can’t forget that this is a major investment. That we got this instead of a huge roller coaster. Those who enjoyed it will follow up with “it’s good for what it is”, but, what it is is a major attraction. You have to compare it to the park’s big roller coasters and when you point that out, people waver in their appreciation. As a side attraction, DBGT is
OK, arguably decent, maybe even good to some people… But it was designed with a major attraction budget and should be judged as such. And all this talk of the actual experience forgets how much downtime it had. It opened spectacularly late even by Merlin standards, then went on to have a good month of being outright closed. On the rare occasions it was open, it would open late in the day. 

My attention is now drawn to the future... I'm skeptical of Ghost Train's resilience. The cost of operating an attraction with so many staff and with the VR tech undoubtedly requiring replacement as they get manhandled and broken over time must be absurd. With Sub Terra closed this season, an attraction also requiring a lot of staff who's numbers were cut within a year of opening, it is painfully obvious similar will happen to Derren Brown's Ghost Train. It was ridiculous enough with Sub Terra, but to copy so many of those mistakes with a higher budget... I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Once again, check out my previous blog post on VR use in theme parks for a more detailed exploration of my issues with VR specifically. Thanks for reading, all comments appreciated, please share your own thoughts below!

1 comment:

  1. I too am annoyed at how much money was thrown at this only for it to be so utterly pants. Like you I came out thinking of numerous alternatives for the ride, ways to improve it etc. Me and my friends were talking to the other people on the ride and everyone was terribly confused, but for all the wrong reasons.

    In fact my experience was just frustrating - towards the bit at the end where everyone else claims they saw green gas, my headset failed and showed me an error message for what felt like an eternity. I thought that perhaps this was it, the real trick is going to kick in now, like some sort of weird meta joke about the Matrix. I kinda expected to take my headset off at that point and be scared to death at what I might see - but no, nothing. Exit through the gift shop as usual and rant amongst yourselves.

    In fact for me the best thing about that ride was that it stoked my imagination so much - because I know I could've done better, now my mind is full of ideas for stories, rides, video games, projects. If only I had the budget Derren Brown had...lucky man, squandered it though!