Whether creating a physical space or a virtual world, if the intention is to tell a story then there are certain tricks of the trade that are born from our audience’s familiarity with the physical world. When we say, “You know, that bridge doesn’t look safe”, we are building this idea about the bridge based on the fact that we have experience with bridges that ARE safe. From infanthood we have been analyzing the physical world around us to help us navigate it safely. Anything out of the ordinary, or even slightly different than what we are familiar with, will trigger a sense of drama, suspense, and even comedy. This very human trait is what designers of physical spaces have at their disposal, and used with intention, can enhance the experience of your guests.
When telling a story in a physical space, Tension can be used to suggest that something is about to happen, something potentially dangerous to the guest, without actually putting them in any peril. Purely by how you arrange the pieces in your environment, you can tell a story with relatively little expense, and often without costly animations or effort.
In the above example, the rock formation on the left is “interesting” and might draw the attention of a guest. The balancing rock is curious without being impossible to imagine happening in nature. The middle example shifts the stone off balance a bit, cantilevering it over the central pillar stone. To the eye this feels precarious, so much so that even looking at a simple sketch of it can create a minor sense of anticipation. Forcing a path under such a rock, or driving a roller coaster under it is enough to add an extra thrill, without there being any real danger. The last example is more far fetched, but it does suggest that we are playing with the audience a little, and that they are “in on the joke”. The rock doesn’t need to animate, rock back and forth, or teeter, the arrangements of the pieces are enough to illicit a specific emotion.
Disney parks are filled with such masterfully designed details, but one in particular comes to mind as a very favorite example of creating Tension with little or no expense. The now extinct World of Motion pavilion in EPCOT was filled with vignettes of “great moments” in the history of humans getting themselves around. Many of the scenes were textbook examples of theatrical vignettes that hold a story with little need for elaborate animations. My favorite appeared in the scene depicting the introduction of the bicycle, in the late 19th century. Animatronic figures dressed like Gibson Girls and mustache wearing dapper gents are experiencing the joys (and dangers) of a bicycle outing in the park. One such vignette included a man who is off his bicycle and is pumping air back into his tire. His gaze is distracted as he pumps so he is not aware that a huge bubble has appeared in the rubber and it is poised to burst. Behind the bicycle is a young woman with a surprised expression and eyes glued to the bulge in the tire. The two figures are little more than shop mannequins without costly Animatronic complexity. The only animation include the arms of the man who is continuously pumping, and the very subtle blink of the eyes on the young woman. Nothing more is needed, and yet we all know what is about to happen next! Although the man pumped the tire for a couple decades, we all are entertained by what we know is a very human moment. We are “let in on” the story, but we are not handed the outcome, we don’t need to be.