It was, perhaps, inevitable that the first roller coaster I rode would also be my last, whatever it was. If I’m honest with myself I’m far too frightened of heights, speed and being upside down to be a fan (just look at the picture for proof). But maybe it was also fortunate that my first (and last) roller coaster should be one of the world’s scariest: Nemesis at Alton Towers. At least I had bragging rights at parties now. I could say: “Sure, I’ve done roller coasters. I did Nemesis.” Without mentioning that I spent the entire ride with my eyes cramped shut, screaming and desperately trying to keep all my liquids and solids inside my body. Trying to crunch yourself into a foetal position whilst strapped in by a massive metal frame, legs dangling against the g-force, is not an easy task, but, I’m ashamed to say, I still tried.
So, I discovered I don’t like roller coasters. I much prefer my brushes with death to be more… simulated. Videogames are great for this, of course, and they have a lot in common with theme parks. For one thing an intense action experience, of the kind popularised by set-piece laden first person shooters, will often be compared to the breathless adrenalin of a roller coaster; but more negatively games that are too linear and directed – too on rails – are also often compared to such rides. But, more than these direct analogies I felt like the virtual space of the park had much in common with games.
The various themed departments – Mutiny Bay, Katanga Canyon, Cloud Cuckoo Land, not to mention the wonderful ruins of the gothic revival mansion from which the park gets its name – feel like the different worlds of some insane N64 era platformer. The park is masterfully designed and between each area you are guided down scenic path ways littered with narrative cues imbedded organically in the environment – a crashed alien space craft here, a burnt out truck there. All lovingly rendered in fine detail. Even the facade of the ghost house, complete with laser wielding zombie, feels eerily authentic, despite the fact that it’s merely bolted onto the front of a big warehouse in which the guts of the ride unfold.
And then there’s the fact that roller coaster design is fundamentally not a million miles from videogame design, something Henry Jenkins points out when he quotes theme park ride designer Don Carson in his brilliant essay ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture‘. Both mediums are about visceral experiences, after all, but also rely heavily on guiding players through a designed space replete with narrative details. The new ride, The Smiler, which I avoided, was a case in point. Brought to you by the Orwellian sounding ministry of joy, this ride proposes to brainwash you into its dystopian future vision (a process referred to as ‘Marmalisation’ according to the ride’s propaganda), and regardless of whether you’re riding it or not, a huge video screen loops hypnotic images, integrated with archival footage, that any videogame graphic design department would be envious of.
Later on I was tricked into riding my second big coaster: Thirteen. “It’s barely more frightening than the mine cart” I was assured. Then, when we come to a standstill after a terrifyingly fast, stomach churning series of bends, my ‘friend’ says: “Dean, I’m so sorry for what’s about to happen.” For a brief moment, perhaps most terrifying of all, my mind was left to imagine horrors, and then the floor disappeared from underneath us simulating a dropping elevator, and then we were ripped backwards down a steep drop, and my nerves are thoroughly shredded. Writing this, I’m still getting Jacob’s Ladder style flashbacks like a ‘Nam veteran.
Although I think I now have a strong appreciation for how the park is laid out and these rides are themed and designed, I think I’ve earned the right to say: Fuck roller coasters, I’ll stick with videogames for my adrenal needs thanks very much.