The idea of a narrative environment isn't new. For as long as designers have considered the symbolic potential of landscape and architectural designs, the foundation for seeing space as story were in place.
So, it's pretty common to for architects to discuss the program of a building, for instance, in terms of its dramatic pacing or a facade in terms of its literary possibilities. What you don't hear much about are the characters which make literary storytelling work. Stories have characters. So don't narrative environments need them too?
I suppose the assumption is that the building's viewer is the character and the design of a place seeks to embody the viewer into a specific, designed role–shopper, tourist, voyeur, adventurer, explorer, etc.
Then you encounter the well-known, but less-scrutinized character mechanics of the Disney parks. Sure, Disney is about as narrative as any designed place can be. And part of the reason why just might have to do with the odd use of characters.
A site that collects the various character appearances and rates them according to frequency provides a glimpse into the attraction and power of costumed characters wandering in a heavily themed storybook world:
Some key things to consider about the Disney park characters:
- They all anchor specific stories, or story arcs in the Disney world.
- Most of the costumes are so elaborate and sculpural that they qualify as a sort of architecture in their own right
- The locations and frequencies of the character appearances are tightly managed, or maybe more percisely scripted, So, for example, don't expect to see Captain Jack Sparrow wandering in Tomorrowland (unless as a part of the time-space rupturing parades that allow the entire Disney subconscious to flow, temporarily, throughout all lands).
- All of the characters will sign autographs. So, while most Disney attractions stand mute, providing only pictures, the characters give a script, a symbol of materiality more personal and seemingly more rare than any other Disney souvenir. In this way, the character autograph is the most perfect tourist memento–something intimate but ultimately fake and removed–a pretend signature of a pretend person written by an employ temporarily inhabiting a portable structure.
In terms of videogames, that most environmental form of storytelling, you can see a similar reflection in the use of character, and some opportunities:
- Game characters are as much a part of the gameplay as the game story. Interactive characters that only exist to forward the plot have fallen out of favor in terms of characters that both advance the plot and provide interactive possibility. Fallout 3 stands a perfect example here, where you talk to characters to forward the plot, and the game.
- As a result, the characters in a game work much as the architecture does, limiting action, providing focus and allowing opportunity. In every game that asks the player, "Go find person X" could easily be replaced with "Go find place Y".
- When characters are done well, they are placed and paced as carefully has the locations they inhabit. Finding the hermit on the hill or being sent to look for the princess in another castle.recognizes the inherent spatiality of character in an environmental story.
- Game characters may not sign autographs, but they typically grant players information or items key to a quest.
Where does this lead? Well, Disneyland and videogames both integrate character into place by way of making the narrative ahere to the place. Is this something other narrative environments could model? At the very least, it does seem that it would make architecture more fun if they did!