Earlier this year I had the great privilege of working on a brand new ride at top UK theme park Alton Towers. The ride is Nemesis Sub-Terra, a claustrophobic horror experience set in the Forbidden Valley, near the famous Nemesis inverted roller coaster.
I was hired as scriptwriter by Farmer Attraction Development to flesh out the storyline developed by ride creators Merlin Entertainments, in which visitors are taken deep underground to face an ancient evil that has just been unearthed.
You may wonder how much script a theme park ride really needs. In this case it was quite a lot. Video screens set along the queue line explain the back-story, while others within the ride itself play a more active role in events. There’s also a constantly-running environmental soundtrack designed to sustain the necessary air of tension.
Writing for a theme park ride is no different to any other assignment: above all you need to create a compelling and coherent narrative. Then things get tricky. Nemesis Sub-Terra, like most rides of its kind, moves its visitors through a series of zones in a strictly controlled fashion. Its soundtrack is ultimately based not on one script but on a number of individual scenes.
These scenes work a bit like scenes in a movie, but with a few important differences. For example, some of them run on endless loops (ambient), while others are timed to be triggered by the show control system at critical moments, often to coincide with physical effects (tactical). Add to that the need to weave in statutory health and safety messages in such a way that they don’t take you out of the story, and you’ll see why writing for rides can be particularly challenging.
The scripts went through a number of drafts before approval, after which I handed everything back to the ride developers and agreed to say nothing about the project until after the ride had opened (all very hush-hush, this theme park business). What made the project particularly special for me was working again with colleagues I’ve known for some time, including Nick Farmer at FAD and John Hunt and the rest of the guys at Bottletop, the Nottingham-based video company that brought my scripts to life and added so much more to the party besides.
So, is Nemesis Sub-Terra really that scary? Well, before the ride opened officially, Alton Towers sought advice from the British Board of Film Classification, resulting in Nemesis Sub-Terra being awarded a ’12A’ certificate for ‘moderate physical and psychological threat.’
This is the first time in its history that the BBFC has assessed a theme park attraction. Murray Perkins, Senior Examiner at the BBFC commented: “The BBFC is seeing a real blur of the old boundaries of visual content and physical experience in both 3D and 4D cinema, and at theme parks. Applying our experience of the public’s acceptability of moments of threat on screen, to more physical experiences, is something we have begun to do as cinema and other theatrical experiences evolve.”