One theme park's mission to perfect VR horror

Derren Brown's Ghost Train gets a terrifying upgrade for 2017.

Thorpe Park

I still can't figure it out. Inside the warehouse, I press against the railing, squinting through the darkness to get a better look at the Ghost Train. A Victorian carriage hangs from the ceiling, suspended by iron chains. Step inside, however, and it's a modern London Tube car, caught up in an outbreak that threatens to turn everyone into monsters. You put on a VR headset, contextualised as a life-saving gas mask, and prepare for the worst as the train disembarks.

After a brief, creepy stint in VR, you're asked to exit the train on what appears to be a modern subway station. The original warehouse, the chains -- it's all gone. I've heard rumors about the train and how it's able to "move" through space, but even with this information I can't see how it all works. I press harder against the barrier, bamboozled.

I'm lining up for 'Rise of the Demon,' a revamped version of the Ghost Train that opened last summer. It's based at Thorpe Park, a haven for British thrill-seekers, and was designed under the guidance of Derren Brown, a showman and master of psychological manipulation. All told, it's one of the most ambitious VR projects I've ever seen, blending the HTC Vive with immersive theatre and intricate ride engineering.

Hunting perfection

The original Ghost Train had some problems, however. It offered two separate VR experiences, the second of which was a fun but corny CG-fest that felt out of place with the rest of the ride. With so many different parts, both mechanical and human, it also had a tendency to break down. The headsets would die, or not show the VR sections properly, and audio problems would drain the warehouse of its intended atmosphere.

Merlin Entertainment, the owner of Thorpe Park, and Figment Productions, a company specialising in audiovisual attractions, decided to to go back and refresh the ride. The result is an attraction that the team promises will be more intense and terrifying than before. "If there's anything that I learned from the experience last year, it's how, when people hear the words 'virtual reality,' they expect it to be reality," Simon Reveley, chief executive of Figment said. "They expect it to feel completely real."

Before, the second VR portion showed a group of spider-like demons shredding the train car to shreds. You could see the world outside, a ruinous city destroyed by society's greed for natural resources. It felt like the train was rocking back and forth, buffeted by your pursuers, until finally the train fell into a crack in the earth, ending the ride in a pit of lethal lava. "In the original we had a massive, whizz-bang ending with Hollywood effects going on," Reveley explains. That was by design, however: Brown had wanted something that was spooky, but still enjoyable for everyone.

"One of the things that I remember about working with Derren, on the first version, was that he wanted to build this world," Reveley said, "but he also kept using a word that surprised me a little bit, which was 'fun.' He wanted it to be fun for people. And I think that's what the original experience was. Now? Well, we've had some of that fun, and now we want to go darker."

I won't spoil what happens in the new version (at the end, Brown asks you to keep the ride's intricacies a secret). I will say, however, that it's a smaller, more atmospheric scene, one that builds tension by showing other survivors and their reactions to the monster. To achieve this level of terror, Figment threw out what it had before and created a new sequence from scratch. The team used a combination of 360-degree video, shot inside the train car with a Nokia Ozo camera, and a LIDAR scan -- a radar-like technology that creates a 3D picture, or mesh of the surrounding area -- as a basis for visual effects.

Switching from a CG-animated cutscene to a spherical movie was a gutsy move. The two formats are vastly different and come with unique trade-offs. A video game environment might be less believable, but it's easier to tweak and allows the user to move around quite freely. A 360-degree video is, of course, more realistic, but forces the viewer to stand or sit in a single spot, where the camera and tripod was originally set up.

On the Ghost Train, that limitation isn't a problem, however. That's because the ride is built around a train car which, by design, encourages you to sit down with your fellow passengers. The VR headset is attached by various cables to the wall, so you're unable to stand up or slide around in a way that would break the experience. "It's one of the restrictions that really helps us," Reveley said. "If we were in a free-roaming environment, a walk-through VR experience, that would be infinitely harder. But because we're in a train, it gives us the freedom to mix pure stereo 360 video elements with traditional visual effects and post production work."

Last year, such a film would have been tricky to produce because the ride and the VR shorts were being developed in parallel. Now, of course, the Ghost Train is a permanent fixture in the park, so it was easier for the team to see how it could be altered and manipulated.

The updated VR sequence was shot over a cold December and January. Colin Arnold, Head of film and video at Figment Productions, said it was a "relatively quick" shoot, albeit one that required some creative directorial techniques. When you're making a spherical film, the crew and the director have to always be out of shot. To speed up the process, all of the actors had an earpiece, and Arnold was able to give them pointers by looking at a live preview streamed from the camera. That monitoring setup meant Brown and the team at Merlin Magic Making could also review Figment's efforts remotely and check how it would look through a VR headset.

The concept

The idea for the shoot came, in part, from reviewing the original ride at Thorpe Park. In the operations room, Reveley and the team at Figment were struck by how people were reacting to the VR segments. The shrieks and squeals, combined with their body language, added to the terror and chaos associated with the ride. The problem was that people could hear, but not see these responses while they were wearing the VR headsets. "We wanted that to be an influence on the update. So rather than try to take people to a world away from what was really happening around them, We thought it would be fun to explore what was already happening around them. Which is people freaking out, basically."

For the most part, it works. Of course, the actors in the film (who all wear headsets too) aren't the same people who will be boarding the train with you in real life. That mis-match was inevitable, but it does detract from the experience a little bit. Reveley hopes the chaos of the theatre segment, which sits in the middle of the two VR sequences, will be enough to disorient people as they board the train.

"When you get onto that train, you're running," he says. "You're in a bit of a panic, you're in a big group that will naturally get mixed up. So you're going to sit with people you don't know. You might have a friend with you or whatever, but you're not going to be in a train full of people you know."

It's not hard to tell the difference. But like all amusement rides, movies and video games, the Ghost Train requires a small suspension of disbelief. A willingness to participate in what is ultimately a piece of fiction.

VR as a platform

Most theme park rides aren't updated within their first year. That's the advantage, and the promise, of media-based attractions, particularly those that use virtual reality. Developing software is hard, but it's arguably easier than tearing a rollercoaster down and adding an extra loop in the middle. Like any modern video game, the VR acts as a foundation, a platform that can be slowly updated and built on over time.

Reveley says periodic updates were "discussed in the early days" of the Ghost Train project. He recalls a review session soon after the ride opened, whereby everyone, Brown included, started to talk about "all of the fun things we could do to take it forward." What started as "just a loose brainstorm" turned out to be critical, as many of those ideas were eventually developed and incorporated into the new "Rise of the Demon" update.

There's a balance, however. The draw of the Ghost Train is its complexity, and the bespoke nature of its design. All of the different elements were conceived and developed with each other in mind. It's the culmination of these ideas -- and how they create one fluid, continuous experience -- that makes the ride so unique. Altering the VR part is, therefore, no easy task. A valuable update needs to work with and, ideally, enhance the other components.

Figment relished the challenge, however. "When you have those boundaries placed upon you, it makes you more creative," Reveley said. "If you can do absolutely anything you want, no-one knows where to start half the time! So actually, the constraints of the format of the ride are perfectly fine. Most of the greatest rides in the world, they follow a certain format. The Ghost Train is a really unique format, but it's one that's got plenty of versatility to it, in terms of how the content can be updated."

For Figment, it was also important to maintain the original ride's story and lore. The Ghost Train presents a world where humanity has gone too far in its lust for energy. The harmful gas that's being extracted from the planet's core, and it's effect on the public -- all of that came together in a story which, while perhaps unoriginal, was more ambitious than your average haunted house or roller coaster.

"It's not like we've ripped up the story and started again," Reveley explains. "A lot has been said about Derren's input on the first version. You know, this was his story, it was always his story. I know for some people it wasn't necessarily what they were expecting, but then that's what Derren is about! Surprising people. This new content, is still absolutely part of that original world that he wanted to create."

The focus instead was always on the fear factor. Rise of the Demon was a chance for the team to take a second crack at VR horror. An experience that's more than a video game, that's more than a movie, and more than a piece of immersive theatre. "There are some horror film nuts out there that have probably seen everything you could possibly imagine," Reveley says. "But by going a bit darker, I think we're going to expand the range of people who are genuinely scared of this thing."

The reliability problem

Figment's second challenge was to improve the attraction's reliability. A cursory glance online reveals a deluge of reports from people who were unable to try the ride, because it was closed for large portions of the day, or found it to be "a bit buggy" and inconsistent. All rollercoasters are prone to the odd closure, but it seems the Ghost Train was particularly temperamental. No wonder, given how unique the ride's construction is. The VR, the physical illusion that takes you out of a warehouse and onto a subway platform -- there's a lot of ways for it to go wrong.

"It's a massive, magical illusion," Reveley said. "It's a piece of stage magic theatre. But to pull it off, the infrastructure stuff around it is monumentally ambitious -- forget the VR, just the rest of it, is just incredible. And what is required to make that system work is world class engineering and enormously complex systems. And that's without the VR."

Figment knew it could do more, however. The company has expanded its monitoring system so staff have "really clear signals" of what's happening inside the headsets. Reveley has confirmed that the ride involves more than one train car, and almost 200 HTC Vives in total. "We've built this complex system which allows us to monitor really carefully what each headset is doing. Where it is, where it thinks it is on the train, and the virtual train. And all of those systems...I think most people don't appreciate the work that goes into delivering that."

My experiences were mixed. On my first run-through, the ride worked perfectly, but second time around there were clearly some problems. My group was stopped just inside the warehouse, and the staff, pretending to be train operators from the Victorian era, had to fill time for an agonizing 15 minutes. I'm not sure exactly what went wrong, but the whole ordeal didn't fill me with much confidence.

Future updates

VR is only a part of what's changed for Rise of the Demon. The ride has an entirely new physical space -- though again I've been sworn to secrecy, so I'll refrain from sharing the details. Combined, it's a sizeable update to the Ghost Train, and one that is certainly scarier. I still think it could be improved by finessing certain scenes or creating entirely new ones. Just imagine a ride that updates every few months with a new perspective on the outbreak. A different train car, showing how different citizens were first exposed to the demons.

"We would always want to be true to the core story," Reveley said. "But I still think, like any film or TV IP, you can explore lots of different angles with it. There is more than one superhero story, and more than one movie about the same superhero -- there are lots of stories you can tell in the same world. So there is huge scope."

The team is up for further updates, but understand the decision is probably out of its control. While updating scenes in virtual reality is cheaper than a rollercoaster refurb, it's still expensive. The response from the public, and Thorpe Park's perception of the ride will ultimately dictate whether it receives further funding. Has Rise of the Demon done enough to address people's complaints? Is it the reason visitors are frequenting Thorpe Park? These are the sorts of conversations that will inevitably surface at board room meetings.

"Obviously I'm biased, but I wish all media attractions were being updated regularly, because it does give people a fresh impetus to go back to a park and have a look at stuff," Reveley says.

There's a counterargument though. Some rides are rarely updated because they're so beloved by fans. People will travel halfway across the world to experience their favorite attraction or one that is world renowned. Equally, there are those who rarely visit theme parks, and risk missing a version entirely. Ultimately, it depends on the theme park and the attraction -- some feel more timeless, while others clearly benefit from faster refreshes.

As for the Ghost Train, well, Reveley has some ideas for where the ride could go next. "You step through a Victorian train carriage and maybe you're not in England any more. Who knows? There are all sorts of things we could do."