It’s All Souls Sunday as I write this, nursing my post-Halloween hangover after having survived nearly two dozen different haunted houses during 2013’s extended spooky season. But the Halloween attraction that absorbed more of my time than any other received almost zero mainstream attention. While Disney has famously spent years and over a billion dollars developing RFID (radio frequency identification) computer systems to replace FastPass hotel keycards, Universal Orlando quietly leveraged similar technology on a shoestring budget to provide free entertainment for their most devoted guests. In the process, Legendary Truth: The Collective – an interactive “alternate reality” game that climaxed on the final evening of Halloween Horror Nights XXIII – revealed both the promises and pitfalls of this brave new world of theme park experiences.
The game began weeks before HHN started, as players signed up online for access to hhn23experience.com, a website filled with simple video games and secret documents revolving around Legendary Truth, a fictitious paranormal investigation organization originally introduced via a 2008 viral marketing campaign. Players were divided into eight teams (or “legions”) themed after last year’s roving bands of scareactors, and Frequent Fear season pass holders received RFID-enabled tags. Scanners were strategically placed at haunted house exits and in secret locations around the park, rewarding points to players for completing tasks like visiting all the mazes in alphabetical order or visiting the same one five times in a night.
Overall, I enjoyed the many hours I spent playing this year, and I deeply appreciate the efforts of T.J. Mannarino’s Art & Design team in bringing the game to life. My favorite aspect was the social side, as I made friends with fellow players I might never have otherwise encountered (shout-outs to April, Clare, Desiree, Sean and the rest of the Baccanoids!). And it accomplished the goal of keeping me coming back to HHN long after I’d learned the location of every boo-hole in the houses and memorized every punchline in the Bill & Ted show (which improved impressively by closing night, thanks to writer-director Jason Horne and his talented cast). As Legendary Truth continues into 2014 and beyond, there are some key areas where attention should be paid:
Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Like Disney’s notoriously buggy MyMagic+ scheme, Universal’s RFID implementation could use a sprinkling of pixie dust. Especially in early weeks, scanners often failed to register; after spending multiple hours trying to execute a complex task, it’s frustrating to fail on the last step (as I did more than once) because of a technical glitch. Worse, the crucial website was built in Adobe Flash, making it painfully slow at best, and at worst completely inaccessible on iDevices. Basic user-interface niceties (like touch-friendly scroll bars or a way to mute the monotonous music) are absent, as is any automated method for submitting error reports, leaving the already overworked Art & Design team to manually wade through player emails. (Big thanks to Coz Ramirez and company for fixing most of my missing badges.)
Priority one for next year should be a website rebuilt in HTML5, or better yet native iOS and Android apps for easier in-park usage – I’d happily pay a few bucks for one.
The narrative starts strong with a series of encoded emails involving a mysterious codex connected to famous thinkers like Leonardo DaVinci. But the in-park tasks frequently felt like Pavlovian fetch quests reminiscent of primitive adventure games, and increasingly seemed divorced from the elaborate backstory spun on the website. The theatrical highlight was an interactive “interrogation” of Capt. Lazy Bastard (portrayed with pipe-smoking, beer-swilling relish by A&D creative manager Rick Spencer), but I never connected his evasive answers to subsequent in-game events. By the finale event – which featured a cryptic announcement that the game continues beyond Halloween and free fortune cookies filled with further cryptograms – I felt like I was trapped in a mid-series season of Lost, swimming in exposition without dramatic action. The final revelation wasn’t exactly “drink more Ovaltine,” but I look forward to the plot moving forward as it enters its next phase.
Much like HHN itself, Legendary Truth was a victim of its own success, with more than 1,600 participants, double last year’s number. Gameplay was manageable during the initial weekends, but aggressive HHN discounts made October “off-peak” nights (when game events were conducted) as busy or busier than “peak” Saturdays, with 100-plus-minute waits by mid-evening. Under such conditions, tasks requiring large groups to visit all eight houses in an evening inadvertently incentivized exploitation of Guest Assistance Passes, which are intended for disabled visitors. More important, they kept players standing in queues when they could’ve been spending money. In 2014, give me more street-based games I can play while buying beer – which is what Halloween is really all about.