Eccentric illusionist Derren Brown is known for his dark yet entertaining mind games. Convincing people to push someone else off a building. Making others believe that the human race has been lost to a zombie apocalypse. Tricking hapless poor souls on their way to work into feeling like they'd actually really like to rob a bank.
So you can imagine why I felt just a little bit anxious about being one of the first people to take a ride on his new Ghost Train. I was scared. I was concerned for my sanity. But I was also excited to see what Derren might be capable of when armed with VR and a dizzying budget from Merlin.
The Ghost Train officially launches to the public today for £27.99 a ticket, but that doesn't mean it hasn't already drummed up a significant amount of press and piqued the interest of Derren Brown and theme park fans alike for all of the right — and some of the wrong — reasons.
For starters, the master mind manipulator has put his seal of approval on it, allegedly playing a key role in the development and build every step of the way. There's a huge restriction list that's caused a stir, new VR devices play a prominent role and it's billed as "the first multi-sensory theme park experience". Oh and it's also been delayed by months due to "creative" reasons, which may have disappointed some fans, but seems to have added to the pre-hype nicely. Almost as if it was planned.
When you first arrive at the ride the whole experience continues to build on this sense of anticipation and forboding. From the moment you step into the queue to the moment you get into (onto?) the Ghost Train itself. When you do, it's impressive. And, crucially, nothing like any of the other rides at Thorpe Park. You're taken into a huge warehouse where a train carriage done up like it's from the Victorian era is suspended in the middle — or at least appears to be.
Step inside and suddenly you're on a modern-day tube and greeted by HTC Vive headsets. Immediately it felt totally different to any other theme park experience. Although it may seem insignificant, actually being able to choose a seat and put the headset on yourself immediately switched the ride from being a passive experience to a much more active and real one.
Although this wasn't without its teething problems. Ensuring the device was on properly yourself, the headphones around your ears, the scene not blurry in front of you, took a bit of time. There's clearly a catch 22 here between wanting to build tension, get people moving quickly and not lose any of the creepy momentum and wanting to ensure everyone can actually take part and see and hear everything in the way they're supposed to.
But once on, the Vive really delivers and the environments dreamed up by Derren Brown and 3D production company Figment fully take advantage of its high-spec tech, convincing your senses that you're in a terrifying dystopia rather than in a warehouse surrounded by teens Snapchatting their water flume rides.
Real enough to shock
I won't give too much away about the Ghost Train, it's one of those that lends itself to the art of surprise. But I will say the narrative felt a little haphazard at times, moving between stories and eras. My issues with that are probably because I was looking for everything to make sense on what is essentially a theme park ride designed to assault the senses — not tie everything up neatly in a bow. Really this is more a 'look how cool and terrifying and immersive VR is!' exercise. And that worked.
VR certainly makes the ride. And Thorpe Park's bold marketing claims that this will redefine the ghost train definitely ring true. But for me what stood out the most was the way VR was used to make you seem like you're suddenly on your own. Brown wanted it to be a personal experience, rather than some of the bits designed to shock and scare.
And when it comes to being scared, you're primed from the start. There's a huge restriction list, which the Thorpe Park team seem particularly proud of, lots of pre-ride amble about fear and live actors are enlisted to make you feel more on edge. What I found interesting was that the VR felt real enough to shock me and create that extremely convincing sense of unease that I was on my own — not crammed into a makeshift tube with 50 others.
But at times it didn't feel real enough to make me really scared or suspend my disbelief. Put that down to the fact I've tried a lot of VR, I watch a lot of messed up movies or there's something deeper here that VR can shock, it can make you feel like you're on your own and it can be a lot of fun, but can it actually terrify you? It'll be interesting to see what others thought.
Where the ride may lack in the genuine scares department, it certainly makes up for in both ambition and effort.
What makes this stand out from the white-knuckle VR rides at Alton Towers and Six Flags, is it combines VR with live action, a ghost house style experience and, well, a lot of other stuff I'll keep under wraps, in order to bring you ten to fifteen minutes of scares rather than just a minute or so. And I think this is a space where the possibilities for truly brilliant VR applications become limitless.
Not so psychological
Because as much as virtual reality is perpetually touted as a game changer for, well, games, those pioneering the use of VR for live entertainment could draw in the biggest crowds. I mean transporting you into a fully immersive story that feels more active, real and exciting than anything you've ever experienced before.
If you've seen your fair share of horror movies, you've tried VR before and have taken part in some live action at an event like Secret Cinema, you're not going to be blown away or left feeling psychologically ravaged by Thorpe Park's latest addition.
But despite that, it's a great example of how tech and more immersive tactics can be used to make the rickety, tired idea of a ghost train much more appealing for the smartphone generation. It has all the hallmarks for success, shiny new tech, convincing live action, a story that's exciting and very different for a ride like this and creepy Derren Brown lurking in the background with the threat of turning your brain to mush.
And on that note don't worry, a lot of the psychological mind trick pre-amble was clearly just to get people excited. Although if you see me on the news tonight robbing a bank, pushing people into traffic or trying to escape from an army of the undead, then you know who to blame.