It hasn’t taken amusement parks long to catch on to the potential of VR roller coasters and rides. The UK’s Alton Towers has its own VR coaster while Six Flags is rebranding its Superman rides across the globe with VR headsets and others have added virtual sci-fi and fantasy experiences to long-running attractions. It’s a cheap and easy way to dress up something old in something new and draw in crowds by offering them the chance to experience a technology they’ve been hearing so much about but probably don’t want to spend untold hundreds experiencing.
The UK’s Thorpe Park, however, hasn’t dressed anything up for its VR attraction; it’s built something brand new.
That would be Derren Brown’s Ghost Train, a thirteen minute experience that’s officially endorsed by the popular British illusionist. The park has suspended a London tube car, partly rebuilt as a Victorian-era carriage, in mid-air, housing 53 riders that will slip on an HTC Vive each. What follows is a cute, if underwhelming, VR experience that left something to be desired given the talent involved.
The Ghost Train spends a lot of time building atmosphere as you queue for the ride. Park staff will get you to press your face against glass to take a gruesome photo, a series of flashing lights will pretend to give you an eye scan, and then actors will do their best to get you in the mood with hyperbolic warnings always underlined with the statement that, whatever happens, you’ll be safe. I’ll admit to needing that reassurance somewhat; I don’t cope well with horror of any kind, let alone in VR, and I’m sure many in the queue were the same.
After a group of passengers have been gathered you’re led inside to hear some words from Brown himself. He appears, projected onto a glass wall, giving an admirable monologue on the nature of fear, doing his best to get you nervous. What he doesn’t do is really tell you what’s about to happen.
And so you’re led onto the train and packed together, a bunch of Vives ready to be put on. It’s a surreal experience to pull on a VR headset and find yourself in pretty much the same environment, albeit with everyone else around you suddenly vanishing.
Now, Mr. Brown requested that I keep much of the ride a secret for those that have yet to try it, and I think it’s only fair that I do my best to adhere to that request. With that said, I don’t feel that’s a very hard rule to stick to when much of the ride is relatively uneventful and scare-free. The VR portion is split into two sections, the first of which simply has you sitting on a dark tube train with pre-recorded, live-action characters talking to you.
What’s most impressive here is how the physical carriage tilts and sways as you move, which realistically replicates a real tube journey (this is coming from someone that practically lives in London). All of the various knocks and bangs you’ll see within the headset are also solidly replicated in the real world, providing a welcome layer of unpredictability.
The live-action characters, however, don’t gel well with the virtual environment, and feel rather flimsy. Even the CG elements were visually basic, sadly resembling the sort of cobbled together branded VR experience we’ve seen hashed out time and again over the past few years. For experiences that are meant to come and go as they advertise a product, that’s forgivable. For a permanent fixture at one of the UK’s top attractions? I expected better.
Granted this is coming from someone with plenty of VR experience and other passenger’s shrieked right the way through, but there’s an air of pantomime about the entire production that kept me from ever becoming truly immersed in it. Of course you can’t make this too scary, but when you’re substituting something grabbing you in the virtual world with staff you’ve already met quickly darting up and down the carriage and quickly snapping at your ankles with their hands, you end up laughing more than screaming. It comes off as rather lame, to be blunt.
The second portion of the experience, in which things get a little more apocalyptic, is better overall, though still lacking punch. There’s a view of a London street to take in, but it looks compressed and doesn’t stretch out like it should. You’ll also meet some monsters that take swipes at you – the one genuinely engaging sequence I experienced – though, again, their muddy textures make them difficult to really fear.
I was also able to break the experience a couple of times without even trying. When I looked over my shoulder – which isn’t ever actually required – I lost tracking for about 5 seconds and the screen stuck in place. I was also randomly transported back to the Vive’s home screen at one point before it disappeared once more. I can’t really fault the production for the notorious unpredictability of VR tech, though maybe it’s a sign that this type of ride could have waited for more dependable hardware.
Obviously, you can’t make this ride too scary, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the Ghost Train hadn’t even troubled me, a man that often has to hold his breath, cover his ears and close his eyes when rewatching Aliens. After spending such a long time building up the experience I was left wishing it had made me laugh less and got my heart racing ever so slightly.
At least it did bring that smile to my face, though. There were glimpses of fun within the experience – ironically the best moment takes place in between the two VR segments – which ultimately gave the whole piece an amusing tone. It was cute, for lack of a better term, and it made me smile. That’s better than nothing.
The important thing about the Ghost Train, however, is that it can be improved upon pretty easily. If the park were to ramp up the production values of the VR experience and make it a little more convincing – perhaps replace staff touching you with pressurized air jets? – then I could see this being worth the lengthy queue.
As it stands, though, this is one ghost train that’s easy to forget.