Making a winner with Mental Samurai’s gameshow design

Lights, camera, robot, action! Mental Samurai scores across the board with set design

Imagine if all there was to quizshows was a blank screen, a voice reading out trivia questions, and you had to guess the answers at home. Then, after a long and tedious minute of nothing, the TV would give you the answer. It would be like the worst test day ever at a school for particularly dim children.

But bang on a shiny floor, spotlights to sweat under, colourful light-up panels, a charismatic host in a glitzy suit, bells and whistles and buzzers, smart contestants to dazzle and confuse – and in the case of M-Net’s (DStv 101) Sunday-night game Mental Samurai, a giant pod on a robot arm for those contestant to sit in and be tossed about like a salad while they try to remember the answers or figure things out – and we are Entertained, capital E.

Setting the stage

Gameshow and quizshow set design is a speciality in itself. There are definite similarities: these days, the floor is dark and shiny, as is the background. In fact, high-gloss finish flooring for gameshows is manufactured specially for the industry. The general feel is of a razzle dazzle stage show with light-up elements. But it’s not just that way to look fancy and expensive (although that helps).

Black backgrounds allow those lights and colours to really shine and stand out and provide no unwanted distraction, whereas a white background tends to drain light and colour, removing their impact. The set's biggest function is to showcase lighting. Dramatic and changeable lighting is an essential element in gameshows, which often go for softer, brighter lighting during the low-tension, low-stakes early portion of the game, to harsh reds and strobing lights that highlight errors, or raise the stakes and flood contestants and viewers with distracting adrenaline in the final game rounds. We all know that red light is a danger warning, so being surrounded by it shuts down thinking and gets you sweating.

The contrast to the daytime talk show kind of studio look is clear when you compare talkshow Ellen (the studio version, not the lockdown, at-home version) to Ellen’s Game of Games. The studio lights in her normally light and airy stage give way to a dark background, elements of the set light up in different colours for that funhouse feel, and giant objects are incorporated to add to the out of this world feeling.

Giant light-up screens everywhere are also useful because they’re both completely flexible as to what can be displayed on them, and then for viewers at home, big enough to be read and seen clearly even on a small TV screen without interrupting the flow of the game.

Ava: a “gimmick” with a purpose

All gameshows – quiz shows in particular – include gimmicks that add an element of frustration for the viewer. Usually that’s a gameshow host who asks things like, “Is that really your answer?” Or it could be a buzzer that we as viewers can’t slam when we know the answer. When a show is making you want to reach into the screen and seize control, it’s winning. That frustration provokes your direct engagement with what you’re seeing – no sitting back and scoffing or napping off for you. In Mental Samurai, Ava is the frustration tool.

Ava is based on a versatile German manufactured robot arm used on production lines, but also in theme parks around the world. The arm portion can move at speeds of 6 feet per second (about 6.5 km/h, which is a brisk walking speed – the walker is determined, not angry). And in combination with the pod, it can rotate contestants a full 360 degrees. Ava’s speed is a huge factor in the show’s drama, because in the first round, the contestants have a set amount of time (5 minutes) to answer their 12 questions, and Ava must physically move them from category to category as the contestant steers. What might seem like a decent speed at the start of a round will have you bouncing on your chair in frustration at the end when they have little time left and Ava is just puttering them along getting the contestant there. She might look like a gimmick, but Ava knows what she’s doing, and she is evil!

While Ava is frustrating to viewers, in person she really unsettles the contestants. “You’re in a rollercoaster ride that’s four stories high. They buckle your waist and legs. Some people got so nauseous that we set up a safe word in the green room. If we shouted ‘papaya,’ the arm would stop,” reveals contestant Rosalind Paul, who adds that she found her first sight of Ava “intimidating”. Chris Yeh, one of the first contestants to take a ride on Ava, says, “It makes you feel like you're an astronaut or in one those centrifugal force things. And the idea is they're adding to the pressure. They're making it more of a challenge.”

Just add people

Rosalind and Chris themselves were final, vital components of Mental Samurai. “Play-along is key, and rooting value is also critical. You have to be able to root for someone to win. The contestant is the audience’s way into the game,” says Game Show Network’s Amy Introcaso-Davis. That’s why Mental Samurai gives contestants’ back stories along with photographs before jerking them around with Ava. The more you feel for them, the more you identify with them, the more you’ll be in the pod with them, along for the ride.

“We found fantastic people,” says Mental Samurai host and producer Rob Lowe. “They’re all really interesting and unbelievably smart. I talked to people that trained by riding rollercoasters while being quizzed by their family.”

Scott Manville, former Development Executive for Merv Griffin Entertainment (makers of the word famous Jeopardy Quiz show) writes, “It’s about story, and moments – people experiencing choices and ultimatums that drive emotions on a personal level. A contestant facing an ultimatum always creates drama. A prize that is personalised brings more emotion than cash. A question that hits on a personal subject or issue evokes more emotion than unrelated trivia. Contestants cast for irony may deliver more amusement than contestants cast for their knowledge.” Scott adds, “Moments of drama always teeter on a choice the contestant must make, and not always just on getting the right answer. From a viewer's perspective, there is nothing more fun than knowing the answer that could win you $500,000 while watching the contestant see-saw between the right answer and the wrong answer. Viewer involvement keeps the channel from being changed.”

Contestant Chris Yeh reveals of Mental Samurai’s casting process (which was really extensive), “There's a giant casting department that does all these things. And there's people who just cast people for gameshows. The whole point is, they want to build a story around the person like they do with the Olympics so that people care whether they succeed or not. And so they start off with biographical questions and then they proceed to basically use flashcards to simulate the game and see how well you do. I think they said, ‘We love your energy. It's coming through very strongly to the screen. That's fantastic. We like your story.’ Probably the part I struggle the most with, was they said, ‘Hey, you know, talk to us about adversity. Talk to us about the challenges that you've overcome.’ And I tell people, ‘Listen, I'm a very lucky guy. A lot of great things have happened to me in life. I don't know if there's that much adversity that I can really complain about.’ So that was probably the part I struggled the most with.”

Gameshows to enjoy in August

  • Watch Mental Samurai S1 on Sundays on M-Net (DStv 101) at 17:00 or on Catch Up
  • Watch Ellen’s Game of Games S3 on Saturdays on M-Net (DStv 101) at 19:00 or on Catch Up
  • Watch Musiekpaniek S1 from Friday, 7 August on VIA (DStv 147) at 20:30
  • Watch Match Game S4 from Friday, 21 August on Comedy Central (DStv 122) at 21:30
  • Watch Tipping Point S5 from Monday, 24 August on BBC Brit (DStv 120) at 18:00

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