No one knows how to make a good movie in VR.
That’s an odd sentence, because no one knows how to a symphony in a painting either. But the idea of using virtual reality to tell stories is attractive. But, again, no one knows how to do it.
“As I work in film, so much has been done,” director Jon Favreau said in a blog post about Gnomes and Goblins, his upcoming VR project with Wevr and Reality One. “There are technological breakthroughs but there is less and less up in the air. You’re really writing a song in the same format that has been going on for at least a hundred years.”
Favreau worked with animation director Andy Jones on The Jungle Book, and Jones had also worked on Wevr’s theBlu: Whale Encounter. Favreau was interested in VR, so he tagged along when Jones visited Wevr.
“He called me the next morning and said he had woken up at 4 a.m. and started drawing images of these characters that he wanted to explore in VR,” Jones said. “He basically had the concept for this experience at that time.”
But how do you tell a story in VR?
“What’s interesting about VR is that, although I really don’t know where it’s going or if it’s going to catch on in a significant way culturally, I do know that there is a lot of unexplored territory and a lot of fun things as a storyteller for me to experiment with,” Favreau explained. “It’s exciting to have so much fresh snow that nobody has walked through yet. There’s been no medium that I’ve felt that way since I’ve come into the business, where it feels like you can really be a pioneer.”
Favreau and Wevr began work on the project around June of last year, and the preview for what will ultimately be a for-pay experience is live on Steam right now, to be played on the HTC Vive. Favreau described the preview as a “pink taster’s spoon” for the world.
“It’s not a traditional interactive flatscreen game, it’s not a movie, it’s VR,” Max Geiger, the senior producer for interactive projects at Wevr told Polygon. “So how can we make the best VR experience?”
Favreau has extensive experience directing films like Iron Man and The Jungle Book that use technology extensively while retaining their humanity, but it’s less well-known that he’s a fan of video games as well. “He could school us all in Overwatch,” Geiger said.
“I think having that film background and that traditional animation background helped me bridge a lot of that dialog with [Favreau],” Jake Rowell, the creative director of Gnomes and Goblins, told Polygon. Rowell has worked on the Call of Duty and Final Fantasy franchises, as well as films like Superman Returns and Beowulf.
So how is it?
The small preview available for Gnomes and Goblins avoids the dreaded Swayze Effect that can make the player feel like a ghost in narrative VR by placing the player directly into the story.
You find yourself in a magical forest, and you can make friends with a small, wide-eyed goblin by offering the character acorns you find around the environment. Ultimately the goblin will introduce you to a magical object that leads to a thankfully brief perspective change which allows you to further explore the world.
It’s an amazing way to spend a few minutes, and like any good preview you’re left hoping for more. Every detail of the world drives home the idea that you’re someplace magical, and the standard rules of reality may not apply. You hear and see flashes of the goblin before you meet them for the first time. The experience adjusts itself in certain ways to account for the size of your play space as well as your height. You’re encouraged to walk around to see everything there is to see.
“Layout is everything, even in VR space, because you’re basically stage designing,” Rowell explained. “It’s a lot like doing a play or a musical. You have to think about your stage in room-scale, and how to best utilize that space.”
You’re even encouraged to place your head through physical objects like trees to explore the environments inside. There is a subtle but effective glimmery light effect that happens when you move your head through an object. It’s another reminder that this world is magical and worth exploring.
“There’s no wrong way to play it, but there are certain rules in our world,” Rowell explained.
The short experience is filled with tiny hints about what to do and details to enjoy, rewarding multiple playthroughs. But it’s not just a passive story, your actions do matter, and the act of encountering the goblin on his home turf feels powerful.
This is the sort of thing Wevr excels at; the Whale Encounter experience doesn’t have a story, but the staging of the scene and the way the whale enters and seems to see the player feels profound. That emotional response to meeting these characters in VR can’t be replicated in description or in images or by watching a video. You have to be inside VR to feel it for yourself.
I asked if the point was just to evoke those emotions and tones rather than to tell a specific story.
“The answer is yes,” Rowell said, laughing. “There is a larger world and there is a larger story, there is much more around the interactions for the various species that live in this world. We can’t talk too much about it for the obvious reasons, this is a preview, but Jon [Favreau] has a pretty expansive view of what the world is and what kind of characters you’re going to be interacting with.”
There’s more Gnomes and Goblins coming, with content being added on an ongoing basis. It’s likely the next stage of the project won’t be free, however.
“We sent out a preview for free to get people excited about what this project could be,” Rowell told Polygon. “Our hope is the next installment is one that’s larger, with a bigger world and that’s worth the dollar amount that’s charged for it.”
Narrative VR is still in its infancy, and its likely that the best experiences will be created by teams with a variety of backgrounds and influences. The preview for Gnomes and Goblins may be short, but it’s an impressive step in the right direction.