The Wolves in the Walls is a story told through VR that begins with a little girl drawing your eyes. Once your eyes have been drawn properly, you can see the world around you. That’s before she realizes you’re a bit on the tall side and draws your eyes lower so you’re on her level. Then she begins to explain why she’s scared. It doesn’t take long before you find out she has very good reasons to be afraid.
The short, created by Fable Studio is a big step up from Oculus Story Studios’ Henry, one of the early narrative experiences in VR.
“There was a moment that took us all back in Henry, where this little hedgehog makes eye contact with you,” Pete Billington, the director of Wolves in the Walls, told Polygon. “In VR, that was particularly powerful, because there was this character making a direct connection with you, and at the same time, we were getting really early prototypes of the Touch controllers.”
The Wolves in the Walls will debut at this weekend’s Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Faded Studio team rose from the ashes of Oculus Story Studios, which shut down in 2017.
Wolves in the Walls has been in development for years, and is based on the story by Neil Gaiman. It’s also a natural progression from Henry, since you become an actual character in the story. You move it forward by using the Touch controllers to interact with objects like a Polaroid camera and a looking glass. You’re no longer just an observer in the narrative — you’re a part of it.
You’re brought into the story, in fact, because a young girl named Lucy needs some backup as she deals with the sounds she hears in the walls. She first explains what’s going on, and why she needs your help to find proof that it’s actually happening. It’s an odd thing to ask, because you may actually just be her imaginary friend.
It’s the sort of existential question that may be ruined with an answer, so I asked Billington point blank whether your character exists.
“You’re meant to feel needed,” he said, which both explains a part of the story while remaining ambiguous. “The question of whether you’re real is actually kind of inherent to the piece itself.”
Wolves in the Walls is told across multiple parts, although I was only able to play the introduction, and Lucy is your window to the world of the story. You are connected to her, and you “see” things from her point of view.
“She creates you and brings you into her world,” Jessica Shamash, the producer of Wolves in the Walls, told me. “Do you really exist or are you just an extension of her?”
That loose connection to reality allowed the team to play with how and what you’re seeing in this reality. The room you’re in changes as Lucy tells you what she’s heard and how long those sounds have been going on. Those changes became an important part of how the story is told to the player.
“We call that an emotional point of view,” Billington explained. “One of the things we set out to solve is cinematography in VR, because we can’t change the lens, we can’t really control the camera, but we can control the space and the lighting — all these theatrical tricks to control your emotions. You see the world the way Lucy feels the world. If she wants to make you feel scared, she will change the space.”
What’s striking about the short is that it feels like a cohesive, seamless experience that interacts with you in ways you only notice after multiple viewings. The team spent a year prototyping the experience and trying to balance the level of interaction they wanted to include, while also making sure the story came through. They had a breakthrough when they started prototyping ideas not within the game, but by using a theater troupe.
“We spent a week or more with the Third Rail Project in New York, basically rapid prototyping with humans,” Billington said. “which was a big unlock for us ... I could stand in what we called the sacred circle, which is this six-foot interactive orbit and one of the Third Rail performers ... can prototype something in real time, and I can react to it and feel what the audience feels.”
Once the team knew what actions the players would attempt or what felt natural on the part of the player and how the game should react to them, it brought the performers in for motion capture. But the earliest versions of the short were tested more like a play than a game.
The first part of the story is available to try at Sundance right now ahead of its full-length debut, and I got to try it a few times before writing this story. Experiencing The Wolves in the Walls feels effortless, which underscores how much work went into finding new ways to show the emotions of these characters to the player.
“I’m really proud of how seamless this complex interactivity is, and how subtle it is but really how complex it is,” Shamash said. “That’s where you really bond with Lucy, because she feels like a tactile person in a way because of her body movement and how she engages with us, but really her system is so complex but it comes off so intuitive and real. Her complexity is disguised.”
When playing in VR, you don’t want your character to feel like a series of systems that work together to give you an illusion of life. You want to feel like you just spent 10 minutes trying to help a scared little girl. That’s what The Wolves in the Walls provides. I’m looking forward to playing the rest of the story.
I even found a clever way to figure out if I was a physical part of this world. When Lucy gave me the Polaroid camera to try to find evidence of the wolves, I turned it around to point at myself and snapped a picture. It took a moment or two of shaking the Polaroid for it to develop, but I was finally able to turn it around and look.
The answer was very satisfying.