Fable Studio’s long-awaited Wolves in the Walls carries the banner of Story Studio with its Sundance debut.
In May 2017, when Oculus shuttered Story Studio—the premium narrative VR house behind Emmy-winners Henry and Dear Angelica—many mourned the presumed loss of Wolves in the Walls, an adaptation of a children’s book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean.
Eight months later, Wolves in the Walls has emerged triumphant at Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier—instantly establishing itself as a source text in the lineage of interactive narrative.
In the VR experience, audiences join Lucy, a girl on a mission to prove that the noises she’s hearing in the walls are the eponymous ‘wolves’—but you’re not immediately thrown to them.
Though this is the breakout piece from Fable Studio, its team consists of ex-Oculus veterans, including Jessica Yaffa Shamash, Story Studio co-founder Edward Saatchi, and filmmaker Pete Billington, who also co-founded Fable. And the expertise is clear from the moment you enter into the experience, which ferries participants through a series of vignettes, including one where Lucy draws you into life with chalk—only to redraw you when she deems you to be a little too tall for her taste.
“Looking at the earliest versions of the script, we always had the concept of a ‘lobby’ or ‘threshold space,'” said Billington, who directed Wolves. “This is something that we love about good immersive theater pieces. You are brought from the world of the familiar into the created world slowly, given time to adapt the space, presented with the rules of engagement. It was refined over time, but we knew that this was likely going to be one of the first narrative VR pieces where Touch would be pervasive, and there needed to be some sort of subtle tutorialization.”
Without spoiling too much, in these and other early moments, we’re given space to acclimate to this world on our own terms. The minimalist approach grants the creators the ability to “direct” your experience without controlling it—something that is notoriously complicated for VR creators. This also works toward establishing the story’s most critical component: your relationship with its protagonist.
“We wanted the audience to feel like her friend,” Billington said. “That impacted the design choices, casting, and even the way in which we see the world she inhabits. We call it the ‘Emotional POV’ or ‘Emotional Lens’ of the character. You see this world the way that Lucy feels it. So at times the space may transform to reflect her emotional state.”
Since “you” are a creation of Lucy’s, any dissonance or ghost effect you might otherwise feel instantly evaporates—you are in this world on her terms. The changes she makes to it (and by proxy, you) allow for a magical and childlike fluidity. Anything can be at play in any moment, all anchored in our understanding of Lucy and her psychology. This rudder also grants Billington the license to showcase more overtly directorial flourishes (such as the introductory sequence); by focusing on crafting Lucy’s rich and imaginative interior life, participants experience an increased drive toward engagement as her sidekick without the running line of questions about what can be done and why.
“It is our attempt at solving for cinematography in VR,” Billington said. “There are a number of lessons from immersive theater as well: body posture, activation of space, open dialogue. From a technical perspective, Lucy has an interest system that controls how she engages the audience and remembers the things that you have done.”
But don’t let the seeming ease of the piece fool you: getting Lucy right was something that took no small share care and refinement.
“I think this is true of most creative mediums, but iteration is absolutely critical,” Billington said. “The more time we had to prototype and test ideas, the better Lucy became. It was tricky because she is composed of so many different disciplines, and it could be days before we saw the results of a particular concept. Ultimately we started live-rehearsing moments with our team in order to find the most compelling or intimate connection to her.”
The result of all this care during pre-production is that Wolves is able to strike incredible harmony it achieves between narrative and interactivity.
“This was why iteration was so important,” Billington said. “When we first started experimenting with Touch and narrative we thought that we should be focusing on object interaction. Objects can tell stories, they have secret lives that can give us exposition and backstory. But when we overloaded the audience with too much interaction, they lost the narrative thread. Every interactive moment in the experience is at the service of connecting you with Lucy.”
In service of that connection, midway through the piece, Lucy elicits your help in sleuthing the eponymous ‘wolves’ in the walls. She hands you a Polaroid camera, and you begin snapping photos all around the space to see if you can help reveal them. This interaction deepens your bond with Lucy and ignites your deductive impulses, driving you from viewing to participating.
“Once that connection is established, you actually care about what her goals are, and they become more interesting than the novelty of interaction. The same way you would treat your best friend. Most people feel that they interacted roughly 3-4 times throughout the piece, when in reality there is much, much more. We wanted those moments to be natural and intuitive and largely invisible to the audience.”
This piece is just the first chapter in a three-part series. Adapting it to a new format from a beloved children’s book brought along its share of joys and challenges.
“Adaptation is challenging because the source material is custom-fit to its medium. With Wolves, we had to constantly ask ourselves, ‘Why VR? What can we do with this story that can only be done in this new medium?'” Billington said. “Neil and Dave’s book is so rich with imagination, we felt like we could manifest some of their most abstract ideas, and let the audience be inside a storybook. It really helps when you start with such fertile ground. We have added quite a bit of character backstory and world-building into Wolves, and of course the audience plays a role that is not in the book, so that was a fun and challenging addition.”
Like many at Sundance, my first question for Billington and Saatchi was when I’d get to continue the story—I felt like I’d only just begun to scratch the surface of this world. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait until Sundance 2019 to catch the next chapters.
“Chapters 2 and 3 are in production and will be released later in 2018,” Billington said.
For more on Fable Studio and Wolves in the Walls, take a look at this post on the Oculus blog.