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VR Review: ‘Wolves in the Walls’

Fable Studio is having its coming-out at Sundance with “Wolves in the Walls,” a VR adaptation of the Neil Gaiman children’s book by the same name. And just like the book, the VR experience is mysterious and magical.

Gaiman’s children’s book, which was first released in 2003, is the story of Lucy, a little girl who sees and hears things no one else in her family seems to notice. And in typical Gaiman fashion, those things are not pink clouds and fluffy unicorns, but dark mysteries. Or, as the title already suggests, wolves, who seem to have taken refuge in the walls of Lucy’s home.

In the “Wolves in the Walls” VR experience, Lucy takes the viewer into that imaginary world, with the stroke of a pen: Lucy draws us as her imaginary friend, making is come to life line by line. That’s a clever little trick to answer the question most narrative VR still struggles with: Why are we there? Which role are we as viewers playing in the action?

Having answered that question, Lucy readily interacts with the viewer. Talks to us, looks at us, acknowledges our presence. Asks us to listen to the walls, which indeed seem to harbor all kinds of sounds. And hands us objects, including a working Polaroid camera.

The key to great narrative VR is to take viewers on a journey, engage them in the wilful suspension of disbelief. Wolves does so masterfully, for which that Polaroid camera is a great example. It’s a virtual object that you pick up with virtual hands, drawn by a virtual character.

And yet, you’ll immediately find yourself squinting with one eye, as to better look through the camera’s viewfinder. You’ll be delighted when it spits out a photo, which you’ll shake until the picture appears. However, the use of props is not gimmicky, but actually advances the story.

The same goes for interaction and acknowledgement of presence: Fable Studio put a lot of work into making Lucy believable as an interactive character. This included teaming up with New York’s immersive theater company Third Rail for choreography and motion capture, as well as a lot of smart use of light and other cues to set the scene, and direct the viewer’s attention.

The first episode of “Wolves in the Walls” VR, which was directed by Pete Billington and produced by Jessica Yaffa Shamash and is going to come to the Oculus Rift headset soon, runs about 9 minutes. Fable wants to release three episodes altogether, totaling around 30 minutes. And after you’ve seen the first one, you’ll hope that the next ones will be ready really, really soon. Because once Lucy has drawn you into her world, you won’t want to leave it.

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