San Francisco-based immersive entertainment startup Fable is premiering the second part of “Wolves in the Walls,” a VR experience based on the Neil Gaiman children’s book by the same name, at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. “Wolves in the Walls: It’s All Over” effortlessly connects to the existing story, and immerses viewers in the world of an imaginative 8-year-old.
“Wolves in the Walls,” of which a first part premiered at Sundance in 2018, is the story of Lucy, an 8-year-old girl who is convinced that there are wolves living in the walls of her family home. She hears their noises, she fears their presence — but no one else in her family believes her.
That’s where we as the viewers of the VR experience come in. Literally drawn into existence by Lucy as an imaginary friend, we get to help Lucy scour her house for evidence. But while the first part of the story was still very much an adventurous treasure hunt, the new installment takes a darker turn. Scolded by her family, Lucy loses confidence and feels isolated and lonely — an emotional state that builds up to a breaking point when the wolves finally come out of the walls.
In the VR experience, these emotions are being represented through visual metaphors. Lucy’s mother towers over her and us as she tells her sternly that she doesn’t have time for her theories. Lucy’s father seems far removed, practicing his music out of reach in a giant concert hall, which upon closer inspection turns out to be the family home’s crowded laundry room. “We see the world like Lucy feels the world,” explained creative producer Jessica Shamash.
“Wolves in the Walls: It’s all Over” also continues to play with interactivity, which includes the manipulation of objects. At one point, viewers get to take a canning jar to listen to the sounds in the walls. In another instance, we help Lucy and her Mom to fill jars with jam — an overwhelming process that some involves strange, one-of-a-kind automated machinery. And then there is “Wolf Slayer,” the in-experience video game played by Lucy’s brother, which we get to play along with for a little while.
A screenshot of “Wolf Slayer” the retro mini game that’s part of “Wolves in the Walls: It’s all Over.”
“Wolves” parts 1 and 2 run a total of 20 minutes together, and Billington said that he was expecting part 3 to add another 20 minutes to the story. To make the piece interactive, the team had to produce an extra 20 minutes of material that viewers may or may not see, based on the choices they make during the story.
However, Billington was quick to emphasize that “Wolves” is not a multiple-choice adventure, and doesn’t have a branching narrative. “We call it a twigging narrative,” he joked, adding: “We see choice and interactivity slightly differently.” Shamash explained that the focus was on the main character of Lucy, and her decisions, as opposed to decisions that viewers may make for her. “This is her quest, her journey,” she said.
Fable emerged as an immersive media studio out of the remnants of the Oculus Story Studio, an in-house content arm at Facebook that produced award-winning VR experiences like “Henry” and “Dear Angelica.” The Story Studio team had already begun work on “Wolves in the Walls” when Facebook decided to close the unit, and shift to a model solely focused on funding outside productions, in early 2017.
Members of the team founded Fable to finish “Wolves,” and the scope of the project has since grown significantly: Not only did the original story effectively turn into a multi-part series that goes far beyond Gaiman’s original story, the fable team also began to expand its focus to create digital and autonomous characters. The idea: If Lucy can be your friend in this story, why couldn’t the same be true in other contexts, and even outside of VR?
Fable has kept its plans for the development of virtual beings vague, with co-founder and executive producer Edward Saatchi suggesting that the idea was to build characters that go beyond the sterile utility of an Alexa or an anonymous Google Assistant. “They are just like normal people,” Saatchi said about virtual beings.
Billington clarified these ideas a little more during a recent conversation with Variety, recalling that the company picked “we create moments” as a mission statement during its first offsite meeting after spinning out of Facebook.
Some of these moments may be stories, others may be just small interactions with virtual characters, he suggested. And going forward, the company may work with others to collaborate on characters and moments — something he likened to the way “Dungeons and Dragons” provided players with overarching narratives, while giving them enough freedom to make the characters and games their own.
Key to both those future plans and a story like “Wolves in the Walls: It’s all over” is the ability to create emotional connections with characters, argued Shamash. That’s because a virtual beings like Lucy, be it in stories or other contexts, becomes more believable when you feel for them. Said Shamash: “It should have its own soul.”