June 25th, 2019 | by Mathieu Gayet

“What matters is the relationship with the character” – Pete Billington (WOLVES IN THE WALLS)

It’s not only one of the most selected VR films in festivals this year (so far Tribeca, Annecy, New Images…), but WOLVES IN THE WALLS first segment was also well distributed in 2018. Now we are able to discover the full version of its chapter 1 (IT’S ALL OVER), it’s definitely time to sit and discuss at Annecy (link) with its creator Pete Billington from Fable Studio, about interactive storytelling, virtual beings and more.

On the origins of WOLVES IN THE WALLS...

Pete Billington - Basically the project started at Oculus Story Studio right when we were finishing HENRY. While working on it, there was a brief moment of eye contact with the main character, which was sort of the first time we had done interactivity and it could work. It was very powerful, and simple to see a story could come to life. And it got us very excited about what it meant to be with the character. So, that was one piece of inspiration.

P. B. - The second was we knew that touch controllers were coming. We had one of the first pair ever and we actually had to split them apart. I took one, and the other one went to the guy who wrote QUILL. We experimented what it meant to have your hands ‘really’ in VR, how we could tell a story with it. This makes a difference with how you would think about making a film, or a game. It feels like it was a long time ago now!


P. B. - And I went to Facebook headquarters to see a very early version of the demo called TOY BOX. It is just a very simple person picked up a virtual cube, handed it to me. I took it. And then I sat in my car for 30 minutes thinking about it. That could have been any character, that cube could have been any objects: it was an amazing feeling! So, we started from there. We also knew we wanted to combine people from games and people from film, to see what would happen if we collided them together.

P. B. - We hired a lot of game designers and started playing with UNREAL engine, touch controllers. This was when we found the Neil Gaiman property and the project became the adaptation of a children's book by Neil Gaiman. All the right pieces were in the story: a little girl, spooky sounds (it was great working with sound), being kind of a detective story. We thought searching for things was a good point for interactions.

… and the process to get it interactive

P. B. - We had this conflict: game people and film people who we were all friends but were thinking very differently. The first ones were thinking dialogues, the second ones always about story narrative. At some point we stalled. We couldn't make progress because we were just believing too strongly in our own way of doing things. So we started building prototypes to see where were our mistakes, we learned a lot trying and failing, but also combining many creative worlds to find the right way.

P. B. - The secret to interactivity and virtual reality is that objects tell stories. So you can pick up an object and look at the scratches on it or its surface quality, where it's been and what you know about it. You can place emotional value in that. And we had Lucy.

P. B. - Some objects are very important to her. She is very attached to her pig puppet camera that her grandmother gave her. And if you picked up the puppet we could write an algorithm to interact with your choice, so she's going to look at it more intensely. If you mistreat it, she'll be sad or angry and will ask it back. She can tell you things about it. So an object has emotional value for you and her.

P. B. - But here’s the thing. She will tell you during the experience that her grandmother died yesterday and it’s hard to care about it. Because you have this amazing thing to play with, and you’re focused on the moment.. So we got really scared. The more interactivity you create, the less you care about the story. We understood by accident that it's not about how cool things are, but how you can help the story to move forward.

P. B. - So every decision that we made interactively had to be at the service of connecting you to her or to helping her on request and support the story, at the service of characters connection most importantly. Every piece of interaction is designed in a way that is natural and intuitive: you don't ever think about it. Like things you do in life everyday without thinking about them: turning on the lights, brushing your teeth, moving around an object that's in your way, etc. And specifically with the idea that if it needs eye contact, there's a right or wrong choice to make.

Cinema, videogames and the human part of it

P. B. - The fact is we had games & film perspectives. And then arrived immersive theatre which we both loved and opened new doors. We realized that intimacy and closeness were happening and immersive theater gave us clues to make choices but the story will continue regardless of the choices you were making. It felt like you part of it, of the story and that your choices mattered. That felt impossible to replica for us, because in immersive theater there is a human part of it where you can improvise and adapt. But the more we studied and the more we tried it, and we realized that humans are actually quite predictable. If you give them enough things to do, you can direct them.

P. B. - It's like live action pieces: you're not giving up anything as a director by giving the audience a choice. As long as you are providing them with a path that feels natural, they will probably make choices that you intended them to do. It's not actually giving up power to create a bigger place for them to play. If they don't make choices that you like, you keep supporting them, sending them the right direction in order to create emotions and hope.

The connection to the character

P. B. - This is the next evolution in my mind. When we talk to someone who's experienced WOLVES IN THE WALL, they want to go back there. Most people that come out of it don't talk about virtual reality. They talk about feeling the story, their friendship to this little girl, childhood connections. So I started thinking about that... It’s like knowing about the world of GAME OF THRONES after sharing 80 minutes with a character, or 8 hours, 20 hours over so many years. You start to feel things, to be attached and responsible for these characters. When they do something unexpected, it has an impact emotionally. And I think it's because it feels very personal to us.

P. B. - It’s interesting to think about a character that could remember what you've done and said. This is where the story can start to adapt. In our case, it’s the kind of problems we like to solve.

P. B. - It’s the way DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS approach this question. We need to disconnect narrative from characters. You can create a character that is an embodiment of you, and you have adventures that you go with other groups of characters together. I see a future where we will disconnect narrative from these characters, who we have relationships with, and then we go on. Stimulate adventures where we can find interactivity, where we will learn something together in the context of the environment (or just listening to music all together). But what matters is the relationship with the character, that can drive the story.

P. B. - WOLVES IN THE WALL is a 40-minutes story. This is what we are working on. It’s not specifically a three-acts structure. During the all story, the more attached you feel about the character, the higher the stakes are. Because the emotional attachment is key all along. Ultimately our goal was always to make you feel so attached to Lucy that you would stand in between a wolf and her to protect her. If we accomplish our goal you feel responsible for this little girl.

P. B. - I think the next phase of that is to have very specific relationships for every time you experience the film. I want people to feel the story they’re in can only happen to them. I think that's why magic is so interesting. A magic trick is usually performed just for one single person and it feels special. It feels like only you were there to witness it. This is the most pleasure I get when creating a moment in VR. Where you know you're being fooled but you have no idea how. I don't want you to think about the illusion but about the possibility of it.


*** Spoilers ahead ***

P. B. - The next chapter of WOLVES IN THE WALL will continue the story of the family. They have been kicked out of their house and they need to get it back. Lucy must be the one to get it back for them. You and her together created this problem - maybe - and you feel responsible. In the last moment of IT’S ALL OVER she has to make a choice, between her pig puppet or you. And she saves you.

P. B. - That starts with you taking a picture and putting her on this path. With interactivity and choices, you are now responsible for the all incident. This is something in the story which I thought was important. You're the one actually responsible for putting her on her journey and therefore it's likely that you will help her. But outside of that, we are building an ongoing relationship with this character. Everything for me is around memory. And she remembers. The things that you've done, the things that you've written on the wall, the things that you drew together, etc.

P. B. - I've seen some things recently that make me believe this way about memory. One is there's a podcast called Radiolab recently listened to a episode on memory (link). This woman gets amnesia and she can only remember about 60 seconds of her life. And she keeps repeating the same thing. She behaves exactly the same way that Lucy behaves, . It’s like there's a human layer that is just a graph of notes with a memory function on top. It's what makes us human. I have a memory of you, and then I remember it. So the next time we'll meet I’ll remember things about you. That's the layer I want to build between the story and its characters, for the people

Innovations in storytelling… and magic

P. B. - When I talked about the triangle between game, film and immersive theatre, this is where we are today. I just know a little about artificial intelligence, Natural Language Processing, Computer Vision. We have now a prototype where you can play Tic-Tac-Toe with Lucy. She can say when you cheat. We've already got her abilities to understand a picture if you drew one. She can say the cat you drew is pretty. This is where magic happens because we use artificial intelligence for that kind of things..

P. B. - These are the tools that we are starting to learn about. We could bring them in our stories. But once we start combining A.I. and storytelling, we're gonna get stuck again. And we’ll have to go out and find solutions. Perhaps it could be psychology that could help us. Or cognitive science. I'm reading about how memory works. All those layers - magic, illusion or science - are here to help us to create effects and emotions. For everyone.

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