“Gnomes & Goblins” Created by Jon Favreau – a Preview
The impending release of Gnomes & Goblins Preview marks a significant moment in the continuing evolution of virtual reality. Created by world acclaimed film director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef, The Jungle Book) in conjunction with the Wevr team responsible for iconic undersea series theBlu, this immersive and highly interactive experience draws inspiration from the phenomenon of lucid dreaming to deliver on the long-held promise of a medium able to transport audiences into fantastical dreamlike worlds. This preview is merely an intriguing introduction to a much larger experience to come.
The whole thing began, appropriately enough, with an unexpected trip. Favreau was working with Academy Award winning animation director Andy Jones on the film The Jungle Book when Jones informed the director he was heading over to Wevr (Jones was the animation director of Wevr’s theBlu: Whale Encounter). Long fascinated by the potential of VR, Favreau asked Jones if he could tag along. “We drove over to Wevr and Jon tried theBlu on the HTC Vive,” Jones says. “He seemed surprised at how immersive it was. I think it really touched him. He called me the next morning and said he had woken up at 4 am and started drawing images of these characters that he wanted to explore in VR. He basically had the concept for this experience at that time.”
Favreau adds, “Presence was the most interesting phenomenon when I experienced it for that first time. Knowing that you are seeing something artificial and yet your brain is fooled into believing that it’s real. And that is unique to VR. Something that feels not so much like a game and not so much cinematic, but where you have the opportunity to explore the same feelings you get while lucid dreaming, it really lent itself to this world and its characters.”
Following an impromptu Saturday conversation between Wevr co-founder/CEO Neville Spiteri and Favreau, the project commenced with the momentum of creative mission. For his very first foray into VR the renowned director had decided to align himself with the visionary Wevr crew that had created theBlu including Andy Jones and creative director Jake Rowell (director of theBlu). “This project was one where I felt like there had to be a lot of room for exploration,’ Favreau explains. “It wasn’t one where I wanted to know where we were going when we started. So I wanted to work with a smaller company that has more of a lab feel rather than feeling like I was creating content for an established goal. You’re only as good as the people you are collaborating with and the whole team, although small, is a group of people that shared a singular vision and a commitment to breaking new ground and trying to discover things.”
Spiteri, who serves as executive producer on Gnomes & Goblins, believes that the team at Wevr has found a kindred spirit in Favreau. “I knew of Jon but I didn’t know him,” he says. “When he started talking about his storytelling sensibilities, I was really excited. I thought, this is like the Walt Disney of our time. Then he showed us a preview of The Jungle Book. He was talking about films and games and I’ve often framed VR as a new medium directly in the middle of these two and he resonated with that. Interactive storytelling is something I have been passionate about for a long time. And it started to click in my head – Jake who is the creator of the theBlu is a master of visual storytelling; Andy Jones is one of the best animators in the world; and Jon. This is a best in the world category team.”
What sets Gnomes & Goblins apart, even in this early preview form, is its beautifully impressionistic world and the relationship players can forge with the characters. The setting is simultaneously familiar and yet entirely fantastic. A storybook magic forest populated by creatures previously only imagined, all depicted in intense detail yet deliberately divergent from reality. “One of the key pillars in the project was creating an immersive, comfortable VR environment,” explains creative director Jake Rowell. “Jon wanted the goblins forest to be a familiar place, like something from a dream where your imagination is invited to experience the world without fear and discomfort. We spent a lot of time discussing the idea of lucid dreaming, enchanted moments, a storybook feel to things, and how can we capture these moments in VR. The scale of the forest, the leaves blowing just the right way with the right sound all to create the correct mood for the player. The physics are slightly stylized, you touch the grass and fireflies are released. It’s heightened sense of things, enough to where you feel like you’re in a dream. All of these things and many more were crucial to making this world that Jon envisioned for Gnomes & Goblins.”
Favreau adds, “We put a lot of effort in creating a mood and a feel to the world, having enough interesting details to where you would feel like you could explore endlessly. Even in this limited preview experience, I wanted it to be very rich. Where you felt like every time you went back into it you felt like you could find more.”
And while the world of Gnomes & Goblins is undeniably beautiful, there have been visually engaging environments in VR before (like the undersea world of theBlu) What truly distinguishes Gnomes & Goblins as a manifest step forward is the naturalistic and interactive relationship audiences are able to establish with characters which can only be described as artificial intelligence (AI)
“I think that building a relationship with an AI character is relatively new in VR,” says Andy Jones. “Artificial intelligence is one of the hardest nuts to crack in any capacity and I think we are taking huge steps with our goblin. We want him to be responsive to what people do. If you move too fast he gets nervous and if you’re nice he’s more at ease and moves closer, just like a real animal. AI is extremely difficult in gaming and in VR you can multiply that by ten. You’re so much more present in the VR experience, and your movements can be so much more unpredictable. You can run and jump and throw things and the AI has to react to all that and do it naturally. My hope is to make the creatures likable and fun and for them to be spontaneous and engage the player in a way where you feel like the character knows you and you guys understand each other. If we can achieve that, which is extremely difficult and ambitious, then I think we’ve won.”
Jake Rowell adds, “Just like with people or animals, the first level of connection with our character is the eyes. Whenever he’s in your space, he’s tracking your eyes and your hands. If you pick up an object, he sees it and it has meaning. Is it a gift or is it a threat? It’s what we called the dance. You move forward and he moves back. You move back and he moves forward. We wanted to create the beginning of a relationship to this character, the start of a personal attachment. And you have the foundation of that in this preview.”
It is a nuanced interaction that Neville Spiteri says makes Gnomes & Goblins an irrefutable turning point for VR. “What makes this so intriguing is that it really delivers on the promise of VR, he says.”You are somewhere else that is impossible to actually be, but yet you feel like it’s real. And then there is this possibility of having an emotional experience with a character that you’re interacting with and influencing. You are not just watching what is happening – it feels like you are relating to an actual living character, and that’s what is new here.”
This Gnomes & Goblins Preview is merely a tasting spoon of a full experience to come. We’re just getting started and we’re learning as we go. We wanted to share a first look publicly in order to hear from the community and learn from the feedback.
As we look ahead to building out the full scope of the experience, we are engaging Doug Church, a veteran game designer and interactive story pioneer, to flesh out the game systems and design the interactions and activities – increase player agency and the range of possibilities you will be able to experience in this expanded world. We are already down the path of designing the expanded Gnomes & Goblins universe.
Wevr has forged a partnership with Clint Kisker and Gigi Pritzker of Reality One, an immersive media company to co-produce and co-publish the full scope of Gnomes & Goblins. “This experience fits perfectly with Reality One’s objective of creating content with the world’s best storytellers,” says Clint Kisker. “Our relationship with both Jon Favreau and Wevr is important to us and we are incredibly proud of the world we have been able to create together.”
Gigi Pritzker adds, “What I have loved with Gnomes & Goblins has been the process of figuring out how to tell the story of these characters and how to let the audience really enter this world in an organic way, letting it all unfold around them. The technology is important and an integral piece because it’s virtual reality, but really what Jon put in the forefront, and what is most important to us at Reality One, is taking our audience into the creative story driven world of Gnomes & Goblins.
For all his great cinematic successes, Jon Favreau remains an explorer. His vast creative potential, though rooted in film, is not relegated to any single medium. In this particular instance, the extraordinary world and characters he imagined found an ideal conduit in the brave new horizons of virtual reality. We couldn’t be more pleased.
“As I work in film, so much has been done,” Favreau offers. “There are technological breakthroughs but there is less and less up in the air. You’re really writing a song in the same format that has been going on for at least a hundred years. And what’s interesting about VR is that, although I really don’t know where it’s going or if it’s going to catch on in a significant way culturally, I do know that there is a lot of unexplored territory and a lot of fun things as a storyteller for me to experiment with. It’s exciting to have so much fresh snow that nobody has walked through yet. There’s been no medium that I’ve felt that way since I’ve come into the business, where it feels like you can really be a pioneer.”