What if the fabric of reality were ripped out from beneath you? If you could no longer trust your senses to distinguish between fact and fiction? How would it feel to be alienated by the real? To be institutionalized? And what might it look like to then go on to find community through online games?
These are just some of the questions that the latest Oculus VR for Good project grapples with. Produced by Anagram in conjunction with Floréal Films, Goliath: Playing with Reality tells the true story of Jon, a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Through a deft combination of highly stylized low-poly animation, artful narration by Tilda Swinton, and the sense of immersion that only VR can deliver, Goliath explores the limits of reality, the weight of mental illness, and the supportive power of gaming communities. It recently debuted at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, and now, it’s available for free on the Oculus Quest Platform.
We sat down with Directors Barry Gene Murphy and May Abdalla to learn more.
What was the initial inspiration for Goliath? How, if at all, did the project change over time?
The original inspiration for Goliath was an observation a close friend made about his brother several years ago.
My friend noticed how, after being released from a psychiatric institution, he barely recognized his brother in his sluggish speech and countenance—the medication was affecting him so strongly. However, he once observed his brother playing online with his gaming frends and immediately recognized his old brother again: He was witty and full of life whenever he was online. I found this idea very compelling and in a sense a film began forming in my mind. I had ideas about combining live action and gaming graphics, as it was an interest of mine to make documentaries from an animation perspective. I loved animated films like A Is for Autism by Tim Webb and wanted to explore subjects like this artistically. I had experience as a CG animator and felt a piece about gaming would be a good platform to experiment with an apt use of CGI rather than conventional Pixar-style shorts which dominated in the film festivals I had been to.
Over time the project changed quite a lot in a visual and spatial sense as it was originally going to be a theatrical installation heavily based in volumetric photography, LiDAR scanning, and set design—an aesthetic that was promising to be demanding on the latest powerful graphic cards.
When Oculus came on board with Quest and a home release as the platform, we went down a mainly animated CGI route and scaled down our theatrical and visual ambitions. COVID also reinforced this with the world almost shutting down at the start of our production.
This is Anagram’s first experience for the Oculus Quest Platform. How did this project differ from your earlier work in VR?
We had made Make Noise for Oculus Go and so had an idea of the approach and workflows that were going to be required. From the start, we were impressed with the capabilities of Quest, and we focused our creative direction to be heavily focused in shader experimentation. Fortunately because of the subject matter, we could incorporate lo-fi game aesthetics into the palette with ease and worked with the intention that only the necessary would be present in any scene. Then through iteration we layered in more visual and audio elements as much as the tech and attentiveness of the user would allow.
Anagram is known for the theatrical and surprising installations of its work. How did you go about recreating that for an at-home experience?
We’ve made several pieces that take place within a set where every part of the ‘digital’ experience connects to its physical counterpart—like in The Collider, where you move through a machine which claims to be measuring the invisible material that flows between two people.
As much as we love to work with super specific environments, it’s also really fun creatively to write to precise universal locations. For example, our other project Messages to a Post Human Earth was made last year to work for any two people meeting in a park anywhere in the world. And there are some universal elements that you can write to. Similarly, there is the universality of being in a headset. A notable moment that we wanted to use is when you finish an experience and you take off your headset and emerge blinking into your ‘normal’ life. We wanted to use that transition within the story—and craft it into a beat in the piece so the tendrils of the narrative could extend beyond the headset. That was where the offboarding narrated by Tilda Swinton became really important.
From a writing perspective, we understood we had to place the user at the center of the experience and that onboarding and offboarding for a home environment would be crucial. We had wanted to play with the fourth wall using actors in the theatrical version. To replace that, we started experimenting with audio to give people a sense that something was happening in the space outside the headset. It was the moment where May jumped out of her skin at the audio which she had already edited that we figured we had something that was possibly going to work.
What was it like working with a subject diagnosed with schizophrenia? Did working during lockdown present any unique challenges?
The subject matter made it a series of very raw interviews. Everyone was nervous—us because we didn’t want it to be traumatic and Jon because he hadn’t shared his experience very much previously. We took time to uncover the moments and revisited over the course of production, delving deeper as trust was established.
Access became quite difficult. Our first few interviews were outside of lockdown, but all subsequent ones had to be done remotely. And the pressure to capture quality sound became a challenge along with the intimacy of sharing the same space for difficult questions. Jon is naturally used to Discord and talking online, so it turned out well.
In other ways, lockdown changed so much. I was apprehensive of working remotely because of the nuance that can get lost when creative ideas can only be expressed through email and productivity tools. Usually we love to play spatially together in the same place, and so shifting gears was hard earlier on in production. I think everyone suddenly found themselves dealing with a lot more typing and conversation threads than they would have liked. It took us a few cycles to find a process that was as efficient as everyone just being in the same room.
Mental health is an incredibly nuanced topic. What was your research process like?
To begin, we had a lot of conversations with different experts and listened a lot to people with lived experience. At the research stage, we partnered with the Department of Psychiatry at UCL and worked with Dr. Joseph Hayes, a researcher and practicing psychiatrist and also ran workshops with people who had experience of psychosis facilitated by the mental health charity Mind. There is a politics to how the condition known as ‘schizophrenia’ is used and discussed that we wanted to be fully aware of. There is a lot of contention around the definition that is used by DMS5—the official ‘textbook of mental health disorders.’ It has to be remembered that it was only in 1978 that they removed homosexuality as a ‘disorder’ from this book. You have a medical handbook which is intrinsically linked to cultural norms and perceptions. Within the community of people who have been categorized with this condition, there is a spectrum of people who feel very differently about what is the right language to use. Schizophrenia is so highly stigmatized—with its links to violence in movies, studies show that even being given the diagnosis is enough to negatively affect the person. It’s for that reason that a couple of countries have now stopped using it as a term entirely.
Former psychiatric nurse Nathan Filer’s The Heartland is an incredible account of these issues. That was one of many books we used in our research. Also the podcast Coffee and Psychosis was a great resource for listening to people’s lived experience and gaining a sense of the controversy around the medical side, as well as Rachel Star Withers’ Inside Schizophrenia. She was also on our editorial advisory board and reviewed and contributed to the script.
The use of language here is so important—what words do you use” The power of VR is in a way to go beyond words and prejudice and stay grounded in experience.
Research for us began with listening and reading material on the subject along with interviews with specialized experts. We realized early on there were many sides to documentation about this area, and we reached out to a variety of bodies to check our ideas. From the Pinn Foundation, which set up roundtables of people with lived experience, to workshops with others who had first-hand experience, psychiatrists, and journalists, we cast the net as wide as we could. We will aggregate all these resources on our goliathvr.io site in the near future and continue to leverage this learning in parallel initiatives we have in mind for future presentations of the project.
Goliath has a distinctive low-poly art style. How did you come up with the overall look and feel of the project?
The visuals were inspired by the vast and rich history of computer games—almost everyone on the visioning side had a love of games from their youth. The technical demands of Quest meant anything represented visually had to come from a necessary and purely functional place; there couldn’t be too many frills or incidental graphical elements that didn’t serve the narrative. The core unit is a pixel or cube, and we begin from that in the opening scene where we’re in a representation of a human mind. We were lucky to have Leon Denise signed up to experiment with HSLS shaders, and we always had the specter of efficiency looming. So we started with sparse, almost empty worlds and iterated with additional layers of detail until it felt there was enough to focus on without being too distracting. We found when trying to get heavy story details across there couldn’t be too much visual stimulus. That fitted well with the desire for the lo-fi game aesthetic. We did try to evolve or upgrade the graphics as the story progressed because it is in a sense a linear piece. So we loosely positioned the visual elements to the years that Jon was alluding to.
How did you decide when and where to incorporate interactive elements? What was the rationale behind those?
We had settled on a structure early on and committed to that form inside Unity. We had a lot of ambition for many environments spotted with possible interactions. It was clear after our initial gray box that we had too much going on, so we descoped and focused on key interactions to support the narrative beats. We learned that pacing is extremely important and that when listening you can’t ask too much from an interactive perspective. Some of the scenes have a ‘look / listen / do’ structure. Other scenes centered around the interaction element, but we had to allow the user to evolve the skills and get comfortable with the approach.
What motivated you to include the viewer’s name as part of the experience? What sort of reaction were you hoping to elicit?
There were initially going to be actors and other elements to make the viewer really question if they do actually hear something surprising and make them question what just happened, but we had to change tack with the home release. May dropped an audio recording of her name while we were building the vertical slice, and she completely forgot about it on playback. She almost jumped out of her skin when she heard it on playback in the headset, so we knew there was something in there. The reaction we wanted to create was a slightly uncanny sensation of recognizing your own voice in the mix of voices. We thought it might bridge or in a small way allude to the believability of the voices heard by some people who are experiencing psychosis.
How did Tilda Swinton’s involvement come about?
We contacted Tilda because we knew that her thoughtful and expansive approach would be perfect for the role of Echo—the character that guides you through an exploration of how you create your own reality using VR as a tool. She is very comfortable playing roles that are beyond human and has a powerful warmth that we knew would be an amazing thing to experience in this otherworldly universe.
We reached out to her agent with the synopsis of the piece and quite quickly heard back that it could be a possibility. We then adapted the role further knowing that she would really be able to pull off quite an abstract role and bring playfulness and wisdom to it. It was extremely exciting to work with her. She has a brilliant mind and was an excellent collaborator—super open to diving into the many layers of the experience. She had tried various VR experiences and was personally interested in the potential of the medium. She’s always been at the forefront of avant-garde cinema, working with some of the greatest storytellers of our time. She can take risks, and it has a lot to bring to the medium.
Did you encounter any technical challenges? If so, how did you overcome those obstacles?
Making narrative VR is one continuous technical challenge. There are compromises from the get-go. Our main technical challenge was iterating successfully without too many regression errors. It’s a house of cards making a VR narrative, with unexpected outcomes with every change to the experience. Our TPM kept a very stringent list of errors and a weighted wishlist that kept us on track to focus on the must-haves then the nice-to-haves. It’s very easy to lose track of changes. We were fortunate to have a technical team who kept their eyes on everything as it evolved.
What kind of response have you seen while demoing the experience?
We have had so many amazing responses, and it clearly evokes a lot of emotions. It has some hard moments in it, and many people connect to the isolation represented in the kaleidoscope of the hospital as well as the very touching scenes at the end where we are back in the so-called real world with a kind of euphoria. We have heard people say they feel more open to talking to people who have had mental health issues and looking out for others as well as exploring online worlds.
I understand you did a lot of research and testing of early versions of Goliath. Any anecdotes from the production process you’d like to share?
At the very outset we set up some workshops facilitated by the charity Mind to show very early versions of the project to people who had experienced psychosis. We wanted to have frank conversations about how they felt about their representation. We asked each person to draw their world in Tilt Brush—their portraits were brilliant and abstract and really moving. When we asked people during the interview whom they most wanted to share these stories with, they unanimously answered that they wanted their doctors to see what their realities were like so that they would connect with them as people rather than as an illness. That was a really clear message, and since then we have been talking to medical education people about how to use the project to facilitate better experiential understanding for students from the beginning of their career.
If people take one thing away from Goliath, what do you hope it would be and why?
We hope the experience gets people to have a greater respect for the challenges people face with psychosis, and start conversations with others about what their experiences are like with more openness and a willingness to share space and spend time.
Why was VR the right medium in which to tell this particular story?
We love the embodiment of VR. It shows us how easy it is to learn to belong in new and strange worlds. At its heart, this is a story about someone who moves between virtual realities—one which is supportive and another which is terrorizing—and so VR was the medium to bridge our understanding about what back and forth could feel like.
VR has long been touted as an empathy machine. What role do you believe VR can and should play in our development of empathy for others whose lives may differ from our own?
Sometimes learning empathy feels like a lot of hard work, but what VR can do is invite us into a world where we are all a bit lost and vulnerable and open to trying to understand what the new rules are and how to get by. In that moment, there is an openness, which is exciting because we can be somehow ourselves but also different—having encounters that we wouldn’t usually have in our ‘real lives.’
Tell us about the Discord community you’re building and your efforts to create a sense of community around Goliath more broadly.
Many people were involved in user testing and giving feedback on early iterations, and so we started the community with them. Goliath is a love letter to gaming, so after launch on Oculus, we will be reaching out to people to hear their stories about what online gaming has meant to them. Despite the importance of these digital communities in many people’s lives, there’s still a strong discourse about the negative aspects of gaming. We are not saying that all games are great, but we want to celebrate what is new, powerful, and unique about these communities which are able to accept many people excluded from mainstream society. We will be including these stories as part of later iterations of the work as it tours in physical locations.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?