#1003: A Powerful Interactive Story about Schizophrenia in GOLIATH: PLAYING WITH REALITY

GOLIATH: PLAYING WITH REALITY is an interactive VR story that explores the experience of schizophrenia & psychosis through the story of a Twitch Streamer named GoliathGames. It’s a really strong piece of immersive storytelling balancing interactivity of gaming metaphors that serves the story, great pacing, and brilliant onboarding and offboarding as voiced by Tilda Swinton.

I had a chance to talk with Barry Murphy, Director at Anagram, and May Abdalla, Co-founder at Anagram remotely while they were at the Venice VR Expanded. We unpack the art and experiential design direction, their background research for how to best represent psychosis, and the evolution of the piece since it’s Tribeca World Premiere.

GOLIATH launches on Oculus for free on Thursday, September 9th, and is currently in competition at the Venice Film Festival.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So continuing on on my coverage of Venice VR Expanded 2021, today's episode features Goliath playing with reality, which originally premiered at Tribeca, but it was like the first iteration. And now this iteration is a lot more fleshed out with a whole onboarding and offboarding with narration by Tilda Swinton. It's a story about dealing with schizophrenia, features a Twitch streamer named Goliath, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. and goes into his own personal experience of having a psychotic break. And yeah, just I think there's a lot of really interesting interactions that are in this piece. And this piece will actually be available later this week. And if you didn't get a chance to catch it at Venice Film Festival, it should be released on the Oculus platform, you'll be able to check it out. And Yeah, I just think that there's something about the way that they're spatially telling a story that's really innovating both with the interactions But also just the pacing and the onboarding and off-boarding just a really well told story here within virtual reality So that's what we're coming on today's episode of the voices of VR podcast So this interview with Barry and may happen on Friday, September 3rd 2021. So with that let's go ahead and dive right in and

[00:01:22.253] Barry Murphy: Hi, I'm Barry Murphy. I'm a director at Anagram, and I guess I'm originally an animator filmmaker who's kind of stumbled into the world of Bjor. I started in the Royal College of Art doing animation and short film and got an Oculus headset early on in the day and just started messing about with Bjor. I made a small piece for my friend on Kidney about Ulysses, doing one chapter on a beach in Dublin where we brought people along listening to Ulysses. and from there I kind of got involved with May and Anagram and we kind of made Make Noise and Collider.

[00:02:00.211] May Abdalla: And I'm May, I'm the co-founder of Anagram. And yeah, I guess I'm interested in like storytelling and physical experience and how what you do and what story you're part of or what story you hear or what story you discover is affected by your own thoughts and experiences about yourself. And yeah, I've worked with Barry for a few projects now and we've just finished Goliath and we're in Venice enjoying the real world.

[00:02:29.547] Kent Bye: Great. So maybe you could each give me a bit more context as to your background and your journey into immersive storytelling and XR.

[00:02:37.814] May Abdalla: Yeah. So, um, I started off making documentaries and I guess like there was a point when I, I loved making documentaries. I love kind of thinking about how to tell the story of someone else's life experience and like translating that. So you could be in another person's life. And I did that mainly like current affairs, like as a news journalist and a long form documentary filmmaker of the BBC, Channel 4 and Al Jazeera. And I just remember starting to notice that I never really wanted to watch the films when they came out. Like there was something kind of insufficient, I guess, about like the idea of watching a story. And yeah, and there was this kind of frustration, like there must be more that you can do with this. And so eight years ago, me and Amy started Anagram. We made a piece called Door into the Dark, which was about facing the unknown, what it means to be lost, and in it, you become lost. And the sense of kind of listening to the stories of people who have had these like extreme things happen to them, which means that they don't know what they should do next with their lives. and a moment where you also kind of have the same feeling in the pit of your stomach and the same shivers on the back of your neck. So that's kind of been my like hunger, I guess, but just kind of bringing the right combination of things together in a story to help kind of widen our sensory experiences and allow us to kind of like change and evolve as people. And yeah, Barry.

[00:04:11.241] Barry Murphy: I guess when you were talking there, I was just thinking about my own process. I guess I started off doing engineering because I couldn't stand the maths. I got into CGI really early, 3D studio, release 3, and learned that at home and then applied to art college. with a short film that I made and got into art college and then just since then I've been like just struggling with technology in creative industries basically. I like the edge of where the technology is going, I like kind of new tools, I like to disrupt the technology, like break it or misuse it maybe. in a lot of ways. And on that journey, I guess, while I was doing that, you know, I also was in the VFX industry in London, you know, commercials and stuff and struggling to be like a music video director, I guess, like a lot of people trying to do like music videos on the cheap. And I was in an outfit in Dublin called the Delicious Nine for a while. And we were like music video makers and everyone wants to be like Michelle Gondry or something. On a personal level, I guess I kind of prefer to look at document. I like documentary. I like the real world. And I kind of wanted to make stuff like that reflects the real world, really, you know, ordinary stories, ordinary people and make them interesting. Cause I think that's where my interest was.

[00:05:30.915] Kent Bye: Yeah. Maybe you could give me a bit more context as to how this project Goliath came about and how the story and the content, as well as the individual that you're featuring in this story of Goliath.

[00:05:43.377] Barry Murphy: Well, the story happened like eight or nine years ago. A close friend told me about his brother just out of the hospital. What he noticed was that he didn't really recognize his brother at the time because of the heavy medication and just this generous slowness. But what he did notice is that when he was playing online games with his friends, he recognized the real brother, you know, in his voice. And that was kind of like a really nice observation. And from there, I kind of wanted to make something with this because like immediately the brother gaming, you know, kind of tied with my idea of like, you know, how to make something, you know, with the skills that I knew, you know, CGI. I really wanted to kind of make something about gaming. You know, and the idea just slowly grew more and more until, you know, like after Make Noise, we were like reviewing ideas to pitch to the Venice, you know, the VR school. And, you know, like Goliath just kept coming back, like those ideas that just keep coming back, getting bigger and bigger and filling out more. And, you know, I convinced May that we should pitch Goliath. And that's really how the VR side of it happened. But what happened was that while we talked to people, the idea was so simple in a way that people really got it from the beginning and it just had traction. That was really interesting.

[00:07:01.606] May Abdalla: Yeah, and I guess like back at that moment when we were like thinking about, you know, we just made make noise and making VR is sometimes a very unrewarding experience. You know, you put a lot of energy into something and you don't see a lot of it. It's it was kind of like, OK, one last job. Like, what should we do if this could be like the last VR thing we ever did? So we could like not die before we turned 40. And so Barry was talking about John and the fact that he was still experiencing psychosis and hallucinations and was kind of managing his diagnosis of schizophrenia, but had this other reality. And I think for me, I liked the fact that it was about a virtual reality, like to make a virtuality piece about what it means to experience virtual realities felt kind of worth doing in the medium. And also like, I guess on a personal level, I feel like the subject of schizophrenia and these extreme forms of not disturbing side of mental illness, things that it's hard to communicate. It's hard to connect with people who have very different experiences. I guess like most people know somebody who's experienced something like this or has gone through turbulent times, whether with psychosis, like my own brother, like features a lot in kind of my own reflections on mental illness and like his experiences, which isn't like officially a diagnosis. And it felt like a story that felt important. And as we kind of began to do the research to put together kind of a frame for a project, We started talking to psychiatrists and researchers around the condition of schizophrenia, and it just kind of really opened up into like this thing, which is basically a big question mark in terms of like, what is it and how have we come to see it and position it? Like it's a very old term. It's kind of archaic, the way that it's treated in the UK. And it's quite even contested that it even really exists as a condition. And it just suddenly felt like, yeah, this is a thing to discuss and understand and open up a bit more and therefore Let's go on this journey again and try and make another VR piece.

[00:09:17.422] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I had a chance to see the previous iteration at Tribeca and the difference between this latest version and the previous one, I think, was that I feel like there was a little bit more onboarding and the ending is a little bit more fleshed out as well. But maybe you could talk about the evolution of this project from the first time and how you think about the different phases of the film, because there's lots of different scenes, but there's also kind of clusters of moving from One part of the story to the next. And so it kind of starts with you being onboarded and going through a number of different exercises to kind of feel this difference of what's it mean to be embodied in a virtual world. What's the difference between virtual reality and reality and kind of setting things up for where are you going to take us on this journey? So maybe you could describe for me a little bit for how you conceive of these different sections of this piece.

[00:10:10.305] May Abdalla: OK, so I'll just take you through kind of the narrative arc as like an overview. So really what this story is, is very much like John's experience of his own life on one layer. There's his experiences as a child, his love of gaming, you're in an arcade, you're hearing about his relationship with his family. He's chucked out of home and kind of finds himself like in the scene of like techno and it's kind of whilst he's DJing techno that he has his first breakdown and is then in psychiatric hospital for the next seven years. that's like the beginning of his story and then you're kind of in hospital with him and you experience like the relentlessness of the kind of blur of everyday repetition of the same universe at the same time as dealing with this confusion of psychosis and not knowing what is real and what isn't. And the medication is almost like a game that you have to be part of in order to be able to leave the institution. And then it's once he's left that he's initially very isolated until he gets online and finds the gaming community. And then you're effectively a player in that world until you get the kind of bird's eye perspective of him in the room where there are many realities kind of living alongside each other. So that's his kind of narrative arc. And then through that, I think it was important that we didn't leave the audience just spectating that, even interacting that, but giving them a few opportunities to like, just notice the difference, their own process as you spend a little bit longer in VR. kind of the initial sense of being somewhere and the newness of it, and then how you slowly begin to accept the rules of your new place and you don't really question it. Like you kind of know that it's not real, but there's all these like clever little tricks that operate on you faster than your own thinking, observing senses do, which is like you catch the ball, you play the game and you're kind of in flow. And it's that experience of being in VR and being in flow and being able to just kind of follow through in this other reality and accept it. that we felt was like, well, here is a tiny moment where the user can connect to John's experience of like accepting this other reality that he's in. And it's not necessarily empathizing, but just for a moment, like being like, yeah, I know what it feels like to be in a place that's not real. And then just kind of act normal, like just kind of follow it. You know, like when you see people in the street who are talking to themselves or like, you know, so many people's instincts, give them a lot of space or like cross the street or ignore them. And it's that sense of like, you know, we want to give you a moment where you're like, OK, I know what it might feel like inside your head. And I could reach out and connect with you without basically feeling like I don't get it. So there are these other moments which are kind of the meta narrative, which is the moments where the users kind of ask to do something which is about their own perception. So those are the kind of chapters, as it were. And then your other question was, how did it evolve? Or like, where did it begin? Was that right?

[00:13:25.455] Kent Bye: Yeah, because when it first premiered, it didn't have as much onboarding to really ground you into the experience and ground you into this embodiment that you're going to be taking us on this journey.

[00:13:37.142] May Abdalla: Well, actually, the truth is all of those ideas were there. Like there was stuff that was operating. There were different stages. So I think we always actually from the beginning of this production process, which has been a long time, kind of knew that we were going to begin and end in the places that we did begin and end. But they were harder to pull off, I think, because that narrative where you've asked the user to think about themselves, it was always the scene that didn't work. It was the scene that gave us the most amount of trouble. And so we didn't want to release it initially because we haven't quite got this right yet.

[00:14:16.337] Barry Murphy: That's true.

[00:14:17.197] May Abdalla: Yeah.

[00:14:17.955] Barry Murphy: Until Tilda got on board.

[00:14:19.816] May Abdalla: Until we finally found the right voice actress to do it.

[00:14:22.358] Barry Murphy: Yeah, and it made writing it a lot easier once we could write it with her in mind. I guess the character kind of solidified. It was also about the tone. We didn't like the tone for that onboarding for one stage was quite comical and slapstick kind of doctor tone. You know, that didn't feel right. So, yeah.

[00:14:43.785] May Abdalla: And then there was this kind of strange scientist character that emerged that was also perhaps a little bit too at odds with the rest of the piece. It's kind of the scene that's had the most versions, but we never felt quite proud of it to put it out there.

[00:15:01.585] Kent Bye: Yeah, I noticed in this piece that there is this interesting back and forth between the narration, which is voice acted by Tilda Swinton and Goliath, who is this Twitch streamer gamer who is sharing his own personal experiences. And there's a bit of the narrator who's speaking to you and directing instructions to you. So in some sense, kind of breaking the fourth wall by talking to you or explicitly later in the, in the piece, I guess, having you think about what you might look like outside of VR while you're in VR, which I thought was an interesting moment, but maybe you could talk about this balance between this narrator, who's giving these direct experiences to have the. Interactor or the user or the participant really think about their own phenomenological experience while also kind of intermixing that with the experience of the Goliath character.

[00:15:50.849] May Abdalla: Okay, so yes, we've had so many conversations about how to get this right. It's kind of a golden opportunity. I think we just didn't want people to kind of be in the headset

[00:16:05.407] Barry Murphy: We could start about the tape. Originally, when we wrote Goliath, it was going to be an installation. It was going to be a theatrical installation with external actors, with external devices to break that fourth wall. And we were going to really reinforce people having to check themselves, asking themselves, did that really happen? And we were going to use actors and sleight of hand and all sorts of tricks to do that. But instead, after lockdown, And then also, like, the fact that this was going out of quest for home, that we had to hit that in the head, but we didn't want to lose that. We want to keep that element.

[00:16:39.952] May Abdalla: Yeah, I mean, I just feel like there's just so much opportunity to just, I feel like we don't need to be protective over VR convincing you that it's real, which I feel like a lot of projects in the early days, you didn't want to break the fourth wall because you wanted to allow people to kind of fall for it. And I feel that because the piece is about the construction of reality and not being able to trust reality, We just wanted there to be moments where it wasn't merely a story about John and his life. It's also a story about you and the things that you notice and the things that you don't notice. And that kind of tap on the shoulder as you're playing the game with the pills, saying like, perhaps you're just it looks like you're hitting at things in thin air from the outside. You know, it is a story about a person who lives inside and outside, like in two worlds at the same time, maybe even three, maybe even four. And so really what we wanted to happen was just to have your own sense of living in many worlds at the same time, which, you know, we do. And I think so much about that is to kind of not play into this narrative where like schizophrenia is this extreme condition, so-called schizophrenia is this extreme condition that's like so far an alien from how other people experience the world. It's a particularly problematic for the people experiencing it, but it's not completely out of reach of our own imagination or our own experience. And so those moments where the narrator kind of cuts through that story in a way like storytelling wise it's a bit risky because it effectively is breaking immersion is what you'd be told but it is about breaking immersion somehow so or recognizing immersion like sort of like maybe stretchless cinema in the 80s or something yeah like over here is a tripod and the guys just drop the light and in the background a boat is honking its horn really loudly

[00:18:40.302] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think it does work well in terms of there's a part of the storytelling of VR where you're focusing on your own experience, but you're also kind of receiving the story. You know, this piece in particular does a really nice job of channel switching between those two and taking some of those risks. Like you said, like it's risky to have you think about what you think about outside of VR as you're in these different positions, because you're immersed into the world, but you're also thinking about. being grounded into these other realities. And I think there's a lot of ways in which that it just works. But also that that's part of the theme of what you're trying to get at, which is, I feel like where this piece begins, and there is a sequence of different exercises that you go through at the beginning, that's a part of the onboarding. But you kind of go through those same experiences at the end to kind of do the offboarding But the offboarding using a lot of the same language, making you question what is reality within itself. And so maybe you could speak about that callback that you had there at the end and what you're trying to do in terms of really challenging or expanding our own concepts of what reality is.

[00:19:46.795] May Abdalla: So basically, in a way, the reason that there is that repetition, it's not a joke, but it's at the beginning, you're onboarded for this new reality, which is the world in your headset. You know, it's kind of a classic and useful trope to help people kind of learn the rules, be like, here are your hands and you can do X, Y and Z. And then there's this moment where we know that the next thing that's going to happen is you're going to take your headset off and you're going to be in another world, which is the classic world that you're in most of the time. And in a way, we wanted to take that kind of freshness, that openness, like, how does this work? That kind of moment that you have at the beginning of VR experience where you're like, I don't know how these things will fit together, but I'm going to go with it to the moment that you take the headset off. in order for that new world that you're in to be perhaps a world that's kind of like maybe a bit more expansive and can hold a few more different kinds of people and where like connection with people in different ways is possible. So that's why that happens at the end in that way.

[00:20:49.524] Barry Murphy: It's the onboarding to reality. Just reinforce that idea. And, you know, it was tied into the character as well. Echo, the role that Tilda plays, you know, in a way, it's just a call back to her, to their kind of like name.

[00:21:03.230] May Abdalla: And there's just this thing, like we all know it, like it is such a powerful moment when you come out of VR. Like we all know that thing where you're in a world and you take the headset off and then you kind of blink and there's like a dullness to the real world or there's just something once you acclimatize to something else that maybe you don't have anymore. But it is like it's a moment and it feels like you want to write to that moment. You want to kind of have people with you in that.

[00:21:26.574] Barry Murphy: A lot of this experience was writing to people who have perhaps haven't done VR before, you know, so it's kind of we're introducing them to gaming in the low world, like the onboarding is so compulsory to get people just to make sure that they could use the controllers at certain points. And so the purpose of that was like very functional. And so in a lot of ways, we were writing to people who probably perhaps have never gamed before, who had a negative connotation of gaming or, you know, would never see themselves gaming. We actually wanted them by the end of this experience to consider themselves a gamer by having gone through that kind of experience and hope they would empathize more with John and his character and his situation.

[00:22:06.244] May Abdalla: Yeah, and also see that community. I think, you know, the reason we really love the story or like I really love the story is I love listening to the streams. I love listening to like these different people around the world who had, you know, you hear John talking about them at the final scene, who for loads of reasons, like can't leave the house and not because it's locked down, you know, because of various kind of physical or mental issues that they have, and yet they have this, like, extremely dynamic, alive, supportive friendship that they have. And it's really moving, actually, that that community that is often, like, vilified a little bit, that kind of sense of people spending a lot of time playing games in their bedrooms or whatever, is actually, like, really alive and really meaningful. And you kind of get a sense of it at the end.

[00:22:56.039] Kent Bye: Yeah. And I guess one of the other aspects of this piece is that you are working with this protagonist of Goliath or John, you're referred to him. And maybe you talk about the process of finding Goliath and finding John and building up that trust and dealing with some of these other issues of taboos when it comes to even talking about these things on the record and participating in a piece like this, exploring all these different aspects of direct experience of having a psychotic break and, and there's still quite a number of different mental health taboos that it can be sensitive for people to be able to tell this type of story.

[00:23:32.320] Barry Murphy: Yeah, like at the beginning, I guess we were both terrified. I was kind of terrified that I was going to trigger some kind of bad memories and bring him to places that perhaps he didn't want to go. And so it was a very raw experience in the opening. We were friends, but then we never touched on that subject. And to talk about it, like it was kind of a learning experience. But, you know, John started to feel better and better about talking about it with us, you know, because he didn't really talk about it to many people. And so therefore it was quite cathartic. And as we were like, we had like maybe six interviews, like official interviews. And as they progressed, they got better and better. And like, you know, it opened up more and more and, you know, and I guess the potential for us to pick that then became a lot more optimistic because we were constantly responding to what we were interviewing. But as far as like for now, like I think John is like, you know, he's opened up to his mod team and they're there to support him. He's on like Twitch, Goliath Games TV, and I think it's been very helpful for him now.

[00:24:34.134] May Abdalla: Yeah, and I think both of our backgrounds, you know, we've made documentaries before and I think it's kind of helpful to have that experience just to be aware of just how careful you have to be and also like how much responsibility you have moving forwards and like you know like John's a really important part of the team and we know that we don't want to put any pressure on him at all but like there's a lot and kind of being public with this stuff which is terrifying especially because in a way he did come up to his community as well And I think very early on, you know, we we engaged with the University College of London's psychiatric department to work with researchers. And we also we ran some quite interesting workshops when we were like pre prototype with people who had experienced psychosis, whether it was bipolar or through schizophrenia, which was organized by a charity called Mind. And we worked with them over a few days, having conversations and like playing with Tilt Brush to kind of think about like the representation of what that experience is. And, you know, those interviews were really instructive. Like one of the things I really took from it was when we asked people like, who would you like to see this experience the most? And everyone we spoke to, which is about 40 people, said you know I feel like my doctor doesn't really understand what I'm going through and it was really grounding you know the fact that people in these systems that you think are being taken care of just felt really dehumanized by the medical process which is so focused on prescription drugs and calming that experience as opposed to kind of developing an understanding of what the meaning or the you know, what does it mean? What are people really going through? And so on the back of that, actually, we started working, you know, we did some kind of observations at a few university hospitals about how schizophrenia was taught to the psychiatric department. And Dr. Hugh Grant Peterkin kind of led us into like a few of his sessions. And he's now also supporting a research paper where they're using Goliath as part of like a teaching aid to compare how that could be used as part of teaching for medical students to widen their understanding of what actually psychosis is and, you know, just kind of move away from this thing where like there's a tick box category, which is like this huge part of human experience, which is kind of a mixture of many, many different things and acknowledge that there are lots of different questions around why or how it happens. There's like mysteries of the mind and kind of keep that conversation a little bit more fluid so people feel more able to share their experiences and say actually these things are happening to me and I don't know what it's called but I don't want to be in this category which is a scary category which people think is really extreme.

[00:27:24.605] Kent Bye: One of the other themes throughout this piece is your own embodiment within this piece and how your embodiment changes over time. You kind of start off with hands and then you're doing different interactions with your hands, but then eventually your hands kind of transform into these different shapes. And then you have these different objects on your hands sometimes to kind of interact and You know, you obviously are anytime you want to interact with the piece, then you're buzzing the hands as a signifier. But as you look at your hands, they're kind of changing shape and morphing throughout the course of the experience. So maybe you could describe the journey of embodiment throughout this piece for the interactor for how their hands are changing throughout this piece.

[00:28:02.827] May Abdalla: Yeah, so there is this part of the kind of opening and closing and onboarding and offboarding is about your hands. And, you know, like it is a bit of a classic thing that you go into VR and, you know, there is the world and there is your hands. And those are the two things that kind of connect you to this other place. And often there is a question that's happening in the mind of the user when you're in VR, which is like, what can I do here? Can I do stuff? Is this a place I can do stuff? Or is this a place I can't do stuff? Does this interact? Does this not interact? And that kind of metaphor is also part of John's story, which is like, where are the places that I can make change and make impact in the world and where are the places that I can't and like part of like our original interviews with him about gaming and we were talking about like why are games so important why are they good and it was just so much about because you can make stuff happen you can change things in the game you have like control in a game you can make the thing move on and actually sometimes if you're like a little bit at odds with society or you don't quite fit into the boxes or the places you're supposed to be you just feel ineffective and you feel useless and it's depressing and it's kind of like your hands don't function. They're like, occasionally you look down and your hands are like cubes or just transparent or they kind of disappear. And those states in your embodiment, it runs alongside this journey of like the scenes where you just have to kind of see stuff happen and the scenes where you can change what happens.

[00:29:32.727] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's also this journey of different types of interactions that you're going through because this piece is about Goliath, John, who's seeing how video games and gaming was able to help him with his own journey. So you have the benefit of being able to talk about these virtual worlds of these games with a wide range of different art styles and aesthetics and types of interactions to be able to then reflect on John's story, but also to take the user on these different types of interactions that are then also supporting the narrative arc that you're showing. I mean, this is kind of the backbone and the heart of this piece. is to take us through a journey of these different types of game type interactions, but are also kind of reflecting the story. So maybe you could talk about generally your strategy for taking these different game tropes and starting to sprinkle them throughout this experience of Goliath.

[00:30:29.544] Barry Murphy: It's like at the core of that impulse there was that we wanted to introduce people who perhaps weren't gamers or didn't understand games, or we kind of wanted to bring them true. And like I said earlier, just make them like become a gamer by the end of the experience. And I guess because of the richness of like computer game graphics and tropes that we pulled on the whole history of it, really. from like Pong to Tetris to like Streets of Rage you know all of these kind of like early influences of John's early influences of the team we tried to kind of like you know just incorporate them where it fitted throughout the story you know so we have like you know in the arcade sequence everyone who's like born in the 80s or earlier like remembers the only place to play games was in the arcade so and you know in the early interviews with John like that's where it all started for him was arcades and so we brought like you know that style in to kind of tell the story in a kind of like screen scroller kind of way like it's just getting across like John's troubled childhood and like you know perhaps maybe the factors that led up to his breakdown like in his late teens. And so towards the end, I guess, I guess the gaming evolves as well, doesn't it? So in the pill scene, you're you're kind of playing some kind of guitar hero or what did you call it? That version? Well, OK, just some kind of like racket game. And then As we end up in Hello World, we're dragged into a fully functional shoot-em-up, in a way, where you're sending out emojis to interact with trolls or friendlies in this friendly shoot-em-up, because we didn't want to make it too overly aggressive. We tried to cover, maybe in a bit of a cryptic way, the history of gaming throughout the whole thing.

[00:32:22.623] May Abdalla: And yeah, and in terms of embodiment, I think that there's just, you know, I guess it just chimes into that other past where we wanted people to kind of be there and also like, you know, like be in the physics of that place. And sometimes that's kind of part of it, you know, where the beauty of VR is how it seduces you to first of all just ask this really open and beautiful question of like what is it that I can do in this place and then you can do it and then you get used to it and so it just felt like that mechanic is something that we wanted to reward people for like discovering at the same time as trying to tell this pretty complicated story so there's a kind of trick I guess which most people will be struggling with when they're making the stuff is just to find that rhythm where you can sometimes discover and you can sometimes just like take it in.

[00:33:16.722] Barry Murphy: Yeah, that's one technique we used, wasn't it? Like we had the balance, the motive and instructional, you know, and then a place to consider what you've just read or heard. Like we found that like if you try to combine too much happening at once, then people don't take it in. So in the testing, we ask questions to check if they even heard these words and people, you know, wouldn't have heard them if there was too much going on. So in a way we learned about pace, I guess.

[00:33:42.837] May Abdalla: Yeah, and I think actually the last kind of versions, it was just basically taking things out, you know, there was basically too much interactivity at some points and that's kind of its own little whirlwind of problematic stuff when you're trying to kind of like create a bit of a space where you can be reflective and not just running on the adrenaline of working out what you can do.

[00:34:07.577] Kent Bye: Yeah, I really appreciated that about the piece is that you did have these moments of transition or letting you sit into a scene for 20 or 30 seconds. And there's also a diversity of different types of scenes as you're going through. I'd love to hear your process of designing some of those different abstract scenes, because there is quite a diversity of different type of volumetric spaces that you're in throughout this piece. And there's different ways in which the environment is dynamic and moving and shifting and. Visually it's something always to look at or to hear and to listen to that keeps you engaged that things are moving forward, but you've also have a really nice balance and diversity of different types of spaces, but also being able to tie that into this overall. flow that goes from one narrative beat to the next, that is kind of filled with both of the voices that are coming in at different times. I don't, I just watched it for the second time, this latest version and just mapped out the different timeline and just noticed how, oh yeah, there was just like 20 seconds or 30 seconds there of kind of transitional letting you be. immersed into this new scene or to just have an overall pacing that makes it feel like it's got this overall flow and continuity between all these different types of scenes that you're having there. So yeah, I just love to hear a little bit more about that process of designing all of these variety of different volumetric spaces to be able to tell this story.

[00:35:33.322] Barry Murphy: Well, I guess, like, I think at the start, we kind of knew at the beginning, well, I knew at the beginning that I wasn't going to put a roof over anyone's head until the very end, you know, until we're we're kind of in John's space. And so in a way, we're like we created stuff from a functional perspective. Everything that kind of like that you see or hear is like, you know, is there for a reason. And it kind of like emerged through the storytelling and through the interviews that we kind of like build up these abstract worlds you know I feel like it's a mistake to try to kind of mimic real life you know too much or real architecture too much so in a way these spaces might feel sparse or kind of light but you know it's really much more about like everything in there had to be from a functional perspective really. And so, you know, we worked with, like, Leon Denis, an amazing shader writer. And, you know, we just kind of, like, iterated on the possibilities of what we could do within, like, you know, the limitations of a Quest headset, which was another massive factor in how the visual audio elements came about, was trying to, like, squeeze everything, like, camel to the eye of a needle, really.

[00:36:43.302] May Abdalla: Yeah, I mean, kind of what you're not saying. So, you know, I feel like Barry has like a very, very strong, he's the director, but also like the lead art director. And I think you've got a very strong and like somewhat obsessive, brilliantly crazed interest in making sure that the worlds that you make in VR are not worlds that you can experience in any other place. And so that sense of like, I think every scene is like a metaphorical relation to the experience in that narrative arc, which is both kind of like a literal story of like a timeline, but also like an emotional world. So you begin in a brain. or like an extremely abstracted representation of a brain where all the synapses within that brain have this kind of radio crinkle visual that when you interact with it, they almost tune into themselves and that these voices that are talking about mental health and it represents you know the buzz of everyday conversation about like what is normal what is not normal and that sense of you know that's where we wanted to begin in this universe of like these are the voices that are in our heads these are some of the voices that are our heads talking about the voices that are in our heads and then that kind of evolves into the arcade and I think there's just like so much thought kind of went into like what world's kind of interesting what kind of scale is interesting you'll probably notice like between Tribeca and this version you know like we worked on the transitions a lot to kind of the pacing is like so keen being ready or interested to kind of absorb another scene. There was also kind of a sense, I think, from the beginning, which was like, not only were there going to be like no corners or no walls, but there was also going to be like, A kind of color palette journey. There's a kind of dark world or like a white or a bright world, which in VR is like a very strong physical change when you go from those different color worlds.

[00:38:47.766] Barry Murphy: Like sunrise to sunset really. Yeah, it's like a day. From blues to like warm reds.

[00:38:54.083] May Abdalla: And I think it's part of that embodied sense. It's kind of too interesting and almost dangerous or seductive to just keep trying different things and be like, how does it feel like when you're in this world? And how does it feel like when you move from this place to this other place? But yeah, I think there's this kind of strong, kind of abstract imagination that Barry has, which pushed, I think, everything beyond like what was literal into what was playful and then what was kind of strange and kind of round in those circles. So, yeah. And I think at some point, you know, we did have a version and we were like, oh, there's just too many worlds. You know, you can't take that on. You can't take that on. There's too much interactivity in too many worlds.

[00:39:39.899] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think overall it does feel like you're taking on a journey. I think it's a good mix and a good balance. And I don't know, I just felt like the combination of the type of interactive and the volumetric storytelling, I just think it just works really well to be able to tell the story. And I think it just, I think it lands in a way that, that hit me differently than the first time. I think maybe the voiceover from Tilda Swinton and just the way that it onboarded me and off-boarded me and was able to take me on this journey. Has Goliath John been able to see the piece yet? And what were some of his reactions of being able to see it?

[00:40:11.763] Barry Murphy: Yeah. Yeah. Like we were sharing video playthroughs like quite frequently. And, and then, you know, I visited twice and showed them the initial prototype, which was like a completely different beast entirely. And which was like, you know, shot for it was on a rift and it was very, very much like volumetric photographic project, which was the original direction we were going to go down. It was like pure cinematography. with volume capture, but then we changed direction for the quest and then it had to be all about like, you know, CGI really. So we shared it with John just like last week, the final version, when we finished QA, I went to him and visited him and like showed him the experience and he really liked it. Yeah, he really loved the gaming bit and he loved the record, the nightclub moment. He just said the records were spinning too slowly, but I knew that. Yeah. And I think he really enjoyed it, you know, and he's stoked that it's out and he's part of it.

[00:41:08.663] Kent Bye: Yeah. I'd say the other part, and I think we're sort of well into some of the spoilers here, so I definitely recommend people to check this out once it gets released. But yeah, the other point that is from the first part that also was impactful this time was being able to record your voice and hear your voice within the actual experience. There's something very unique about that, being able to hear the cocktail effect of hearing your voice and hearing yourself say your own voice, but modulated slightly. And so it's kind of in this moment of being very fragmented and fractured. And so maybe you could just talk about using someone's own voice as a narrative conceit within a piece like this.

[00:41:45.784] May Abdalla: Yeah, so I think with that kind of, like Barry said, initially, we imagined a kind of installation version where we had these sleights of hands with actors and stuff. And kind of when we were trying to work out how we were going to rethink that in the context of like this new emergence of the home experience and that being like a viable distribution, then this idea of just kind of inviting people to record their voice at the beginning, saying their name, putting that within the architecture of like this interview, and then having that voice come back to them when John starts to tell you a little bit about what it feels like to have psychosis and hearing these voices. And like when we did a basic mock up version for the prototype and I'd recorded my own name like it basically made me jump out of my skin, because I just thought that there was somebody right next to me, calling my name out, even though I'd like placed it myself. And I just was like okay this, this might work, like for a moment. because I think when you are in VR you do have this other kind of memory that you are somewhat even however immersed you are you're like yeah yeah there's still somebody could walk past and say something or like maybe I'm being watched or maybe someone I don't know how many times I've spun around like am I facing the door or is the door behind me and so it kind of just plays on that part of you that may and people are different you know that may kind of have forgotten, but it's still kind of wary of what's outside. And then that's another moment where you, you know, we're not simulating psychosis. We're not saying that this is what it feels like, but just to kind of cross the bridge, that gap between like, oh yeah, this could be me. This could be something that could be me. And therefore maybe I'm closer to this community than I think I am. Yeah, and it's also kind of really great to hear your thoughts, having seen both iterations. I think we knew that the onboarding element wasn't quite right initially. And I think just with this kind of project, I feel like we both feel quite strongly that if you're doing something interactive, it's just such a different responsibility to the user, to the participant. They're the heart of the story. You kind of have to welcome them, take them by the hand, ask them if they're comfortable and do they need to sit down? Have they been standing up for too long? Are they tired from spinning around? It's kind of like the same amount of care you might give to your grandma if she showed up in your house one day. It just requires quite a lot of consideration for this abstract person, which actually you barely ever meet. And it's kind of this thing where you just never know whether you've kind of pulled it off because you don't see everybody doing it. And even if you see them doing it, you don't know what's in their head or if they need to sit down.

[00:44:29.553] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you each think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling and what it might be able to enable?

[00:44:39.903] Barry Murphy: Well, personally, I became a gamer during lockdown and doing this piece. I started playing Hyper Dash and the Quest 2 and now I'm in a clan and it's all really, really cool. So I'm just amazed by your games that are out there, the good ones. you know, and the social aspect and the way that we, you know, can bridge this kind of connection, like I hang out with people who are in Montana, Albuquerque, Belfast or Northern Ireland and like Dublin and like all over the world, really. And it's just incredible that we can share the space together and have fun, you know, and like really get deep down into strategic gaming and stuff. And that's what I think that blows me away.

[00:45:20.817] May Abdalla: Yeah, I mean, and that's already now.

[00:45:22.338] Barry Murphy: I can only see that I can only get better. Yeah.

[00:45:27.136] May Abdalla: Yes, you know, in a way, like I really feel that the limitation is kind of over to the audiences now. Like, you know, I've got seven nephews and nieces and I watch them in VR with real curiosity in terms of like, what their expectations are and how they piece together stories. Because I just feel that when you're doing stuff like this, you're often working kind of in collaboration with the expectations of an audience, you know, like in great cinema. Here we are in Venice, you know, like the jump cut, the dolly shot, the cutaway. You've got a real intelligence in the audiences of cinema that know immediately, like if the shot kind of lasts a few extra seconds and it means kind of something bad is going to happen or that that person, you know, like we use it with such nuance because we can. You know, it's not really just the director on their own kind of making the film. It's the director in conversation with the language that is in the minds of the audience. So, you know, I think that kind of with every project you're kind of scrapping in this kind of interesting way towards that nuance, towards that collaborative experiential design, which, you know, it doesn't feel for me that like I'm the generation that's going to find it. I feel like I'm kind of laying stuff down for the next generation to put meaning in places in a particular way and kind of agree. It's kind of like watching TikToks, you know, like the level of memes and meta memes that kind of happen so quickly. It feels like there isn't enough of like a community of makers that have made enough stuff to be able to get collective language together so we can do that nuance. We're still just keeping it going until a group of people like that are bigger and kind of broader can push it on to collectively together.

[00:47:09.021] Barry Murphy: The risk making stage.

[00:47:10.923] May Abdalla: Yeah. And so what do I mean by that? Like, you know, I think the potential is fantastic, but the limit is the collaboration of audiences. What does that look like? I guess I'm also saying, like, I feel that it's beyond my imaginative space because I feel like I come from the wrong generation to even write those stories. Because I think the stuff that we're making is kind of rigid and it's kind of linear. It's kind of Disney meets VR. Whereas there's another universe where like linearity isn't something that people would even bother having a conversation about. It's kind of so unnecessary. There's like a diagonal-ness to how I see like people sharing content, like teenagers sharing content, which I'm like, this is going to be so exciting when they use VR as a medium to share stories. I think if we saw that project now, none of us would like it or get it.

[00:48:03.560] Barry Murphy: It would definitely go over our heads.

[00:48:06.122] May Abdalla: It would excite us. It would go over our heads. We're not ready for it yet.

[00:48:10.946] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the Immersive community?

[00:48:15.770] May Abdalla: Keep making stuff. Share stuff.

[00:48:20.134] Barry Murphy: Funders, keep funding.

[00:48:21.475] May Abdalla: Join our Discord.

[00:48:22.897] Barry Murphy: Fund more.

[00:48:24.053] May Abdalla: I think it would be really great to find a way to be more able to share and discuss stuff that's in process. I think we really loved doing that with Goliath, you know, like every time we could get a bunch of people together, especially, I feel like we're all better at kind of sideloading good things and all of that stuff. I think we need more stuff. that we can test. Yeah, I think it's all about the kind of testing discussions. That's not necessarily the film festivals where we're like, hey, we finished now. It's all about the in-process, I think, the playful in-process discussions.

[00:49:03.415] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thanks again for joining me again on the podcast and be able to talk about this latest iteration of Goliath. Like I said, I had real powerful experience with this latest iteration, being able to go on this journey and be onboarded and off-boarded and just kind of have all these different ways that you're using the interaction to be able to dive in, to build this sense of empathy for what these types of experiences with people who have the so-called schizophrenia might be going through in some capacity. So. So yeah, just great to be able to have that direct experience, but also to hear a little bit more of John slash Goliath story. So thanks again for putting this all together and for joining me here on the podcast to be able to unpack it all.

[00:49:41.792] May Abdalla: Thanks, Ken. It's so great to talk to you. Thanks for your great questions as always.

[00:49:46.776] Kent Bye: So that was Barry Murphy. He's a director at Anagram as well as May Abdallah, who's one of the co-founders at Anagram. Just a couple of quick takeaways about this interview. This piece, Goliath, playing with reality, is just a really well-told story within virtual reality. I think it actually has a good chance of potentially winning an award at the Venice Film Festival. It's using the spatial medium in interesting ways. It's doing different innovations in terms of different types of interactions. I think the onboarding and offboarding here is just really excellent. I think the way that they're really targeting people who have never used VR. the way that they're kind of playing with this onboarding and offboarding to kind of make a deeper discussion about the nature of reality and playing with the fourth wall in different ways and yeah just switching between the narration by Tilda Swinton and the more documentary story of Goliath himself who you know there's different aspects of Goliath and his story where it's being spatially represented and kind of a tour through the history of video gaming as well as you're going into these different interactive spaces So yeah, I just think it was really effective and the pacing I think in this piece in particular was also just really quite well just really takes its time and Allows you to really be grounded in each of the different spaces and gives enough variety and to show different types of spaces and different Interactions to be able to at each point reflect different aspects of the story. So just really well done and yeah look forward to it being released and for more people to be able to check it out and So that's all I got for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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