To say that Gnomes & Goblins has been a little elusive is probably an understatement. The project is the work of Wevr in collaboration with Jon Favreau, the director behind films like Iron Man as well as Disney+ series The Mandalorian. The title is now slowly coming out of the woodwork ahead of an expected 2020 release, with Wevr now confirming that it’ll be the company’s biggest production to date in a recent interview.
First a little backstory. Obviously, with a big name like Favreau’s attached to it Gnomes & Goblins instantly grabbed headlines when it was announced in 2016. Virtual reality (VR) development was still in its early years back then and the type of experience the director wanted to build had barely been imagined. What was even more surprising – and helped stoke the flames of interest – was the release of a free demo showcasing the miniature fantasy world. That demo is still free on Steam for HTC Vive and Valve Index if you’ve not tried it yet.
After that there was silence. Many thought the project had been shelved – as so many are – until, out of the blue, a teasing tweet and website appeared saying ‘Coming Soon’. That might have been a little preemptive as it then took until now for Wevr to really begin talking about what’s set to be its biggest project to date.
They got the chance to chat with Wevr’s Jake Rowell, Director/Executive Producer and Neville Spiteri, Executive Producer, about the project and what’s been happening over the past several years.
“The 2016 release, the preview, was really a tester, a little sampler as Jon [Faverau] would call it,” Rowell started to explain. “And after that we sat down and basically started a whole new project up, greenlighting a whole new adventure and the idea was from the preview which was a small room-scale, forest adventure plot but our goal quickly became ‘we want to do the entire forest’. And we want to grow that one relationship with a single character to a society of characters, and we want to introduce the gnomes and what they’re about and we want to introduce more of the magical element you got at the end with the bell when you shrink.”
“One of the things Neville and I have done since the beginning even with theBlu is to start something small, do a sample set of it and then grow the product over time. And what’s gone on from 2017, ‘18 and ‘19 is really this small team ‘big dreams’ effort for what Gnomes & Goblins could be for an actual release that we want to charge for,” Rowell continued.
“We know that its a lot larger than the preview, like a 10x, but its not as large as we probably would have liked it to be sometimes. Jon had some very big visions, but we’ve set it up for the future of the franchise, so there’s a lot of promise.”
When it came to actual gameplay and what you can do Rowell and Spiteri didn’t want to detail too much but they did say: “It’s a VR interactive experience, we’re not trying to make a movie, we’re not really trying to make a full-on game. There are game features and aspects to it, we do have a collectable system, we do have different interactable items that you can progress through the world.
“There are movie elements where there’s a high-level story narrative that you’re following through the goblin, your own personal heroes journey in a lot of ways,” Rowell continued. “We want you to be you, we don’t want you to role play like you’re Mario or some other character, you’re walking into this VR world as you, you decide how you want to interact with it.
“Do you want to hang out with the goblin character all day or do you want to poke a little deeper into this world? And we have a lot of references to Disneyland and we also have a lot of references to the show Westworld where if you want to come in and just do the first base level stuff you can and it’s really enjoyable and you can do it for as long as you want. If you want to start peeling back the layers a little bit there’s a lot more there to discover and find and see, like Alice in Wonderland the deeper down the rabbit hole you go. And that’s by design in the space, so you do have a layered cake going on between an arc of a story which is your heroes journey and then as you poke into the world you have a lot more agency, you realise there are a lot more things to do and see.”
As VR continues to grow it never stops adding fresh faces who’ve either never tried or maybe only sampled the technology briefly. And it was important to balance the experience for newcomers and veterans alike: “A lot of inspiration came from Animal Crossing and how Animal Crossing handles its user base, I think you can come in and play it as a newbie and you can be super experienced and have a lot of fun,” Rowell reveals.
“We’ve watched the evolution of the VR industry and we looked at what consumers and players and fans of the medium gravitated towards,” Spiteri explains. “It’s pretty clear that the affordances in VR of having a degree of interactivity where you can not only move around but you can also fully immerse yourself and be fully embodied with pretty sophisticated controllers [is important]. We’ve been watching what’s been resonating and whether it’s been experiences like Job Simulator or Beat Saber or Half-Life: Alyx, these are all very, very different experiences. Even though you could say our focus is not to make a game but these are interactive, fully embodied gaming mechanics, things that you would associate with a game. So we haven’t shied away from ‘game’ because if ‘game’ means that you can really feel like you’re in the world, navigating through it, interacting with it and are part of it well that’s certainly part of the vision and experience we want to deliver to consumers.”
As the single-player title takes you on a journey into this enchanted world, the gnomes and goblins which inhabit the forest form an essential part of the emotional connection Wevr is aiming for said Rowell: “I think at the core of our experience, yes the beautiful world is there because you need that with VR, you want someone to feel like they’re immersed in a space. Once you start peeling that back it becomes about personal relationships again. This is a single-player experience so your main relationship is with the goblins, and specifically your main goblin you befriend he becomes your guide into this world and so we’ve taken players through that befriending process in the preview. We’re going to do it again here but there’s an element where when you start peeling it back and see the society that decision tree becomes a lot more complex.
“Each little goblin is kind of watching what you’re doing and there are moments where they’re looking at you, their ears are responding to you, if you throw something at them they’re going to flinch. If you try to come up and hand them something they’re going to get excited and happy. And all of those little elements are personal connections and we’ve taken it back and a lot of conversations with Jon and internally with the team, we’ve taken it back to a relationship like you have with your dog. Your dog becomes like your best friend and that relationship is almost a mirror to your emotional state. We’ve been very cognizant about our AI but also the design of our character and how it responds to you to create a bit of a mirror, you will pour more of the emotions into it based off of what’s in your head and your imagination, and the goblin’s going to be there to respond accordingly.”
With the team confirming Gnomes & Goblins will be its biggest production there’s still lots more to learn ahead of the expected launch later this year.