At the latest Venice VR Expanded, one of the experiences all the magazines are talking about is Goliath by ANAGRAM, which is narrated by the beautiful voice of Tilda Swinton. ANAGRAM is the studio behind one of my favorite VR experiences, that is The Collider, so I really wanted to try its new creation, and thanks to the people there that have provided me a key, I have been able to experience Goliath in preview. Here you are my impressions of it.
[ATTENTION: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE. This is not an experience with a real story to follow, so there’s not a true ending to spoil… and I think you can appreciate it even by knowing some parts about it. I will reveal various details about it (not everything of course), so if you want to watch it without knowing before how it is made, stop here. Otherwise, go on]
Goliath: Playing With Reality
Anagram’s official website describes the experience “Goliath: Playing With Reality” (this is its full name) this way:
Through mind-bending animation, GOLIATH: PLAYING WITH REALITY explores the limits of reality in this true story of so-called ‘schizophrenia’ and the power of gaming communities.
Echo (narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton) guides you through the many realities of Goliath, a man who spent years isolated in psychiatric institutions but finds connection in multiplayer games. Combining heart-felt dialogue, mesmerising visuals and symbolic interactions, weave through multiple worlds to uncover Goliath’s poignant story.
In other words, it is an experience that tells you the story of this guy whose nickname is Goliath that goes through a complicated life marked by episodes of psychosis and then finds some relief in playing online multiplayer games. The experience tries not only to tell you his story but also tries to make you understand how a person affected by schizophrenia feels every day.
Goliath is an experience that is difficult to categorize, and also difficult to describe. It’s crazy, it’s non-linear, it’s many things at once. In this sense, it is similar to The Collider, which was another experience that was outside of all the schemes of the other XR experiences. And exactly as The Collider, Goliath plays a lot with your mind and your feelings.
I can probably define Goliath as a “collection of scenes”, all different the one from the others. Some of them are interactive, others are not. Some of them are minigames (actually playable minigames, that create a parallel with Goliath’s life as a gamer), others are just narrated. Some of them have a cartoonish style, others are abstract, one is even made with photogrammetry. Some scenes are driven by the narrating voice of Tilda Swinton, in others, it just says some words. It is a continuous jump between different things, usually happening via the ending scene decomposing in tiny squares, that then becomes the new scene. The common thread is the one of narrating Goliath’s story from when he’s young, to all his troubles, until his relief through online videogames, and also the one of explaining to you what schizophrenia is. But every chapter of this experience looks stylistically disconnected from the other ones.
Just to make some examples of some available scenes:
- In one scene, you are playing Goliath’s life as a game in an arcade room;
- In another one, you see Goliath from the outside trying to integrate with society with all the reality around him represented by cubes;
- Then there is one scene in photogrammetry where you are in the room where Goliath plays his computer games;
- In one you are together with Goliath in the sad room of his pshychiatric hospital, and he is red while all the room around him is greyish.
All of them are different, and appear as loosely connected. But all of them are always weird, crude, disturbing... and all present some original and creative solutions on how to depict that particular situation you are in.
This is cool from a technical standpoint because it means that the creators had to work with a big team to create all these different scenes, but from an experience standpoint, I found it quite confusing. It looked to me as if there was not a coherent experience to follow, but it was just a collection of mini-episodes: yes, all of them were related to schizophrenia or the life of Goliath, but they didn’t even seem to belong to the same application. It is like a movie in which the first 10 minutes are a cartoon, the next 10 minutes are set in ancient Rome, the next 10 minutes are sci-fi, and so on, while keep telling the same story. It would be original, but a bit weird, and so Goliath seemed to me.
I’m not a smart man [cit. Forrest Gump], and I’m sure there is some big picture behind this collection of different scenes that intellectual people understand and I do not… like those Fellini’s movies that I just see as a bunch of weirdness while movie critics find fantastic. Probably the reasoning is that Goliath’s reality, because of his mental illness, is actually made by different realities, all different, all loosely connected, and so are the realities that you as the viewer are experiencing.
This would be coherent with the other theme of the experience, which is the one of making you understand how is having schizophrenia. It is like the experience doesn’t only want to tell you the story of Goliath but also wants you to feel the same things that Goliath feels in those parts of the story it is telling you. This is the reason for the “playing with reality” part of the name of the application: since the beginning, the narrating voice questions your sense of reality. Reality is in the end what our brains want us to feel… we have no idea what is the real reality, we just know how we interpret it… and a person with psychosis sees many realities, some different from our “usual” one. The experience makes you go through all these different scenes, that have different styles but are all weird and disturbing. It does its best to make you feel disturbing feelings, like for instance by:
- Showing your hands becoming geometric shapes
- Making the elements of the reality around you decompose and recompose
- Making you see a scene from an unusual point of view (e.g. in the DJ-ing scene, you are like a little creature on the discs, and you see an enormous Goliath playing with the console where you are)
- Making you hear disturbing voices (e.g. in the hospital one, you hear the same world repeated many times from voices all around you that talk one on top of the other)
- Putting you in scenes that have trippy visuals
- Changing continuously the setting you are in
In fact, the experience warns you in the beginning that you may feel unsettling sensations. And honestly, in this, it has failed with me. Goliath reminded a bit of the sensations that I had when trying Ayahuasca at the Sandbox Immersive Festival: I could understand that those trippy visuals were meant to make me feel in the same way that people that use the drug feel, but it did not, I just saw weird visuals that were well made, but had no meaning for me. Here it was the same: yes, I could feel that some things were “weird”, that they should have made me understand how a person with psychosis feels reality, that they should have made me feel weird or disturbed… but they didn’t impress me at all, and didn’t give me the impression that I had psychosis. I just saw them and thought “ah, this is to make me feel how that guy feels” and that’s it. As someone that has watched 2 Girls 1 Cup without batting an eye, I need something more than some trippy visuals to be impressed. Probably I should have drunk two beers to appreciate them more.
And here comes another problem: the “unease tourism” (as I call it) that VR can offer. Some time ago, I shared with you an article proving that VR is not the ultimate empathy machine, and one of the reasons is that it just puts you in the difficult situation you want to generate empathy for for a limited time. Last year I read an article that used the term “racism tourism” when talking about living in VR in the shoes of someone undergoing racism attacks for just some minutes. The point is: living some bad experience from the comfort of your home for 30 minutes is not like living a whole life of psychosis, or racism attacks, or physical pain, or whatever unease condition. It is just “seeing how it is” and that’s it. It’s like having a mental trip into some difficult situations, have some feelings, and then return back to your usual life.
This is also how I felt when playing Goliath: In some parts, my brain was like “oh, look these weird visuals, these weird sounds… this is similar to what people with psychosis may feel… interesting thing to discover”… knowing that soon I would have returned to my standard life. What the experience made me feel about having a psychosis felt like a toy to me, it gave me no real feeling of having a psychosis attack and also gave me almost no real empathy for the condition. It was just interesting as it is launching from high heights in a VR game to see how I feel falling down. Only if I rationally think about the story that Goliath told me in the experience, I understand the black hole of pain he was in: a complicated family, addictions, psychotic attacks, years in mental hospitals… this is terrible, and it hurts me thinking about it.
I’m not blaming Anagram for this, they tried to do their best, and it’s honorable that they have worked so hard to put the spotlight on the important, and often forgotten theme, of psychosis. They worked well for this. But the result, for me, was not the expected one. This is what happened to my perverted mind, maybe for your sensitive one, the result would be different. The nice thing about art is that every one of us experiences it in a different way.
When I say that Anagram did a great job, I sincerely think it: this studio confirms with Goliath to be a team that is able to develop high-quality and very original experiences. Goliath is different from everything else I’ve tried in VR, and it is incredibly well-made. Audio and visuals are great, and there are some parts developed with creative genius. For instance, at a certain point, you see Goliath, and instead of his head, you see a lot of symbols changing continuously (e.g. a middle finger, a smile, a question mark, etc…) to show its confusion of reality at that moment, and then when he takes his medicine, it returns having just a standard head, to symbolize that the medicine is giving him some moments of peace of the mind. There is a moment when you are in Goliath’s brain where you hear flows of disturbing noises, and only when you move your controllers on top of them, you can hear they were real sentences talking about psychosis, and this again makes you understand how a person with psychosis may understand other people talking with him. There are many moments like these ones, and they show you how this experience must be watched multiple times to be appreciated completely (I’ve watched it twice, indeed).
The narrating voice plays with your mind: her voice (the one of Tilda Swinton) is soothing and speaks like the one of a hypnotist. She welcomes you, and prepares you for the journey between realities, then narrates you the story of Goliath throughout all the weird scenes, and then, in the end, salute you questioning the whole sense of what “reality” really is. Anagram was already good at playing with my mind in The Collider, and so it added these hypnotic hints also in this experience. But again, in this experience, this “hypnosis” hasn’t worked so well with me, hasn’t been able to dig a deep hole in my mind, and I kept being rational and lucid during the whole experience. Anyway, the sentences she says are smart and fascinating, and I appreciated all her questions about the sense and the meaning of reality. She was my guide in my journey in the various realities in Goliath’s mind, and she was a good guide.
When I removed the headset, I had no weird sensation for having returned to my reality after this journey across realities, and this proved that the experience was not that effective on me. But I kept feeling a sensation of sadness, of discomfort: Goliath’s story is very sad, and it made me feel sad. The fact that I’ve been transferred this emotion is anyway a win for Goliath: VR is all about emotions for me, and if an experience has managed to make me feel emotions it has been somehow successful. And Goliath did this pretty well, so I can say that it has been worth living.
It is a deep experience: like everything that tries to make you have feelings, that tries to bend your mind, it makes you keep thinking about it even some hours after you have watched it. It is an experience that for sure I’ll remember for a long time.
As I’ve said, this is a high-quality experience, and all its audio and visual elements are carefully studied. It is also impressive all the different styles the various scenes are made of, going from realism to abstract, too gamey. This has required for sure an enormous effort: in fact, the final credits are pretty long. And everything is polished and curated in detail: for instance, I remember a scene where the world composed itself only in the direction I was looking at and decomposed where I was not looking at. I found it pretty fascinating.
Audio has surprised me in a pleasant way, and it’s not common that I say this because I’m not an audio expert at all. Tilda Swinton’s voice is fantastic, and all the soundtrack and the audio effects are really immersive and drive you in the mood of the experience. The only problem on this side for me was with Goliath’s voice: it is distorted to make the experience trippier, but this way as a non-native English speaker, I was not able to understand completely what he was saying. I don’t know if this was an intended effect or a problem, actually.
The user interacts with the experience with his/her gaze, or with simple interaction with the controllers using the triggers or the thumbstick. Every scene is different from the others, and every one has its own interaction scheme: in one scene you use the controllers as guns, in another one you use the thumbstick to play with an arcade machine, in another one you move your controllers on some streams to uncover words, and so on. The experience shows explicit indicators to tell the user how to interact in every different scene, so there’s no risk the user doesn’t know how to go on. There is also a moment, at the beginning, where the user has to use his/her own voice, and this shows how also the input schemes are very variated.
Goliath shouldn’t make you feel motion sickness because it is a very static experience (you can play it by being seated). But it is also made to make you feel uncomfortable, to make you feel how it is having psychosis, so I can’t say it is a comfortable experience for your brain. It is the opposite.
While I totally loved The Collider, I have mixed feelings about Goliath. It’s a well-made experience, it is very original, it is deep, it talks about an important theme like mental illness, it features Tilda Swinton, it gave me feelings (sadness, to be exact). These are all enormous pros on its side.
But it is also true that I found it a confusing collection of scenes, and I really haven’t felt like someone with psychosis, and I haven’t felt any kind of empathy by living inside it, even if I played it two times in a row. I came out with a feeling, but not with a deep bond with the main character, and not with a deep bond with its illness. It was just a journey inside the life of someone else, and that’s it… but I expected much more from this point of view, that I guess was one of the purposes of the experience.
It’s a kind of mixed bag, then. I agree with everyone else that this is a great experience, and I’m happy having tried it because it is worth a watch and even two, but I’ve not fallen in love with it. But at the same time, it is an experience I’ll probably never forget for its depth and originality.
If you are into VR storytelling, give it a try: Goliath is available on Oculus Quest Store starting today.
(Header image by ANAGRAM)