Make It A (Virtual) Reality: Atmosfear

E3 is over for another year – and what an expo it was. As I initially began to write this piece journalists from around the world were being shoved, bleary eyed into the backs of cars, taxis and ferried onto planes in order to take them back home. Those of us who didn’t go to the event were of course in just as bad a shape in terms of tiredness from the late nights watching all the streams for the merest snippet of news – yes even the PC stream, and no I didn’t know what on earth was going on half the time in that either.

All of us were looking forward to a nice weekend of things getting, relatively speaking, back to normal.  Oh there’ll still be plenty of news in the coming weeks but for that next couple of days the industry would be putting its collective feet, sore from walking back and forth across the expo floor, up and taking a deep breath to recover. When it came to me wondering what I could do to relax during such a time a thought struck me. You know I’ve not played any board games recently.

Which brings me round to the topic of this week’s ‘Make It’.  Whilst there are already board game related products created or being created for virtual reality (VR) – Berserk Games’ Tabletop Simulator is notable there is a less traditional subgenre of board games that could potentially make the leap to VR, or at the very least augmented reality (AR).

Atmosfear (or Nightmare as it is known in some territories) first came out back in 1991 and kicked off the trend for VHS board games. You play the board game as normal although with the tape playing, events unfolding on it that affect those playing the game, causing them to miss turns, gain advantages and generally interfere whilst keeping the narrative of the board game going.

Developed by Australian duo Phillip Tanner and Brett Clements the first version sold two million copies within two years and spawned a number of sequels, introducing ghoulish new characters all of whom built up to a narrative of the world around them. They were in the truest sense designed to be an immersive experience, players being encouraged to play in the dark for added atmosphere. (Hence the pun on the series name).  The fact that time length was fixed at a maximum of 60 minutes was also popular as it was something people could effective work around when planning an event.

The first version also introduced the character of The Gatekeeper, a somewhat acerbic man in a hooded robe who takes ever increasing delight in your plight. Even more disturbingly his appearance begins to deteriorate as the clock winds down, becoming ever more aggressive to players as he becomes either possessed by / or reveals the true darkness within himself. His orders were absolute and players not paying attention or failing to answer ‘Yes my Gatekeeper!’ when addressed could be punished severely.

A DVD version, giving a random element to interruptions was released in 2004, the Gatekeeper returning for the third time. (The second being 1995 game Atmosfear: The Harbingers, which featured significant changes to the game.)

So as Atmosfear has moved decade by decade from VHS to DVD why couldn’t it find a new home on VR? It would be a good fit. Part of the challenge of the game after all is not getting distracted by the Gatekeeper when he isn’t there. Players soon learn they need to move quickly as the time ticks down all too rapidly. What if that immersion was taken a step further?

Atmosfear: The Harbingers - 1
Atmosfear: The Harbingers featured a six segment board which could be put together in any order. on the reverse is the segments belonging to the ‘hunter’ class which ended up getting its own spin-off. The Soul Rangers. Could the board end up as an augmented reality item?

For a start the progression has been from a fixed play route (albeit with bonus tapes released) to a randomised element on DVD and whilst this is a leap for our current technology could it be the third generation of Atmosfear is presented a combination of augmented reality (AR) and VR? As was discussed by some of VRFocus’ community members recently on our Twitter feed surely the true combination of the two fields is only a matter of time.

If the physical game board was an augmented item it would allow you, and by extension Atmosfear itself, to see it within the virtual space. Atmosfear could then track and, again in theory, tailor how it interacts with the players whilst the game is playing. Is one player getting all the luck? Send in The Gatekeeper to level the playing field on their turn. The Gatekeeper has been known to have a favourite as part of the game, a ‘chosen one’ dictated at the beginning of play by rolling dice. What if he suddenly took a dislike to a player? If a player made the mistake of slighting The Gatekeeper could he hold a grudge?

Now what about the virtual space itself: Instead of viewing a misty area on a 2D plane imagine you were instead surrounded by it. The environment itself changing over time, becoming more menacing, reacting to the stage of play and then with the added element of The Gatekeeper suddenly looming out of it at various points. Appearing out of the smoke over a player’s shoulder and yelling “STOP!” in their ear, or looming as a giant vision over everyone. Suddenly not only are you moving through your turn quickly to finish the game and to avoid The Gatekeeper – whose interruptions are indeed designed (most of the time) to scare or disturb – you’re then left wondering where as well as when he is going to appear. It would certainly increase the potency of the jump scares and take them to a new level.

A lot of what if’s and imagining, granted. The technology we have isn’t quite ready for this idea yet but the idea of a board game/videogame/virtual experience hybrid is certainly an exciting one. It would take time to develop certainly; then again the creators took nine years to develop the DVD version.

What do you think? What other board game would you like to see developed into the virtual space? Let me know in the comments.