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Horror Games & VR: A New Level of Terror or a Dead End?

What is it about a game that keeps you hooked? What is it that maintains those all-night gaming sessions, makes you forget that you haven’t eaten for 48 hours and that you actually have a life outside the boundaries of that ever-alluring screen? Maybe the last part is more of a self-confession than a question. For me though, it’s games with emotional stimuli. Games whose actions or events provoke a strong physical or psychological response. Personally, no genre does that better for me than the horror genre.

Warning: This article contains scenes of explicit violence and gore…

If someone approached me and said, “You know those games that scare the life out of you?” (I understand that an opening line like that could quite easily escalate into a very uncomfortable situation… but bear with me here…) “Well I can make every scare more terrifying and every emotional response heightened. In fact, scrap all that! I can make you feel like you are actually there!” Me and my little face, filled with wonderment, would jump on that bandwagon without hesitation. I would literally jump.

That obsession (admitting it is the first step…) of the emotional response provoked by horror games and finding methods of intensifying it, pushed me into the VR arena. Let me start from the beginning. I’ve been a programmer for a number of years. I’m currently conducting research, as part of my Masters in Computer Game Software Development, in what creates a viable virtual reality (VR) experience. However, as a little personal side project, I began poking around the eerie spider-webbed corners of the horror genre to see if what was there could be helped or hindered by VR.

And that brings us to the loading screen of this article. So grab your poorly functioning flashlight and that extra clip of ammo because things are about to get scary!

Into the abyss…

VR has come in a number of incarnations over the years and if you ask anyone, gamers or not, what their interpretation of VR is, you get a wide spectrum of responses. Many hazard a guess, some make reference to a clunky headset and others describe a scene from their favourite sci-fi flick. Whatever your interpretation of it is though, it’s here and it’s taking the games industry by storm.

There a number of incredible VR games currently in production and this is where another confession comes in. I haven’t delved into the depths of VR and horror alone. Oh no. I’ve gathered personal accounts of those who have braved creating VR horror games and VR horror experiences and lived to tell the tale.

So let’s have a brief history of horror to get the heads, I mean ball, rolling. It’s been argued that the genre of horror is separated into two different kinds. One of these is “quick thrill”. This includes frequent enemy encounters and a number or short sharp jump scares. Think Resident Evil. Think dogs. For those of you not quivering in fear, I will explain. In one of the first phases of exploration in the original Resident Evil, dogs unsuspectingly smash through windows in a rather unthreatening looking hallway, making you jump five foot in the air and not able to sleep for weeks (fig. 1). In contrast, the second unsavoury flavour of horror is “psychological”. This is more subtle and suggestive horror through sound or atmospheric affects. Think Silent Hill (fig. 2). Think Silent Hill again.

Liz Mercuri: Horror in VR

So how do these types of horror lend themselves to VR?

Research conducted regarding what creates a viable VR experience greatly suggests that scenarios which promote a strong emotional response ensure a more immersive and believable VR experience. Who would have thought that a fundamental element of VR user expectation is what the horror genre so naturally oozes?

One of the first allies in my quest for VR horror was Team Junkfish. Team Junkfish have favored the more psychological strain of horror with their recently released VR game Monstrum (fig. 3). Psychological horror depends greatly on fear of the unknown, that what cannot be seen. Team Junkfish made a number of crucial design decisions to ensure that this translated well to VR.

One of these design decisions was the procedural generation of the game world and also of the monster that hunts the player. This decision ensured that the player always had a feeling of anticipation and uncertainty of what was hunting them, regardless of the number of times they played Monstrum. This also gave great potential for some fantastic jump-scares. Another was the complete removal of the HUD ensuring that there were no obstructions or layers between the player and the game world, which could break immersion.

But these aspects aren’t exclusive to VR games. Take Dead Space (fig. 4) for example, where a very conscious design decision was made to remove the HUD to heighten player anticipation in the fully exposed game world. Although not exclusive to, they greatly lend themselves to the concept of VR. During development, Team Junkfish conducted internal testing of Monstrum playing it with and without using VR. The use of VR was hugely preferred when the viability of the horror experience was questioned.

Liz Mercuri: Horror in VR

But what about those aspects which don’t lend themselves so easily?

A wicked trick that horror games adopt to scare people senseless is to take choice away from the player. Taking choice and power away from the player can be done in a number of ways. Cutscenes are one way, for example. They force the player to fully focus on and appreciate the beasty or unpleasant situation which they are immediately going to have to face.

As suggested above, the use of VR creates a more immersive horror experience. One element of this is its ability to block out the real -world around the player. Blocking out the outside world, creates a more personal experience in which the player feels like they are the ones in danger, not the game avatar which they are controlling. It strips back the protective intermediate layer introduced by an in-game avatar, meaning that potential threats, sense of fear and overall control are completely that of the player. With this is mind, surely cut-scenes with VR act as a disconnect?

Fallen Planet Studios explored this concept when creating their VR horror walk-through experience, Affected. Cut-scenes are needed as a way to set context or guide the player through the game world. Through development of Affected, design iterations were made to create scenarios in which the player could be given visual cues or nods to narrative but still had free reign of movement during this time. Fallen Planet Studios concluded that taking the power away from the player completely, as per usual cut-scenes, breaks the flow and realism of VR completely. Instead, they likened their use of cut-scenes to that seen in the Call of Duty franchise, where an event is happening around the player, but their decision of where to look or run to is not restricted.

Let’s lay horror to rest a moment…

If we bury the idea of horror for just a moment and look at the bare bones of VR, even more is unearthed. As mentioned previously, VR has had a number of incarnations and with each resurrection, new issues have arisen, regardless of game genre or device.

For example, a recurring nightmare for developers is hitting the 75 frames-per-second (FPS) needed for platforms such as the Oculus Rift. The Oculus Rift requires two separate cameras to hit the desired frame-rate at run time. Failure to do so can cause very unpleasant, nauseating experiences that even the hardiest of zombie apocalypse survivors would have trouble dealing with.

Fortunately however, the fidelity of the VR experience has been found to rely very little on the graphical representation. Both Fallen Planet Studios and Team Junkfish expressed that the immersion in VR was enhanced further by sound effects and robust level design, than the overall graphical quality.

Another issue is that of believable movement. The player’s in-game avatar may be sporadically crouching, jumping and running into walls evading danger in a blind panic but the player themselves remains static. When using the Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus, for example, the player governs the avatar using a control pad with the support of their VR headset.

This disconnect, as a result of unrealistic player movement, is an entire article topic on its own. Technologies fondly referred to as “gaming treadmills”, the Virtuix Omni for example, are just one of the impressive technological advances aiming to promote immersion in VR through realistic movement and user interaction. But what is wrong with that we already have?

Is the use of a control pad and head-mounted display really such a immersion killer? Research dating from the early nineties all the way to shiny present day suggests that… well actually yes… it is. One of the key ideas which has hatched from this conclusion though, is that the existing VR hardware could be believably incorporated into the game narrative.

Think Alien: Isolation (fig. 5). Think physically holding the Motion Tracker in your hand.

Liz Mercuri: Horror in VR

Think the motion tracker beginning to beep, that green dot flickering into view. Think interrupted sleep for weeks. Think nightmares.

Similarly, going back to the good old days of the Playstation 2 with titles such as Michigan: Report From Hell (fig. 6), in which you play a camera-man stranded with this crew in a fog filled town of beasties. The concept of operating a handheld camera as the main game mechanic, lends itself quite nicely to VR technologies such as the Google Cardboard. The same is true for titles such as Project Zero (fig. 7), in which the main game mechanic involves taking flattering shots of ghosts and ghouls with a haunted old camera.

More recently however is Slender: The Arrival (fig. 8). This uses the same hand-held camera formula, easily lending itself to the sinister clutches of VR horror.

And finally, just as a personal point, anyone who played the Silent Hills playable teaser, P.T (fig. 9), and didn’t think, “Wow… This would be out of this world combined with VR!” Shame on you.

Liz Mercuri: Horror in VR

The future of V-ARGH!…

VR is back and creating a buzz. Right now, the games industry is full of passionate, talented people who keep pushing the boundaries of technology and user experience. As developers and as consumers, there has never been a better time to take advantage of the VR opportunities presenting themselves.

With advances in technology and a greater understanding of what creates a more viable VR experience for players, I have no doubt that some memorable, immersive VR titles are lurking just around the corner.

In terms of VR and horror, that fog is already lifting. With studios already developing and releasing terrifying titles for VR platforms, it won’t be long before VR developers are competing to find new and more effective ways to shock and scare their players.

Playing with the light on won’t save you now.

 

References
DIEFENBACH, P. J. (1994). Practical considerations of VR [virtual reality]. [online]. In: 87-90.
KRZYWINSKA, Tanya (2002). Hands-on horror. Special Issue of Spectator, 22, 12-23.
LINDEMAN, Robert and BECKHAUS, Steffi (2009). Crafting memorable VR experiences using experiential fidelity. [online]. In: ACM, 187-190. PERRON, Bernard (2004). Sign of a threat: The effects of warning systems in survival horror games. In: COSIGN 2004 proceedings, 132-141.
Milham, Ian (2011). Beyond Horror: Art Directing DEAD SPACE [online]. Video of presentation at the Game Developers Conference 11, San Francisco, 28 February 2011 - 4 March 2011.
Special Thanks to Team Junkfish, Fallen Planet Studios and Ape Law.