There’s going to be a lot of attempts to tackle a lot of phobias in virtual reality (VR) over the next few years. It’s an obvious application for the technology; to get people to face their fears by forcing them to experience them in a safe, controlled environment. Whether or not allowing virtual spiders to run over your hands will have any long-term effects on arachnophobia, for example, remains to be seen, but finding out as much is going to be a fascinating and fun process. One studio taking a novel first few steps into this territory is indie team Soul Pix with Arcophobia for the Gear VR and Google Cardboard mobile head-mounted displays (HMDs).
For those that don’t know, arcophobia relates to a fear of heights. It’s not hard to picture just what this experience entails, then. An early build available at this year’s Gamescom allowed players to virtually step outside the window of a tall building and cling to its edge as they sheepishly sidestep around it, avoiding obstacles that will bring them a very speedy death otherwise. The title is played without a controller, with the protagonist edging his way along the direction that the player is looking in.
The logic behind this is sound; the kinds of VR input needed to realistically free a player’s hands up aren’t available to consumers just yet, especially on mobile devices. It’s undoubtedly a better solution to leave their hands empty, then, even without any kind of hand-tracking to help keep balance. Arcophobia isn’t light on atmosphere, either; a dark city sets a brooding mood and the sirens of police cars below give players a sense of place.
A tense pressure can also be felt when looking behind you, as an axe-wielding hooded figure pursues you. The lack of context as to how and why really works in Arcophobia’s favour, as the mystery of this striking character isn’t something you particularly want to catch up to you. It brings a certain desperation to the proceedings, egging you on at all times.
But, in this early stage there seems to be more promise in Arcophobia’s ideas than execution. Navigation, for example, feels bizarre when, in-game, the protagonist is pinned against a wall but the player isn’t putting that same kind of pressure on his own body. Many of the obstacles in the player’s path also don’t provide much of a challenge. Vents threaten to blow you straight off of the side, but it’s a simply case of waiting for the right time to pass through. Various challenges in which a player may need to duck and dodge with their HMD could go far here, but don’t seem possible on mobile HMDs.
In fact much of the experience feels limited by the hardware. The untethered nature of both Gear VR and Google Cardboard are no doubt essential to this experience and do set an understandable bar, but the visual fidelity still leaves something to be desired. Both kits also lack positional tracking, meaning that, when it comes to leaping over small gaps on the ledge, players can only simply look at the space they want to jump to for a short period of time instead of perhaps trying some more immersive gestures.
It also doesn’t help that actually falling off the building feels sudden, random and quite inconsequential. Should a player break their focus on where they’re walking then the camera will sharply lean forward, feeling more automated than replicating a struggle for balance. Fail to recover and it’s a short, decidedly amusing trip to the street before reappearing at the start. It simply needs something more to make the fight for balance more visible; perhaps a meter on screen that lets players tilt their head accordingly.
But there are glimmers of Arcophobia’s intended effects to be felt here. They mainly come in the moments that it distracts players just enough to forget that they’re really sitting on a chair with a very solid foundation to rest their feet on. The precious few seconds in which you pause to scan the environment for dangers ahead can trigger a genuine uneasiness, catching the sheer distance below you out of the corner of your eye. These instances do suggest that Soul Pix really is onto something here, but it will have to work hard to capture that fear much more often than in this demo.
Arcophobia feels like it rests more in the realms of entertainment than therapy. Perhaps that’s for the best given the kit it’s appearing on. Ultimately this feels like an experience that’s doing the best it can with the current limitations of VR hardware. Perhaps in the future, when Gear VR is supported by a more capable phone, has its own positional-tracking and controllers similar to Oculus Touch, this will prove to be a truly terrifying experience. For now, though, it amuses more than anything else.