Hideo Kojima said it best when recently talking about his ill-fated ‘playable teaser’, P.T.; if you make a videogame too scary, people simply won’t play it. That’s a rule that feels especially apt for virtual reality (VR). Horror is the genre of choice for many developers at this early stage for obvious reasons, but how many people actually want to play something that will truly terrify them? Imagine P.T., an experience that’s often unbearable even on a 2D display, brought to life in VR. How many gamers could stand even this brief experience with a head-mounted display (HMD) cutting them off from the real world?
That’s what makes Narcosis from indie developer Honor Code so intriguing at this early stage in VR’s life. While the underwater wrecks and gloomy seabed walks of this first-person experience lay on the atmosphere, this isn’t strictly a horror videogame. Instead, a brief tour through its strangely beautiful world suggests that Narcosis is quite literally testing the waters of VR immersion and how it can enhance experiences.
Having strapped on an Oculus Rift, the first thing that anyone will notice is their suit. Narcosis grounds its players in a bulky, plodding underwater getup that is obviously essential for survival but also adds that trapped, claustrophobic sensation that carries much of the title’s atmosphere. Smartly, the helmet integrates the player’s HUD into the actual game; an essential feature for any VR experience worth its salt. Here it rids the player of any distracting elements, invoking the HUD from Dead Space that’s sure to influence many VR titles in the years to come.
Crucially, positional tracking also works within this suit, allowing you to move around inside the confines of that small space without the visor itself moving. It sounds like a small feature, but it goes a long way to making the player feel as if they’re really encased in this inconvenient and yet vital costume.
It’s a relief that Narcosis establishes its captivating mood early on, then, as it relies heavily on it for the rest of the demo, which is largely spent exploring the ruins of an underwater base, keeping a cautious eye on your oxygen supplies and encountering some unexpected, if fleeting, dangers. There’s plenty to marvel at; the wreck, almost deadly in its silence, is filled with the kind of immersive environmental storytelling that players have come to expect in the post-Bioshock world and some of the aquatic life encountered genuinely forces you to summon up the courage to take baby steps towards it, wary of any sudden movements. Narcosis isn’t big on forced scares, but can create some excellent natural ones in this way.
Honor Code does plan to get player’s hearts pumping, however, and that will mostly come from the title’s oxygen management mechanic. Run out of air and the obvious happens. So while exploring the ruins in VR is encouraged, it comes with an underlying sense of pressure that can quickly mount to desperation should you become a little too careless. Though not an especially emphasised mechanic in the demo, it will be interesting to see how the developer plans to pace this feature throughout the rest of the title.
Action is also included, though it hardly seems to be the focus of the title. A knife fight with a cuttlefish in a corridor may sound ridiculous on paper, but it makes for a vicious few minutes in-game as you desperately slash away. Admittedly repeating this action with a controller in a post-Oculus Touch and SteamVR controller world feels a little limp, inciting hope that Honor Code will integrate these solutions later down the line.
Narcosis is shaping up to be a rock solid VR experience that highlights just how much the technology can enhance environments. Whether it goes on to become one of the Oculus Rift’s defining adventures remains to be seen, but Honor Code certainly seems to be on track to deliver something that’s worth any VR fan’s time.