It’s a classic horror scene; you’ve just discovered a clue to help you escape a grimy, abandoned cabin when a deer trophy sharply drops to the floor. A thin stretch of light pierces its way through a small hole in the wall where it once sat, daring you to come and take a peek. In a film, this would be the part that you might sink into your chair, cover your ears and prepare for the worst. In a traditional videogame, you might be tempted to look away from the screen as you push forwards, hoping to miss the scares.
With virtual reality (VR), however, you just have to man up and get it over with.
A Chair in a Room: Greenwater, the new horror title for the HTC Vive head-mounted display (HMD), thrives on these kinds of moments. Expanding on what was recently crowned as the top app for the Google Cardboard mobile HMD by the search engine giant itself, Ryan Bousfield of Wolf & Wood Interactive is tinkering with Room Scale technology and what it can do for a genre that’s already well-explored in VR. The results so far suggest that this will be an immersive, engaging and, yes, somewhat terrifying experience.
This new take on the title is described as a psychological horror, a term which takes on new life in VR. Players will find themselves committed to a hospital and, between psyche tests, revisit the past memories of a traumatic incident that still haunts them. In gameplay terms this translates into an experience much like Cloudhead Games’ The Gallery series; the player explores environments within the limits of the Room Scale tracking, using items found within them to unlock doors, uncover hints and more. It’s also reminiscent of classic LucasArts adventure titles in a way, as there’s a trial and error sensibility to picking up items and trying to use them on locks, trapped doors, and floorboards. That said, it never goes too far in the direction of just guessing what to do.
Puzzles are punctuated with sort of set piece horror moments. To tell you exactly what you’ll experience would be to spoil some major plot details, not to mention the surprises in store, but it’s fair to say that A Chair in A Room: Greenwater flags up some interesting issues and solutions for Room Scale horror. While you’ll constantly be on edge during these segments, the user-tracked area that you stand in also oddly acts as a sort of safety net. Within the rules of Room Scale VR, you know that you can’t suddenly be grabbed and spun round to see something horrific screaming in your face, or tossed across the room. It’s a startlingly ironic situation; VR brings you closer to the horror than ever, but its limits also mean you’re acutely aware that you actual person is safe at all times.
To counter this potentially damaging factor, Bousfield is employing some clever tricks. Threats, for example, tend to appear and disappear before your brain manages to reassure you that everything’s okay, while the hole in the wall example given above is also employed throughout. On paper, you may think this sounds like a cheap way to avoid the issues that VR presents, but it’s hard to be so dismissive once you’ve caught yourself taking physical steps away from something looming in the dark, or spending minutes rooted to one spot, gathering the courage to look through a window.
Environmental work is top notch, too. Areas are littered with objects to pick up, and crisp textures help items like milk cartons and other products feel like the real deal. Occasionally you’ll be armed with torches and crowbars among other things, and using these with the HTC Vive’s position tracked controllers usually feels smooth and natural. It can be a challenge to pick up some objects in the intended area, meaning you’ll sometimes have to angle your arm awkwardly to get them in the right position, but Bousfield is looking into ways to circumvent this.
Perhaps the most interesting element of A Chair in A Room: Greenwater right now, however, is its commitment to immersion and its payoff in affecting the player’s psychology. No compromises have been made in keeping the experience grounded here: there’s no HUD, controls and other information are presented as posters on walls, notes must be brought up to eye-level to read and even hints appear on the back of player’s hands. Brilliantly, the first room in the title is used to help players calibrate to VR in natural ways: a stereo plays music to ensure that any headphones (essential for the best experience) are on properly, while an eye-chart helps you check the HMD itself is fitted right.
Better still are the transitions between rooms. Each of A Chair in A Room: Greenwater’s environments are fitted to be entirely accessible within the Room Scale limits of the player’s setup, but when moving from room to room you’ll find yourself in a plain area that will have you walk over and stand in the correct position for the next one. It’s a simple way of removing any awkwardness that Room Scale tracking presents and something that other developers should pay attention to.
A Chair in A Room: Greenwater is shaping up to be another rock solid launch title for the HTC Vive. More importantly, though, it promises to be a fascinating peek into the future of Room Scale horror, a genre that could prove trickier to pull off than you might think. There’s much VRFocus doesn’t want to spoil about the experience for now but, come April, horror fans will be thankful for it.