It is undeniable that VR games are pretty cool. It is also undeniable that VR games are still finding their way. The majority of VR games out there are pretty basic – simple puzzles, little action, with a focus on the “feel”. This, in many ways, works great for horror games. In other ways, it is straight up terrible for them.
We’ll start with the good, because the good is more fun…
VR allows game developers to, for the first time, fully immerse a player into the game. The goggles block out images of the real world. When wherever you look shows you only what you could see in the game, it becomes easier to forget that you’re sitting on your couch with a bowl of chips within arm’s length. You fully enter the world the designers, programmers and artists have created, placing you directly in the path of danger… or scares.
How powerful is the connection? I’ve personally seen grown men scream and jump while playing a VR horror game. I’ve seen them shaking and sweating. When it works… it really works. You become so involved with the world around you that your mind begins to feel actual fear. Your heart starts racing, your blood flowing faster and faster. And let’s be honest, the vast majority of VR games don’t have very good graphics, but still, you are engrossed by it. You can’t help but feel as if you are in the world of the game.
VR, in terms of horror games, also have the ability to really use atmosphere. This isn’t to say that other horror games don’t, but when you’re playing, say, SILENT HILL, you can choose to have your living room lights on, which tends to hurt the atmosphere of the game. With VR, once again that headset pushes out the light of reality and allows the creator or creators of the game to really play with your eyes. Shadows become much more menacing. Low light makes you squint. Smoke or fog really play into your fear. All of this builds the tension. You are sucked in.
All of these things are great – full immersion, real terror, ambiance. Fantastic stuff.
Now the not so good.
There are three big problems when it comes to horror games and VR: movement, timing, and length.
We’ll start with movement – developers are still working to find a walking/running format that feels “right”. Many games have gotten around this by using a rail system – the game controls when you walk/run/move or a “teleport” system – the game pops you to where you need to be. These, in all honestly don’t work. Both of those choices take the player out of the game. An important aspect of the VR feel is having the feeling that you, the player, are in control of everything. Once the game takes over and forces you to look somewhere or move to another location, that feel is gone.
Other games just let the player control movement with a controller or keyboard. While this is better, games have to have an odd disconnect between controller/keyboard movement and head movement. It seems like it should work, but the body and mind knows something is off, and it can pull the player out of the game.
Timing is the biggest issue in my opinion. Horror works on timing. Wait too long, or not long enough, and the power of a scare is weakened or lost. When the player controls the tempo, as they do in a good VR game, they can really stretch out a scare to a point that it gets funny, or go so fast that the tension doesn’t have time to build. All it takes is a second for a scary moment to get turned into a funny moment, and with the timing now in the hands of the player, the developer’s work relies on their ability to understand this.
Because of the inherent issues with timing, most developers, when making horror games for VR, tend to rely heavily on jump scares. Like I said, you can really create a solid, spooky atmosphere in VR, so jump scares are easy enough to pull off. Most of the work is done with a sudden, loud sound mixed with strings. After three or four of these in five minutes, you tend to get real bored by them.
The final problem, and this is a problem with all VR games, is play length. At this point, most people can’t play a VR game for more than 10-15 minutes without feeling nauseous. This connects into movement – your body is confused by your brain telling it that movement is happening, though no real movement is going on. It is similar to carsickness.
Because of this, and the fact that the majority of the games at this point are made for pennies by super indie developers, VR games tend to play out in bite sized chunks. Most horror games last 5-10 minutes, which isn’t really enough time to build a narrative. This, in effect, feeds into all the problems that exist with VR games – timing is fast, jump scares happen too often, and your movement is forced on you at times.
Now for the hope…
Every month, VR tech gets better and better. We’re seeing the format grow in leaps and bounds every year, and with that comes new answers to the problems that exist. With Sony and Microsoft eyeing VR as the next big move for their consoles, we’re sure to see more experienced designers and programmers get on board, and budgets grow. Still, I’m confidant that it will be the little guys, the people making VR games in their bedrooms, that end up bridging the format and bringing it to the masses. And it looks like horror games will be the major push at this point. The format, when done right, works better for horror than any other game genre.