Putting on a headset and opening your eyes to the world of Half-Life: Alyx, Resident Evil 7, or any of the more recent entries into the category of virtual reality horror games, it’s not hard to make a case for the technology providing a golden opportunity for the next big advancement in the genre of horror. Horror is one of the few genres to continuously follow and benefit from the progression of gaming technology. Avid players of shooters and battle royales perhaps have less to gain from their mainstays being made into more immersive experiences. This is to say, VR seems to be the logical next step for those who desire a higher level of immersion with their horror games. Fixed camera perspectives and polygonal graphics, among other antiquated elements of early horror games, have been traded for a level of player integration that blurs the border between player and playable character. Something changes when the headset is put on; something that may be the future for the horror genre, and gaming as a whole.
An Exciting New Medium
Virtual reality games work in ways no other game released on a computer or console, past, present or future. The display screen on which the game is played is the tangible barrier that separates the operator, the player of the game, from the playable character. Constant distance is maintained even in first person view. Perhaps the peripheral view of the edge of the screen or the distortion of depth perception that leads to the screen allows the operator to immerse himself in the real world. This essential knowledge that the game is right in front of you is completely edited out of virtual reality. The headset is a screen, and the distance between the operator’s eyes and the screen becomes negligible. The controller becomes an imitation of the operator’s hand, intended to mimic the function of the hand rather than acting as a multi-tool for specific commands and actions. Keep your eyes on the screen as you turn to play virtual reality games. We can see what is behind us in the game world. Audiovisual cues that anchor the operator to the real world are suppressed. I unconsciously avoided hitting virtual walls and often tried to rely on things that didn’t really exist.
As such, the playable character becomes very entangled with the operator, distorting the operator’s ability to distance himself from the gameplay. Some people stop playing in extreme situations. In virtual reality, we still obviously have the ability to pause the game, but the inability to see, directly or indirectly, the button on the controller that pauses the game adds to the feeling of reduced accessibility. So when Jeff first appears on the other side of the door in the stationary section of Half-Life: Alyx, his first instinct is to use his feet instead of pausing the game in menus or walking with analog sticks. walking. Even knowing that physical movements, aside from head movements to look around, are of little use when navigating virtual reality game spaces, even so you’d still felt a strong temptation to look back.
Part of the brilliance of the distillery section of Half-Life: Alyx, specifically pertaining to horror, was its use of Jeff`s gimmick in conjunction with the level design and the required player actions. The player is required to crouch to access certain spaces, cover their mouth to avoid coughing from spores, and throw bottles to cause distractions, all of which contribute to the nervous terror of being confined in a space with Jeff. Repeated failures and iterations of the level inevitably curtail the feeling of horror and replace it with determination or frustration, but the physical trait of Jeff is smoothly translated into an anxiety-producing virtual puzzle, one that stands out in demanding the operator to take physical action. Resident Evil 7, by comparison, offers very few instances of requiring a unique physical action in order to navigate the game world. It might not be enough simply to throw players into the screen of a horror game; virtual reality, by blurring operator and playable character, also encroaches on sensory perception but, as of yet, fails to capture all of them.
When you play a game on your console or computer, you inherently know that the character you’re controlling onscreen isn’t you. We see through their eyes and hear through their ears. Other senses we know cannot be experienced through audiovisual media alone. Virtual reality, on the other hand, eliminates the distinction between screens. Operators and playable characters. Playable His character’s eyes are now our eyes. The trick is to walk that line between knowing you are playing a game and providing enough immersion to make the player feel as though they are experiencing the reality. With our upcoming VR horror games we are developing we want to make sure we bring these two elements together, in a winning combination.