How VR Horror Games  Mess With Your Head

How VR Horror Games Mess With Your Head

From haunted houses in 'Paranormal Activity' to psychological scares with 'Here They Lie,' VR is finding it's a perfect fit for fear VRWERX

From haunted houses in 'Paranormal Activity' to psychological scares with 'Here They Lie,' VR is finding it's a perfect fit for fear

From haunted houses in 'Paranormal Activity' to psychological scares with 'Here They Lie,' VR is finding it's a perfect fit for fear

I'm wandering through a dark house in Resident Evil 7, waiting for the jump scare. I know it's going to happen – the signs are there. In the kitchen, fat flies buzz around rotting food and everything is covered in so much grime that it's hard to make where the the dirt meets the darkness. Mannequins topple and move like stiff corpses, a TV buzzes static. The lights are out where I need them most, and the only door is, of course, locked.

Eventually, I manage to fix the lights, find the key, head to the back door and escape. And that's when the jump scare comes, finally, and I scream out loud even though most of my brain is aware that I'm in a brightly lit room in Los Angeles, being babysat by a tired Sony publicist who has seen a hundred of these reactions in the last 24 hours.

Experiences like this are the reason I'm convinced virtual reality is the future of horror. The monster will no longer just be on your screen – it’s whispering in your ear, or creeping up behind you, invading your personal space and preventing you from looking away. That frightful future is almost here, as evidenced by a series of early VR horror games – some still in development, like Resident Evil 7 and Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul – while two already-released titles, Here They Lie and Until Dawn: Rush Of Blood are all ready to take advantage of the technology to deliver scares in a whole new way.

Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul feels, to risk a cliché, just like being in one of the movies: one featuring a poorly-lit house, seemingly-possessed furniture, and the sinking feeling that you’re being stalked by something unholy. (Spoiler: you are.) Playing a short demo in a crowded conference hall did nothing to stop me from screaming at the numerous jump scares scattered throughout the 10 minute slice of gameplay (which, trust me, felt considerably longer). It's a reaction that the actual Paranormal Activity movies never quite managed to provoke.

"What VR horror has done has raised the bar on horror storytelling, for everyone," says Alex Barder, co-founder of virtual reality studio VRWERX that worked on Paranormal Activity. "If you’re still making a regular movie on a movie screen, you really have to work that much harder to be able to compete with VR horror."

Barder actually believes this. He and his co-founder are old school movie and TV executives who've wholeheartedly bought into this shiny new technology's potential to scare. Their time spent working on traditional projects with companies like Sony and Lionsgate has informed the way they've adapted the foundations of Paranormal Activity's lore – ghosts, witchcraft, and human sacrifice – to an environment you can explore at your own pace.

"We’re uniquely positioned to be able to do this because we fully understand storytelling across all platforms," says Russell Naftal, VRWERX's other co-founder. Together, the two secured the exclusive rights to Paranormal Activity, so if you want to see what happens next in the franchise, you’re going to have to experience it in VR version (there are already viral videos of people trying the demo at movie theaters and wailing like murder victims). For them, this is the only way to do horror going forward.

"After you’ve experienced really good VR horror, it’s very difficult to go watch a passive experience in a theater or at home where, it’s traditional jump scares on the screen," says Natfal. "It’s going to really force traditional theatrical movie directors to step up their game."

There's no release date yet for Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul. Barder and Naftal claim they're unwilling to compromise on the game before it's in player's hands. Though they're also working on Jesus VR – The Story of Christ (which is exactly what it sounds like), VRWERX is already in the middle of building a second horror game.

"We knew we were on the right track when my daughter tried out some of the game," says Russell.

"She stopped – and she loves horror movies – and she said ‘I love watching them, I don’t want to be in them.’ Alex and I looked at each other and said, 'we’ve done our jobs.'"

Cory Davis can offer a different angle on the horror genre. He’s also a fan, but his background is in game design, so he's equally concerned with the mechanics of an experience as much as the story. Davis is best known for the F.E.A.R. series, which brought the tropes of psychological horror (it starred a creepy child with psychic powers) to its action-forward FPS gameplay. He followed that with the ultraviolent Condemned 2: Bloodshot and most recently with Spec Ops: The Line, which turned the conventional shooter war story on its head. Now he works as lead designer at Tangentlemen – a new studio that's also home to reclusive Lara Croft creator Toby Gard – and sees VR as a turning point for scary subject matter.

"I do think it’s an evolution for sure, I think we’re going to see a lot of people doing really crazy amazing things with it in VR," he says. "We’re going to have more and more ability to bring more realism into the experience,"

Tangentelmen's first VR game is Here They Lie, very much a psychological thriller, evokes that moment when a dream starts to turn into a nightmare. As you’re wandering through a bleak cityscape, at the sort of languid pace that suits VR horror, you find yourself peeking into doorways, and there's an equal chance you’ll unearth a story clue or a swarm of horrifying black bugs. Worse, it quickly becomes clear that something is stalking you from the alleys and ledges. Here They Lie plays with color and pacing and perception in a way that I've seen in movies, but seldom in games. It’s not a comfortable world to exist in, but a sick curiosity keeps you there.

Despite the game's demonstrable success at creating a kind of new horror landscape, Davis sees VR as an evolution for the genre rather than a replacement. He went back to a lot of more traditional, recent, movies – Under The Skin, Black Swan, It Follows, and The Babadook, to name a few – during the development of Here They Lie and still believes in their ability to connect on a visceral level.

"I think the horror films that really get to me, they speak to me outside of the medium," he says. "They speak to me about life or they speak to me about the universe or they make me worried about something. That’s something that these masters are able to do. It doesn’t matter what medium they’re in, they're able to creep you out."

You get the sense that Here They Lie is just a first dip in the gore-filled horror pool for Davis. He even jokes that so much had to be cut out of Here They Lie when they were balancing the scares that a more extreme director's cut isn't out of the question.

On the other end of the spectrum, UK studio Supermassive Games is doing something very different with Until Dawn: Rush Of Blood. The PlayStation exclusive, which launched with the PSVR headset last month, is like being on a ghost train at an old fairground – it's less about a creeping sense of dread than a straight-up pummeling of your adrenal gland with a baseball bat. The game is essentially a VR spin-off of the excellent horror survival game Until Dawn for PlayStation 4, which puts the player in charge of helping a group of teens survive an encounter with a killer. For Supermassive, the VR version of their story allows for a deeper connection.

"We feel that the immersion that VR brings is a type of experience that we've never had before, and is only going to get better as we get better at using it," says Simon Harris, VR lead at Supermassive.

He says his team first realized how effective VR could be when a simple demo it showed behind closed doors – starring some ferocious dinosaurs – had people cowering and flailing their limbs to fight off the predators, generally behaving in a way the studio have never seen before with traditional TV games.

In VR, it’s just you, the story, and whatever terrors lurk in the dark.

"It's this concept of personal space," Harris says. "Watching something on a television, there's always that distance between you and the thing you're viewing. In VR, not only is it there in the world with you, but we're breaking that personal space barrier. We can put things so close to you, and that in itself is disconcerting and uncomfortable."

No matter how good your surround sound or headphones, in traditional games, you're always distanced from the action, all too aware of the rug at your feet or light from the kitchen. To illustrate this, Harris uses a moment in Rush Of Blood where you hear a sound that’s too close for comfort.

"With VR, the 3D audio and the ability to turn around suddenly creates sequences where something really does whisper just behind your left ear and you whip your head around."

This is why VR is such an exciting new medium for horror and a new dawn for the horror fans. It's the reason traditional filmmakers are spending their royalties on entering the space, and why movie theatres and theme parks are experimenting with ways to get you into a headset. While movies and TV shows and books all offer plenty of terrifying material, they’re also susceptible to distractions – a friend, that delicious bucket of buttery popcorn, a Snapchat from your sister. In VR, that’s all gone. It’s just you, the story, and whatever terrors lurk in the dark.

"We can really sell the idea that there is something behind you," says Harris. "In fact there really can be something behind you."