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How Allison Road designs its scares around VR

September 15, 2015 | By Richard Moss

September 15, 2015 | By Richard Moss
More: Console/PC, Indie, Video

First-time development team Lilith Ltd's upcoming survival horror game Allison Road has been drawing lots of positive attention since the studio released a prototype gameplay video in June. But one thing lost amid the breathless comparisons to P.T. is that it's set to be one of the first full-length horror games to be designed from the ground up for virtual reality headsets.

For Allison Road designer and artist Chris Kesler, VR is a chance to ratchet up the horror in horror games. "It just adds a whole new layer of realism, which I find super fascinating," he says. "I mean, when you are really immersed in a game your brain sort of makes it real — even though it's only on your screen — but VR adds another layer on top of that."

Allison Road is drawing on all the tricks Kesler can think of to frighten and unnerve players. But he says he does wonder if VR might  cross an invisible threshold into too-scary territory for horror games. Think for a moment how most of us react when we get too scared from a game — we turn away and remind ourselves that we're safe and sound in our home and what's on the screen isn't real. But in VR, it's easy to forget you're even wearing a headset, and the extra moment it takes to remind your brain that it's all just pretend could prove to be too much to bear.

Cultivating a sense of dread

With a professional background in film post production, Kesler's main influences lie more in the realms of movies. In particular, he singles out Ridley Scott's Alien and Eiko Ishioka's costume design in The Cell as big sources of inspiration for the way they build atmosphere by playing off of human psychology. And while Allison Road has drawn comparisons to P.T., the PlayStation 4 tech demo for cancelled Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro collaboration Silent Hills, his video game influences lie more in the past. He's looking to replicate the "creeping feeling of dread" from the early Resident Evil and Silent Hill titles.

"In VR games, cutscenes with camera movement where you take the control away from the player can be a bit nauseating."

Traditional horror — particularly in film and literature — thrives on intimacy. It puts the viewer/reader/player in a familiar environment where they can feel comfortable and at ease...but then it lets them in on the secrets of that place, which makes everything feel "off" or unfamiliar. There are sounds and images and fine details that don't match what you'd expect from the setting — bleeding walls,  ghostly apparitions in the mirror, or even just about every moment in The Truman Show in which people act like they're in an infomercial. This is called the uncanny, and it's key to establishing a sense of dread in the player.

The uncanny is why horror games could well prove to be the killer app for VR. The feelings of presence and immersion that come with VR could prove to be a huge boon for games that want to shift emphasis away from the jump scares, gore, and routine action that horror games often rely on. This makes it a good fit for Allison Road, which is about unravelling the mystery around some unsettling event that occurred within the confines of a fairly typical British house. Lilith Ltd's vision is to terrify the player by using the uncanny to tap into their imagination. "A lot of the horror happens in your head rather than on screen," Kesler says.

The spatial constraints can make that even more difficult to pull off. Kesler contrasts his game with Silent Hill 2. "When you have to cross the entire town to get from point A to point B there is plenty of area that you can play with to build up horror," he explains. "However, when our game requires you to walk two steps to go into the next room you need to think of different audio/visual ways to give a sensation of space and introduce a sense of dread." 

Lessons learned about designing games for VR

Allison Road will also be released in a format for players who still prefer standard monitors to HMDs. Kesler notes that developing a horror game for both VR and ordinary 2D screens comes with some major downsides. "There are things that we have to downright turn off in VR at the moment, because graphics card performance just isn't yet where it needs to be to allow VR with full-on graphics," Kesler says. 

The added technical considerations for VR extend to art direction, too. The environment needs to be scaled and detailed just right, or all that carefully constructed dread will fly out the window, and the player's suspension of disbelief will be shattered. "You need to be super accurate with the size of things since you can tell immediately when something is off in terms of scale," Kesler notes.

Some things are more simple and intuitive in VR. "If you want to get a closer look at an object [in the VR mode], you just lean forward, whereas you obviously can't do that [with a non-VR setup]," Kesler says. The team at Lilith came up with a zoom feature for players on standard screens that tries to replicate the same feeling with the press of a button.

However, one popular method for conveying dread in horror games and movies is largely off limits in VR. "I found that cutscenes with locked off cameras are OK," Kesler says, "but cutscenes with camera movement where you take the control away from the player can be a bit nauseating."

Many developers have a tough time getting through their first game, but Kesler seems to be taking it in stride. "Having worked in film for years, I know how to approach big projects and how to do CG environments and characters," he says. "The transition to bring this knowledge into Unreal Engine 4 was pretty smooth."

The only hiccups have been on the business side. "Since the entire game is self-funded up to this point, it's been tough to find good people who share my passion and believe in the vision," Kesler continues. "But here we are. We're making it and it's been a great ride so far."

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