Virtual reality horror games are a new frontier in fear, creating frightening experiences that prey upon the immersive intimacy that VR creates. With players feeling like they are genuinely there and reacting as if what they're seeing is real, scaring someone in VR is a tantalizing new opportunity to those working in creating horror games.
The rise of VR horror has only just begun, and Gamasutra reached out to several pioneers at the forefront of VR horror to see what they felt was important in their first forays into creating fear in virtual reality, the best ways to break down the walls of disbelief, to use VR's limitations as strengths, and find unique ways in which the technology can terrify it users.
Read on to learn what lessons these games can impart. Then strap on an HMD and explore their chilling worlds... if you dare.
Stifled puts players into a world doused in darkness, and only by making noises in their microphone will they be able to see where they're going. Doing so also draws the attention of the monsters that wander the game, forcing players to decide whether they want to risk drawing attention just so they can see enough to navigate.
In this experience, Justin Ng of Gattai Games felt it was important to ensure the player was always comfortable. "There is no way for a player to feel fully immersed in an experience if he/she is constantly on the verge of barfing," he says. "Not just for horror, but for all VR games in general."
No matter how frightening your game is, if it hasn't been optimized to ensure the player is comfortable, they'll be too distracted to be scared. In the case of Stifled, this meant taking special care not to overload the player with too much visual data or movement.
Walking around a spooky old house might be enough to frighten a player in another game, but the simple act of walking in VR can be overwhelming. "In our case, teleportation--a common tool used to make movement less taxing on the player's senses--was not an option because the players’ footsteps were tied to gameplay (sound made by walking reveals a bit of the world and attracts enemies)." says Ng.
The answer Gattai Games hit upon was to only show them simple black and white outlines of objects in when they were using sound to navigate. "But we found that in testing, players and developers experienced less discomfort because of the lack of visual data when they moved/looked around in the 'echolocation' segments," he says. "We think the lack of visual fidelity decreases the load on the players’ perception, and therefore increases the comfort levels."
TAKEAWAY: The player must first be made able to orient themselves in your VR world...even though you intend to put them through a mentally-taxing experience.
Traditional horror films, literature, and games often guide the player's eye. By forcing the player's attention into a specific place, the developer can ensure they'll be able to scare them or force them to glimpse something frightening.
That doesn't work in VR, according to Justin Corcoran of Phosphor Games Studio. "An important element to doing good VR horror is embracing that, just like in the real world, the player can be looking anywhere at any time," he says. "You can’t take camera control as you can in flatscreen horror gaming, or like they can in theatrical horror experiences. You can't set the user up for a cheap jump scare, as seizing camera control is a major nausea issue."
Still, this fact of VR design can be used carefully to make the player feel like they're being beset from all sides, or you can use the freedom to look around to help them lose track of what's following them.
The Brookhaven Experiment, a game where players have to gun down waves of monsters coming from all directions, frightens players by creating moments when the player may be turning just in time to have a monster bite them in the face. The player can indeed be looking anywhere they want, but that gives the developer many places to hide monsters where they aren't looking.
"We have different types of enemies approaching you from all sides, tuned just right so that even if you are constantly looking around you, every now and then you are going to lose track of a monster approaching you and you’ll be surprised in a really fun way." says Corcoran.
TAKEAWAY: Don't take control of where to look from the player, but rather provide them with the ability to lose track of the monster and stumble across them with a glance, creating their own unique moments of fear.
Audio has always been a key element of horror, and a common tool used to heighten tension with something as simple as the sound of someone breathing. It's the promise of an oncoming scare - a creature that you can hear but cannot see - that heightens tension, winding the player up for the frightening thing that is to come.
VR creates greater opportunities to use this tool, though, using the head-tracking technology to place sound in just the right position in reference to where the player is standing in the environments, something that is used to great effect in Dreadhalls, a stealth horror game about escaping a dark dungeon.
"I play heavily with audio cues to make the environment feel more rich, and to trigger the player's imagination about what creatures might be lurking around." says Sergio Hidalgo of White Door Games. "Audio is another of the aspects that benefits from the use of VR technology, thanks to being able to track the player's head and position the sounds accordingly, making them feel more grounded in the environment."
Players can get a better sense of where that sound of footsteps is coming from in relation to their position in VR using the technology. When that sound is close, the head-tracking technology makes it feel close, heightening the sense that something is creeping up on them.
"The sound of an opening door or footsteps approaching can be scarier than the most detailed 3D model." says Hidalgo.
TAKEAWAY: Using head tracking technology to position sounds properly can ground the believability of place and heightening the fear of what's following the player.
While the player can't be forced into looking in the right direction, that doesn't mean that some tricks cannot be used to get the player to look where you want them to. If, as a developer, you want the player to look at something frightening, you have to make the player want to look in that direction on their own.
"The biggest challenge faced by the VR designer is that you can't just point the camera at the action; you have to draw the player's attention to the next story beat ideally without them realising. Subtle clues in the game, such as water dripping or the hiss of a snake, lead the player in the right direction." says Ryan Bousfield of Wolf & Wood Interactive Ltd.
A Chair in a Room: Greenwater takes players to the Deep South on a journey to explore the horrors in their own psyche, plaguing them with visions that can only be suppressed through their doctor's medication. In those visions, the player will be shown some horrific things, but to do so, Ryan had to get the player to look at them without forcing them to.
"I have a bit where you hear the sound of footsteps creaking across the wood, inevitably you look down, this reveals the footprints that if you follow them, lead you to the first clue," says Ryan. "It's a very obvious example placed early in the game to set expectations, but later on you get all kinds of different leads. From the rustling of plastic bags in the corner to the muffled conversations on the other side of the wall, these sounds beckon you over."
TAKEAWAY: Despite being unable to force the player to look a certain way, sound can be used to draw the player to look at the frightening thing you've created.
Placing players in familiar surroundings can help immerse them in another reality. Locales as simple as forests, parks, and houses will feel immediately recognizable to most players, giving them a more believable situation that will let them become comfortable with the VR. That way, you're only asking the player to suspend their disbelief when the hideous monster shows up.
"One of the most important elements for a great VR horror game is a simple, understandable environment combined with a relatable situation." says Shawn Hitchcock, developer of Emily Wants to Play. "Combining an easy to grasp situation with VR really amplifies the feeling of being immersed in the virtual world. You want to free the player from as many distractions as you can, while getting their attention focused on the experience itself."
Emily Wants to Play casts players as a pizza delivery guy who's entered a house filled with unpleasant creatures, and must now escape. In using a simple environment, Hitchcock created a place the player could immediately understand and navigate. In doing so, he ensured the player only had to concentrate on the things that were stalking them throughout it, focusing on what made them afraid rather than on learning a location.
"A house interior is something everyone understands. They walk around their own house every day. The quicker players can understand their surroundings, the quicker they can start worrying about that big clown doll sitting on the floor in the next room!"
TAKEAWAY: Familiar environments and locations let the player become more comfortable in the VR, giving them more freedom to concentrate on the horrifying creature you've designed to attack them.
Familiar environments can create that sense of immersion that's key to horror, but that falls apart if aspects of the location aren't believable. Moreso if those environments make no attempt to be believable at all, concentrating on providing opportunities to startle the player rather than provide an experience they can immerse themselves in.
"There’s a reason that your local fair’s haunted house is mostly people in masks lunching at you from
dark corners: everybody who goes into a haunted house knows it’s not a real place, and most horror
attractions do very little to convince you otherwise." says the team at Robot Invader, developers of Dead Secret. (They insist on speaking as a team.) "If you’re not invested in the world there’s no way you can become properly scared for your life, so the only option the haunted house designer has is to try to startle you."
Dead Secret has players investigating a murder at a rural farmhouse, leaving them isolated as they're stalked by a masked killer. For this experience to be more than just a series of jump scares, every aspect of the house, from its fixtures to its sounds to the story buried within, had to be perfect and believable. "It’s not good enough to be convinced that you’re somewhere else, you must be convinced that you are somewhere real." says Robot Invader.
Every mundane aspect had to be in place for the place to feel believable. "We made our environments complete with minimum contrivance: there are books in the study, toilet paper in the bathroom, canned foods in the pantry. You’ll find firewood outside the house and a refrigerator in the kitchen. The faucets work. Every room has its own sound to it, and the shape of each room affects the way you hear sound within it."
"The VR horror games out there that are going for genuine fear do so much the way good horror
games have done for ages: by thrusting you into the middle of a consistent, believable, and scary story,
and forcing you to explore the world of that story."
TAKEAWAY: Every step you take in making your world feel believable, no matter how mundane, adds to that sense of reality that will draw the player in, making them more accepting of, and vulnerable to, the unreal danger that lurks within.
VR is a useful tool for creating immersion, making the player believe in their environments with little work. There are still steps that other developers have taken to improve it by increasing believability or familiarity, but Narcosis works in tandem with the VR headset itself. Instead of trying to make you forget that the bulky appliance on your face, the developers incoporate it into the game.
In Narcosis, an industrial diver is trapped deep underwater, and must deal with a dwindling oxygen supply as well as the dangerous sea creatures and structures around them. While playing through this experiencing, the player is in a diving suit, and through the contact with the VR headset on the player's head, the developers have deepened the connection with the game's premise.
"It's about taking that sense of total immersion you get with VR, and then enhancing it. When you put on the headset, just knowing that the premise is being trapped underwater immediately creates a strong, tactile relationship between the player and their suit." says David Chen of Honor Code, Inc.
"It's not just a decorative element; it's the only thing keeping an ocean's worth of water and pressure out. That's why we call it a 'walking coffin'." says Chen. "Small touches, like seeing the player character's faceplate for up in time with their breathing, or hearing a subtle noise when they move their head or bump up against the confines of their helmet, really help cement that sense of immersion."
TAKEAWAY: A headset doesn't have to undermine immersion--a creative narrative device can turn it into another way to deepen immersion and increase the player's connection with your frightening world.