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It’s been a few years now since virtual reality became mainstream. As the kinks are worked out and the wrinkles straightened, VR continues to open up new gameplay mechanisms with fascinating potential applications. It also offers an even deeper level of immersiveness. What responsibility does the developer have to the player?
Among the early games to take advantage of the intensity offered by virtual reality is Here They Lie. The title was released for PSVR back in October. As one of the pioneers of the horror genre’s arrival on VR devices, the game’s developers, the Sony Interactive Entertainment studio in Santa Monica, have already tread this new and unfamiliar territory, and having done so, can help shed light on the creative and ethical pitfalls that lie ahead. To that end, Cory Davis, creative director on Here They Lie, agreed to share some insights with Gamasutra.
He first makes clear that he and his team weren't pursuing cheap shocks. “I think in our game, instead of a direct rise and fall to jump scare, we had an element of bliss acting as this other zone we were pulling the player into," he says. "That to me can be just as surprising as a jump scare and anything else you might be able to set the player up for.”
The horror genre relies on tension, and as the architect of player experience, Davis admits his process is abstract and less formal than that of other developers, likening the difference to that between producing jazz and writing techno. But this worked well for Here They Lie, in that the team sought to achieve an unsettling tone by matching the pace of a hallucination, or a nightmare. Davis says they hand-tuned the process to create a balanced cycle that steered the player through several emotions through their peak, from dread, to terror, to pure bliss, the contrast of the latter acting as another level of surprise.
From the beginning of Here They Lie, the player character Buddy is in pursuit of a woman, Dana, who seems both connected to his past and to the dark events of the present. This dynamic gave the developers the chance to lead the player through events of varying impact to define the emotional cycle they sought to achieve.
The same mechanism that gives virtual reality an edge over traditional video game experiences may also present a hazard. It’s one thing to create a horror-based experience that, due to technical and physical limitations, will always limit the extent of the player’s immersion. VR, however, closes the sensory gap in ways that may hinder their immediate ability to distinguish fiction from reality.
Having made one of the first horror games in VR, Davis is aware of the added responsibility that interactive player experiences bring, noting that unlike his previous game, Spec Ops: The Line (which was presented as a first person shooter but fell more along the lines of psychological horror), the game was marketed honestly, acting as a warning to an audience that may be otherwise naive as to the intensity of the immersion.
“I do believe that it's good to have a reminder that this is a very extreme experience. [We’re] still in the infancy of what we're going to learn in terms of what these experiences can do.” He also cites the game cover, warning screens, and its Halloween season release as a fair indicator of what the player is in for, adding that the game also avoids graphic depictions of self mutilation or other types of gore that might be additionally upsetting in the first person perspective. The use of firearms or close-up extremes doesn’t appeal to Davis.
“I always have a really sort of extremely visceral reaction to firearms," he says. "They're not something you see in Here They Lie. Not that they're inherently more dangerous than a knife but I think if I were going to shoot you in the head… I don't know, I don't think I would shoot you in the head.”
He also draws a line between the horror paradigm and the proactive empowerment fantasies of most games, reflecting on how removal of player agency might have more impact in such an immersive first person setting.
“Say you’re in a shooter game and you're like ‘Oh I'm in cover, I got shot, and now I'm responding’. That is a different feeling than having someone tie you down and stick a gun to your head," he observes. "I don’t know if either one is good for you, but definitely the one that feels like a real life murder scenario is terrifying. That might need a special warning at the start of the game. “It should at least be marketed like a Call of Duty: Murder Death Trip 6!”
Davis likens the early stages of adapting horror to VR technology to psychedelic drugs, confessing that while some users will find it appealing to be a guinea pig testing the possibilities, that may not be the average player’s goals. “You're gonna find people that want to be astronauts, but that's not the average consumer. Me personally, if you’ve figured out how to create something that's gonna affect me psychologically, I'm going to be very tempted to be your guinea pig. But that's because I'm probably trying to learn something that I can apply to something I'm creating for other people. And you know maybe I can go a little bit further so I can take everyone else into the safe zone right behind me (laughs).”
A challenge in horror VR design is the player’s unpredictable reactive field of view. Any linear game with exploratory aspects runs the risk that the audience may not catch every cue or random event, some of which might be integral to the game’s core. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make ‘em drink. Or in this case, you can curate a player experience but you can’t always ensure or predict their response. So how do you direct their attention while still maintaining a level of illusory freedom?
Davis argues that first person horror games have always had the potential to respond based on where the player is looking, but that most center their action around major events instead of experiential moments that transpire in a reactive environment.
“In Here They Lie, you walk into a new realm when a horror experience starts to happen around you," he says. "It’s almost like a hallucination or a nightmare because you're in a zone of horror. We're trying to get you into the situation to have a really unpredictable and interesting experience...so we're doing a lot of handcrafted timing tricks that had to do with where you're looking and where you might go and also using audio to foreshadow the small little tricks that we're trying to pull on you.”
“People are riding the razor's edge of their own expectations," he adds, "so you have to sort of predict what they might think is going to happen. And then make them wrong. And then make them right, at the right time.”
He compares the trick of anticipating and subverting player expectations in VR to sleight of hand. "We're naturally trained, in fight or flight situations, to have a heightened awareness of what might happen around us so that we can be reactive. That's just a really fun thing to play with."
He stresses that it's also an expensive thing to play with. "You need to have tools that allow you to evaluate those small details and the reactions people have, and be able to make the slightest adjustments to them without affecting the entire scene. You would not believe the amount of scripting that goes into a well-designed horror sequence. or the amount of it that you will never experience."
Davis says that the consequences of getting it wrong are profound. "All these small, little, tiny events, if you don’t design them correctly, can just cascade into maddening spaghetti wires of death that you'll have to rip out and redo over again just to get the smallest little effect of timing change that you may have learned is critical in order for the experience to play out correctly."
He claims that it's incredibly frustrating if you haven't designed your tools correctly. "You also have to build your scripting in a way that allows you to go back to the initial placements of the core foundation of the experience, and actually change them drastically and in a sort of fine tuned sort of way without causing an entire construct to collapse. You can think of each horror zone as a little realm that's almost an entire level's worth of scripting in and of itself.” Bad VR horror design can potentially cause as much unnecessary suffering for developers as it can for players.