Back in the 90s, the idea of virtual reality was as sought after as it was unrealistic. Attempts were made to create a truly immersive console, though most were categorical failures. For a while, that idea faded, until the 2010s. Now it has reemerged, only this time the prospects are much brighter. New iterations of virtual reality are pretty astounding, and the question now becomes, how do we utilize this technology best. Naturally, virtual reality will not work for every game. Sure you can play every game on it, but the design and intent works best only with certain types of games. And frankly, there doesn’t seem to be a better genre to put onto virtual reality than the horror game. Yes, any first person shooter will be interesting and fun to play, but horror is the only genre where the experience is absolutely enhanced, completely. Not just “This is cool, I can pretend I’m this person.” That might look nice and interesting, but in the end the experience itself doesn’t change much. Meanwhile the difference between a horror game on a regular console and on a virtual reality console is a wide canyon.
Now I have never gotten to play on a virtual reality console. Not for lack of trying, one has simply never been available to me to try. So to simulate the experience, I enjoy watching YouTubers play through horror games on the Oculus Rift. This is essentially the trifecta of horror gaming enthusiasts—scary games played by YouTubers on virtual reality machines. All these elements somehow work together perfectly. But along with that, it is simply a matter of understanding what makes horror games scary.
First, it requires the right mindset. Certain people will almost never be frightened by a horror game, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, in the same way some people don’t cry when they watch Toy Story 3. On the other hand, some people get way too scared. Horror enthusiasts are somewhere in the middle—frightened enough to not be bored, but not so much they’re scared away.
The second thing you need is atmosphere. Immersion. No horror game works unless you can lose yourself absolutely in the game, no distractions. That is the essence of a horror game. Obviously there are other factors as well, but that is the absolute key, and it is what separates a terrifying game from Resident Evil.
What does that have to do with virtual reality? Well, what is the difference between virtual reality and your PC? It’s the immersion factor. You can play the exact same way on both, but one is full on immersion. You can’t look away from the screen, if you jump the scene jumps with you. You are trapped in this world, and the only way you leave is to pull the entire thing off (or, close your eyes, but I wouldn’t recommend that). Even someone usually unfazed by horror would likely feel a little uneasy in that scenario. The idea is so perfect that creators of the Oculus Rift predict that someone is likely going to have a literal heart attack and die from jumpscares within the game. Personally, that seems like an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
Now, this is an obvious argument to make. “Of course horror works well on virtual reality, it’s all jumpscares, you can’t just look at other stuff, why you telling me this?” Mostly because there’s actually more to it. Horror creators already know about the prospects of virtual reality. If they weren’t before, they are after playing Alien: Isolation on the Oculus Rift. The key is finding the limits to this. Yes, you can just make horror games the way you’ve always been making them and stick them on a virtual reality console and call it a day. Or you can get inventive and make something especially for virtual reality. And this is where horror games on virtual reality have actually gotten interesting.
One of the first horror games to show up on virtual reality consoles was Alone, and it had a very simple premise, somewhat Five Nights at Freddy’s-esque. You didn’t move, instead you could only explore the room you’re in, while playing video games on the virtual TV (you’re playing a game in a game essentially). The scenery and the game changes as time goes on, becoming more eerie and unsettling. As a regular horror game, it would likely be subpar at best. As a virtual reality horror game, it suddenly beckons highly uneasy feelings. Virtual reality is an opportunity to take things far more mundane and make them horrifying.
And then there are alternative routes to virtual reality. Night Terrors is an augmented reality app set to be released sometime soon. The premise is you will point the camera around your house, and create your own “found footage,” as the app places all kinds of spooky things around your house. The premise is truly fascinating, and this is just an app for your phone. What’s going to happen when the HoloLens is ready for commercial release?
The HoloLens, for the uninitiated, is Microsoft’s take on virtual reality. It combines the concepts of both augmented and virtual reality in a way, promising an experience seen only in science fiction. The images don’t appear on a screen, but rather are projected in real time, right in your living room. It’s been advertised using Minecraft style imagery, showing people playing the equivalent of hologram Lego. But we know what the real purpose of a tool like this is. This is the final frontier for horror—combining the immersion of being right in the action and putting it in a place you know all too well. If the thought of being stalked by a monster isn’t scary, the thought of being stalked by a monster in what is unmistakably your apartment is far, far worse.
Of course, those capabilities are still somewhat far off, though perhaps not as much as we think. More work is going into motion sensing technology, perfecting it so it can work better than the Kinect. Even your typical haunted houses are relying on technology like this, and almost moving more towards becoming like video games. Interactive and fully immersive haunted house experiences are increasingly popular, and even run of the mill haunted houses are using things like 3D to enhance the experience. They aren’t just “walk through and look at things on the other side of the mirror” style anymore. How are things like augmented reality going to come into play 30 years down the line?
The unfortunate end result to all of this is that people are going to be less and less scared. This is already happening; people aren’t afraid of the same things they were a few decades ago. Thus technology continually advanced in an attempt to scare us worse. Until eventually we create the robot uprising, and given how things are going, our robots are going to look like necromorphs, zombies, and aliens more than they will terminators.