A machine for fear: Ben spent hours playing Oculus Rift horror games and hated it
My first experience with an Oculus Rift horror game came from the short survival horror demo called Breach. I downloaded it from a link someone had sent me, and only glanced at the description. This proved to be a mistake.
The issue is that I thought I was just exploring an interesting, System Shock-style derelict space ship. There were areas where you use a flashlight, and the whole thing was kind of creepy, but I thought they were just going for a basic Event Horizon vibe. I was having a good time exploring the ship, looking out the windows, trying to figure out if there was a point to all this, and then I turned and…
I shrieked. There is no nice way to put this. I screamed and nearly fell out of my chair. You see, there is a creature who is actively stalking you through the ship, and I thought the static noise was just some effect. When the thing finally jumped out at me I didn’t have a single guard up. I wasn’t clenched. Every single one of my fight or flight instincts kicked in and it took some time to calm myself down.
It wasn’t fun. I didn’t have a good time. This was actual fear. I thought about bringing this up when I was editing Andrew’s story yesterday, but I decided it would be more fun to make this a second post.
Besides, I had already made up my mind to go back in.
Spiders, knives, and spiders
It’s hard to explain why the Rift is so effective at horror if I can’t put the damned thing on you. You don’t hear anything from outside the headphones. All outside stimulus is blocked out. It’s not easy to remove yourself from the situation without physically removing the Rift itself; closing your eyes doesn’t do much when you can still hear the monsters to your left or right. It’s overwhelming.
The first game I wanted to try was a demo called Don’t Let Go. It’s an interesting demo. You put on the headphones, hold down both control buttons, and the demo begins.
It’s a single room, and you don’t get to move. You see your virtual arms placed on a laptop, and you can look down and see your body. Then the bugs begin to fly around. You can hear them too damn close to your ears, and you want to take your hands off the keyboard to swat them away. The sensation is incredibly uncomfortable.
A dinosaur comes in and harasses you. Knives fall from the ceiling. A spider crawls from behind the laptop, walks onto your hand, then up your arm, and then begins to chew the side of your head. It’s intolerable.
There’s one last surprise, and it’s what caused me to lose. I won’t spoil it, but you can see a new player enjoying the demo in this video if you don’t mind having the final scare revealed.
It’s pretty tame, actually. There’s no blood, no gore, and only one jump scare. Don’t Let Go is effective at making you feel things on your body, however, and giving you the sense that you’re actually in physical danger. The hands on the screen begin to feel like your hands, and you want to move them to keep from being hurt. Doing so, however, causes you to lose the game.
You can actually try this sort of experiment at home, without a Rift. Check out the video below. It's easy to fool your body into feeling pain that isn't there.
It was time for the main event though. I was going to try Dreadhalls.
You're stuck inside, but so are they
The premise of the game is simple: You need to escape from a dungeon without being seen by any of the monsters inside. You’ll find scary notes, oil for your light, and some coins that don’t seem to serve much purpose. It’s one thing to see a movie of this, and quite another to be inside it.
You’ll notice how close everything else is long before you see a monster. The dungeon is tight, and I’m claustrophobic, so I began to feel uncomfortable immediately. It takes a few seconds to open locked doors, and you never really know what’s on the other side. Sometimes, during the opening process, you’ll hear something bang on the other side.
This is always good for a cheap scare, although seeing nothing on the other side of the door when you do finally open it is profoundly unsettling. Being in virtual reality makes you feel like everything should obey the rules of your normal, physical reality, but of course you’re really in a game. There are no rules. That gargoyle that you see on the walls? You can turn your back for a second, and then when you look back at it the statue may have moved. It may be right behind you.
It feels like a virtual reality version of the Doctor Who episode “Blink” and it’s freaky as hell.
There is something special about seeing something in virtual reality that’s human-sized that cranks up the scare factor. That monster doesn’t just take up a good amount of the screen, he’s at eye level.
And he sees you.
And he’s coming for you.
And you can hear him breathing.
You can run, but after a while you have to stop and pant, and then you’re stuck walking away, looking behind you, hoping the… thing… got lost in the maze.
At any point you can look down and see your map, and it fills in as you explore the dungeon. It feels like magic, like a sort of in-game Marauders Map from Harry Potter, and I couldn’t get over the fear of seeing something right in front of me when I looked up from trying to figure out where to go next.
The screaming zombie witches? Yeah, they’re terrifying, especially since the sound fills the dungeons, and gets inside your head. Everything is immediate, and real, and it’s hard to stay inside the game. You want to remove the Rift and escape, but of course I had a fucking article to write so I was forced to see it through.
I played the game many times, and after a while the monsters become slightly mundane, and you know the tricks to getting around, and the scares wear off. It takes a bit though, and those first playthroughs turned me into a sweaty, panting mess. This wasn't fun, I wasn't having a good time. Being scared in the Rift is too much like being scared in real life, and during a few of the harsher jump scares I was left with that burnt penny taste in my mouth and the shakes.
Time to quit.
What I learned
There are things with horror you can do with virtual reality that you can't do in any other art form, and it's very hard to be strapped into what amounts to a portable isolation chamber and then be subjected to very intense environments. It's not really enjoyable as much as it's thrilling, and it's very easy to be overwhelmed.
This is just the beginning, and horror fans are going to find some interesting things to see and experience when the Rift is released to retail and developers learn how to master these sorts of scares in high definition. This really isn't my cup of tea, and many times I forced myself to keep going for the sake of the article, but if you find yourself bored with horror movies and games, this is going to take things to the next level.
I spent a good amount of time in my office, with the Rift, holding down two buttons and trying to resist the urge to claw my own ears off. This was quite a night. I'm not going to do it again any time soon.