How VR Horror Games Mess With Your Head

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How VR Horror Games Mess With Your Head
November 4, 2016

From haunted houses in 'Paranormal Activity' to psychological scares with 'Here They Lie,' VR is finding it's a perfect fit for fear. VRWERX
 
I'm wandering through a dark house in Resident Evil 7, waiting for the jump scare. I know it's going to happen – the signs are there. In the kitchen, fat flies buzz around rotting food and everything is covered in so much grime that it's hard to make where the the dirt meets the darkness. Mannequins topple and move like stiff corpses, a TV buzzes static. The lights are out where I need them most, and the only door is, of course, locked.
 
Eventually, I manage to fix the lights, find the key, head to the back door and escape. And that's when the jump scare comes, finally, and I scream out loud even though most of my brain is aware that I'm in a brightly lit room in Los Angeles, being babysat by a tired Sony publicist who has seen a hundred of these reactions in the last 24 hours.
 
Experiences like this are the reason I'm convinced virtual reality is the future of horror. The monster will no longer just be on your screen – it’s whispering in your ear, or creeping up behind you, invading your personal space and preventing you from looking away. That frightful future is almost here, as evidenced by a series of early VR horror games – some still in development, like Resident Evil 7 and Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul – while two already-released titles, Here They Lie and Until Dawn: Rush Of Blood are all ready to take advantage of the technology to deliver scares in a whole new way.
 
Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul feels, to risk a cliché, just like being in one of the movies: one featuring a poorly-lit house, seemingly-possessed furniture, and the sinking feeling that you’re being stalked by something unholy. (Spoiler: you are.) Playing a short demo in a crowded conference hall did nothing to stop me from screaming at the numerous jump scares scattered throughout the 10-minute slice of gameplay (which, trust me, felt considerably longer). It's a reaction that the actual Paranormal Activity movies never quite managed to provoke.
 
"What VR horror has done has raised the bar on horror storytelling, for everyone," says Alex Barder, co-founder of virtual reality studio VRWERX that worked on Paranormal Activity. "If you're still making a regular movie on a movie screen, you really have to work that much harder to be able to compete with VR horror."

'Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul.' VRWERX
 
Barder actually believes this. He and his co-founder are old school movie and TV executives who've wholeheartedly bought into this shiny new technology's potential to scare. Their time spent working on traditional projects with companies like Sony and Lionsgate has informed the way they've adapted the foundations of Paranormal Activity's lore – ghosts, witchcraft, and human sacrifice – to an environment you can explore at your own pace.
 
"We're uniquely positioned to be able to do this because we fully understand storytelling across all platforms," says Russell Naftal, VRWERX's other co-founder. Together, the two secured the exclusive rights to Paranormal Activity, so if you want to see what happens next in the franchise, you're going to have to experience it in VR version (there are already viral videos of people trying the demo at movie theaters and wailing like murder victims). For them, this is the only way to do horror going forward.
 
"After you've experienced really good VR horror, it's very difficult to go watch a passive experience in a theater or at home where, it's traditional jump scares on the screen," says Natfal. "It's going to really force traditional theatrical movie directors to step up their game."
 
There's no release date yet for Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul. Barder and Naftal claim they're unwilling to compromise on the game before it's in players' hands. Though they're also working on Jesus VR – The Story of Christ (which is exactly what it sounds like), VRWERX is already in the middle of building a second horror game.
 
"We knew we were on the right track when my daughter tried out some of the game," says Russell. "She stopped – and she loves horror movies – and she said 'I love watching them, I don't want to be in them.' Alex and I looked at each other and said, 'We've done our jobs.'"
 
Cory Davis can offer a different angle on the horror genre. He’s also a fan, but his background is in game design, so he's equally concerned with the mechanics of an experience as much as the story. Davis is best known for the F.E.A.R. series, which brought the tropes of psychological horror (it starred a creepy child with psychic powers) to its action-forward FPS gameplay. He followed that with the ultra-violent Condemned 2: Bloodshot and most recently with Spec Ops: The Line, which turned the conventional shooter war story on its head. Now he works as lead designer at Tangentlemen – a new studio that's also home to reclusive Lara Croft creator Toby Gard – and sees VR as a turning point for scary subject matter.
 
"I do think it’s an evolution for sure, I think we’re going to see a lot of people doing really crazy amazing things with it in VR," he says. "We’re going to have more and more ability to bring more realism into the experience,"
 
Tangentelmen's first VR game is Here They Lie, very much a psychological thriller, evokes that moment when a dream starts to turn into a nightmare. As you’re wandering through a bleak cityscape, at the sort of languid pace that suits VR horror, you find yourself peeking into doorways, and there's an equal chance you’ll unearth a story clue or a swarm of horrifying black bugs. Worse, it quickly becomes clear that something is stalking you from the alleys and ledges. Here They Lie plays with color and pacing and perception in a way that I've seen in movies, but seldom in games. It's not a comfortable world to exist in, but a sick curiosity keeps you there.

'Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul.' VRWERX
 
Barder actually believes this. He and his co-founder are old school movie and TV executives who've wholeheartedly bought into this shiny new technology's potential to scare. Their time spent working on traditional projects with companies like Sony and Lionsgate has informed the way they've adapted the foundations of Paranormal Activity's lore – ghosts, witchcraft, and human sacrifice – to an environment you can explore at your own pace.
 
"We're uniquely positioned to be able to do this because we fully understand storytelling across all platforms," says Russell Naftal, VRWERX's other co-founder. Together, the two secured the exclusive rights to Paranormal Activity, so if you want to see what happens next in the franchise, you're going to have to experience it in VR version (there are already viral videos of people trying the demo at movie theaters and wailing like murder victims). For them, this is the only way to do horror going forward.
 
"After you've experienced really good VR horror, it's very difficult to go watch a passive experience in a theater or at home where, it's traditional jump scares on the screen," says Natfal. "It's going to really force traditional theatrical movie directors to step up their game."
 
There's no release date yet for Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul. Barder and Naftal claim they're unwilling to compromise on the game before it's in players' hands. Though they're also working on Jesus VR – The Story of Christ (which is exactly what it sounds like), VRWERX is already in the middle of building a second horror game.
 
"We knew we were on the right track when my daughter tried out some of the game," says Russell. "She stopped – and she loves horror movies – and she said 'I love watching them, I don't want to be in them.' Alex and I looked at each other and said, 'We've done our jobs.'"
 
Cory Davis can offer a different angle on the horror genre. He’s also a fan, but his background is in game design, so he's equally concerned with the mechanics of an experience as much as the story. Davis is best known for the F.E.A.R. series, which brought the tropes of psychological horror (it starred a creepy child with psychic powers) to its action-forward FPS gameplay. He followed that with the ultra-violent Condemned 2: Bloodshot and most recently with Spec Ops: The Line, which turned the conventional shooter war story on its head. Now he works as lead designer at Tangentlemen – a new studio that's also home to reclusive Lara Croft creator Toby Gard – and sees VR as a turning point for scary subject matter.
 
"I do think it’s an evolution for sure, I think we’re going to see a lot of people doing really crazy amazing things with it in VR," he says. "We’re going to have more and more ability to bring more realism into the experience,"
 
Tangentelmen's first VR game is Here They Lie, very much a psychological thriller, evokes that moment when a dream starts to turn into a nightmare. As you’re wandering through a bleak cityscape, at the sort of languid pace that suits VR horror, you find yourself peeking into doorways, and there's an equal chance you’ll unearth a story clue or a swarm of horrifying black bugs. Worse, it quickly becomes clear that something is stalking you from the alleys and ledges. Here They Lie plays with color and pacing and perception in a way that I've seen in movies, but seldom in games. It's not a comfortable world to exist in, but a sick curiosity keeps you there.

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