When it comes to horror in VR, how scary is too scary?

I’ve played horror games before, but not like this. Never like this.

I’m sitting alone on a Saturday night in my PlayStation VR, headphones clamped around my ears. I’ve just come down from a high, playing several hours of Battlezone, exploding tanks and thudding cannons ricocheting around my headset. As the Kitchen demo starts, I find myself looking in a scummy kitchen, at a bloody body on the floor, and at a video camera on a tripod, pointed in my direction. Sony’s VR headset isn’t offering wish-fulfillment anymore, but confining me into a prison.

The controller, too, has turned against me. Cleverly, the act of holding the controller means my hands, tied together onscreen, are the same distance apart in real life and the game. Then everything goes to hell. It’s not a real horror “game”, in that I’m a passive observer, watching as the bad things happen to me instead of being an active participant, but it has me thinking: maybe horror in virtual reality is a bit much?

Of course, maybe I’m a self-confessed horror coward who once sobbed his way through a match of multiplayer Slender while singing “Hakuna Matata”.

Still, there’s no denying that Kitchen’s villain is terrifying – a greasy-haired, long-limbed woman that seems to have stopped by on her way to a starring role in the latest Japanese horror movie. If the experience lasted any longer than five minutes, I’d wager that few people would make it to the end without doing just a tiny bit of a wee.capcom-kitchen-e3-2015-750x500

(Above: Kitchen)

Thing is, while there will always be those on the bleeding edge – looking to get the most intense experiences and revelling in the idea of being tortured, stalked and spooked – for many consumers, virtual reality horror could just be a bit too intense. For those players, how can developers make sure they don’t cause unnecessary upset?

“When we’ve worked on horror concepts before,” said Tim Edwards, innovation director at Bristol-based VR studio Giznode, and a self-admitted horror fan, “the one challenge is we don’t want to scare people too much, because it can impact people’s suspension of disbelief. It’s hard to get a balance, because if people are too scared they’re often in the headset thinking ‘it’s just virtual reality, it’s not real’ when you’re trying to immerse them in a world.

“When you think about the concept of ‘too much’, it’s more about what the player is expecting to see. If you tell them it’s terrifying then they know what they are getting into. You can’t really crank the horror up to 11 from the get-go, because it’s all about suspense.”

Suspense and pacing are key aspects for horror in VR, and everyone I’ve spoken to says that players need to be lowered into the experience. After all, a virtual-reality headset is more than just a screen strapped to your face. It’s designed to put you into a virtual world, and it can be a bit disconcerting when the entire purpose of that virtual world is to terrify you.

I was left sour on the whole concept of virtual reality after my first experience with it. I was playing an early prototype of Sega’s Alien Isolation, a game that later canned its VR aspect. Virtual reality was, and still is, something more akin to the Wild West when it comes to design. Ignoring all of the plans about slowly lowering the player into a situation, I was dropped into an enclosed map and told to get from one side to the other before the Xenomorph hunting the area finds you and brutally murders you.

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(Above: Alien Isolation)

I stomached three attempts, the first two ending at the gaping maw of the Xenomorph itself, and the final attempt ending with its razor-sharp tail punching through my… the characters’ chest, and leaving me feeling nauseated and done with VR. I’ve slowly been tempted back over the years, but it’s an experience that’s never left me. It soured even the flatscreen version of Alien Isolation, the appearance of the beautifully designed Xenomorph filling me with the memories of the dreaded virtual reality experience.

“Research shows that when deeply shocked, humans stop being able to empathise and consider what’s going on, so they should be gently lowered into the experience rather than being thrown in at the deep end,” said Sam Watts, operations lead at immersive digital studio Make Real.

“Horror games in VR open a whole new ethics discussion around [the] level of intensity.”

“With that said, horror games in VR open a whole new ethics discussion around [the] level of intensity. We’re likely to see someone with pre-existing health conditions potentially have a fatal reaction… It seems so more believable and inescapable compared to traditional flat ‘2D’ monitor-based games ,since you can always look away. Humans seem to love to be scared, and there is an element of bravado around horror, especially about being able to cope with it – but really, how far will VR horror game developers go? We’re focusing on making serious, fun games rather than going for the quick easy win with a jump scare.”

Watts also mentioned a recent Black Mirror episode, ‘Playtest’, where a young man is fitted with an alternate-reality implant that can make horror happen in front of his very eyes. Avoiding any spoilers, it doesn’t go too well for him, and Watts warns of similar upsets for those looking to push the boundaries of virtual-reality horror. It feels hyperbolic to suggest virtual reality could actually take a life, but it seems that if the circumstances were right, it could definitely be a factor. From there it seems possible that VR content could fall under something similar to the Hays production code, limiting what you can do with this new technology.

The answer, perhaps, is developers coming to an uneasy agreement on what is and isn’t acceptable for horror games, or holding themselves to an unofficial code of conduct. Just as developers learnt how to make jumping, sewer levels and, well, microtransactions palatable to the common gamer, could they soon teach us how to deal with first-person death, or torture?

Only time will tell, but this ratcheting intensity has to be a consideration for those working in the medium. After all, at this stage it’s not just horror games that can get a little bit too intense.

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(Above: The Climb)

Even when it’s not trying to, the enclosed nature of virtual reality often means even the mundane can be terrifying. I struggled with the Samsung Gear edition of Minecraft, feeling panicked and enclosed as soon as I dug into the earth, and VR climb-em-up The Climb made my stomach wrestle its way into my mouth the first few times I took a tumble off of a mountain.

“It isn’t fun to feel like you’re about to die.”

“I would say in games that aren’t horror, we shy away from making people feel uncomfortable from things like falling or crashing at high speeds,” said Edwards. “It isn’t fun to feel like you’re about to die.”

There’s no quick fix for this, but developers need to ask a crucial question: does anyone really want to be the helpless protagonist in a VR horror game? On the evidence of what we’ve seen produced for VR so far, the answer’s not a simple one, but it’s going to be a conversation that comes to define the horror genre in virtual reality over the next few years.

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