Putting on a headset and opening your eyes to the world of Half-Life: Alyx, Resident Evil 7, or any of the more recent entries into the category of virtual reality horror games, it’s not hard to make a case for the technology providing a golden opportunity for the next big advancement in the genre of horror. Horror is one of the few genres to continuously follow and benefit from the progression of gaming technology. Avid players of shooters and battle royales perhaps have less to gain from their mainstays being made into more immersive experiences. This is to say, VR seems to be the logical next step for those who desire a higher level of immersion with their horror games. Fixed camera perspectives and polygonal graphics, among other antiquated elements of early horror games, have been traded for a level of player integration that blurs the border between player and playable character. Something changes when the headset is put on; something that may be the future for the horror genre, and gaming as a whole.
Virtual reality games work in a way that every other game released, whether on computer or console, past, present, or future, cannot possibly achieve. The screen of the display on which the game is played is a concrete barrier separating the operator, the player of the game, from the playable character, whatever form that takes. Even in first-person perspective, a certain sense of distance is maintained. Perhaps peripheral vision of the edges of the screen or the distortion of depth perception leading up to the screen allows the operator to ground themselves in the real world. This intrinsic knowledge that the game can only be in front of us is excised entirely from virtual reality. The headset is the screen, and the distance between the eyes of the operator and the screen becomes negligible. The controllers become mimicries of the operator’s hands, meant more to imitate the function of a hand rather than serve as a multitool for certain commands or actions. When we turn around playing a virtual reality game, we don’t look away from the screen; we see what is behind us in the game world. Every audiovisual cue that grounds the operator in the real world is stifled; I often found myself unconsciously avoiding running into virtual walls and trying to lean on things that weren’t actually there.
To that extent, the playable character becomes intertwined with the operator in such a way that it distorts the operator’s ability to distance themselves from the events of the game. Some may feel inclined to pause a game during situations of high intensity. In virtual reality, the ability to pause the game is obviously still present, but not being able to directly or indirectly see the button on the controller that stops the game contributes to its feeling of decreased accessibility. So, when Jeff is first revealed on the other side of the door during the distillery section of Half-Life: Alyx, the first instinct is not to pause the game with a menu, or to run using an analog stick, but to run using our legs. Even with the knowledge that physical movement, beyond that of the head to look around, is rather useless in navigating virtual reality game spaces, I still found myself incredibly tempted to turn tail.
Part of the brilliance of the distillery section of Half-Life: Alyx, specifically pertaining to horror, was its use of Jeff’s gimmick in conjunction with the level design and the required player actions. The player is required to crouch to access certain spaces, cover their mouth to avoid coughing from spores, and throw bottles to cause distractions, all of which contribute to the nervous terror of being confined in a space with Jeff. Repeated failures and iterations of the level inevitably curtail the feeling of horror and replace it with determination or frustration, but the physical trait of Jeff is smoothly translated into an anxiety-producing virtual puzzle, one that stands out in demanding the operator to take physical action. Resident Evil 7, by comparison, offers very few instances of requiring a unique physical action in order to navigate the game world. It might not be enough simply to throw players into the screen of a horror game; virtual reality, by blurring operator and playable character, also encroaches on sensory perception but, as of yet, fails to capture all of them. In doing so, it may detract from the immersion the operator experiences.
When we play games on a console or a computer, we know inherently that the character that we are controlling on the screen is not us. We see through their eyes and hear through their ears, and the other senses we know we cannot experience through audiovisual media alone. On the other hand, virtual reality removes the distinction of the screen; the operator and the playable character. The eyes of the playable character are now our eyes; the same for our ears. We obviously always have awareness of the fact that we are playing a game, but at the same time, there is an element that makes us unconsciously reject not being able to experience the full extent of the senses. We play virtual reality games, particularly horror games, to be more immersed in the game world; to be integrated with the playable character to become part of the game world. In that sense, when we are unable to fully perceive every sense available to the playable character, such as a hand being sawn off or being vomited on with acid, it conflicts with the immersion we desire out of virtual reality. If true immersion and simulated reality is what we desire in our horror experiences, however, it might not be a stretch to say that the future of horror is merely having the horrific happening to us in real life, whether involuntarily or through a McKamey Manor-esque scenario.
The desire for more immersive experiences may be an involuntary product of the push for higher quality graphics. Many recent, non-virtual horror games have taken advantage of stylistic graphical decisions over trying to attain the most realistic visuals, such as Bendy and the Ink Machine or Imscared. Even the horror games of decades ago retain their ability to inspire fear, with their scares reliant on the limitations of their technology. The best of horror in virtual reality may not be a culmination of what the technology can do, but rather a creative consideration of what virtual reality can and cannot offer. Virtual reality may not necessarily need to be perfect in all regards, including visually, to be the jumping off point for the future of horror. I, for one, would prefer that a hand being sawn off stay untranslated into an immersive experience.
By Kendrick Lee