The frightening future of virtual reality

A few weeks ago I attended the first Dutch VR Meetup at the Rockstart-headquarters in Amsterdam. As the name indicates, the meetup was completely focused on the Oculus Rift and its brethren. Many headsets were present to provide a peek into virtual reality video images and computer generated worlds. Some of them even supported by strange contraptions.

A rather classic demonstration stood out because of its effectivity: de fair ground ride from Cyber Space. Virtually enter the ride and you are lifted up into the air with a terrific view of the city underneath you. The remarkable thing about it was that despite the absence of real G-forces, your body starts to simulate the effects regardless (or if your body can’t do that, makes you feel sick and nauseous). As an added effect, you can be ejected from your seat at the highest point of the ride. Tumbling towards the ground it then becomes clear how frighteningly convincing VR can be.

P.T.

That effect was surprisingly enough replicated after Sony’s press conference at the Gamescom trade-event last week. A demo of the then yet unknown PS4-game P.T. was made available for public download. The demo itself turned out to be a relatively concise experience. It featured not much more than walking up and down a single corridor, yet the resulting horrific atmosphere cast within the game was devastating.

Finally, a day later it became clear just what exactly this demo meant: P.T. was a stealth-demo of a new Silent Hill-game called Silent Hills (note the extra ‘s’). At the helm of development was a cooperation of Hideo Kojima (known form the Metal Gear game series), Guillermo del Toro (known for his literally fantastic films) and Norman Reedus (known from the tv series The Walking Dead).

Silent Hill is already known as the intellectual horror game sibling of Resident Evil. The latter indulges in zombies, mutations and heavy weaponry, but the former leaves space for the psyche and toyed with the powerful emotions that define the human mind.

Silent Hills
Silent Hills

Psychological conflict

It’s unsurprising then that P.T. turns out to be a playable fright attack. Walking through the homely yet wrecked corridor is a minimal experience; there’s nothing else to do than walking, looking and focusing on the image. There are no other actions and it makes you feel helpless. No guns, no attacking limbs, no improvised weaponry. Just a hallway filled with items and frightening sounds.

The power of P.T. is thus shifted from viewing to experiencing. Something games can do much better than films. Horror flicks allow you to watch as the films’ characters are slowly picked off. Games used to copy this effect and splice it in-between the playable scenes. P.T. takes a different approach. Instead of letting you experience a theme park ride and show effects at certain moments, it provides you with freedom. The game reacts on your actions and links these to effects, sounds and imagery. It responds to you, rather than presenting to you.

It’s a subtle change, but the moment you notice that everything can be frightening in the game and you cannot trust your own sense, the interest in playing the game becomes terrifying instead. Anything can turn out to be something horrific. During the demo I needed to convince myself to keep playing by repeating that it was ‘just a game’. My mind didn’t want to cooperate.

Silent Hills
Silent Hills

Looking away

There’s a form of solace though: if the game becomes too much for you, you can always look away from the screen. It is at this point that virtual reality comes creeping around the corner. VR-headsets like Oculus Rift for PC or Project Morpheus for PS4 take away this failsafe. What if you are playing P.T. without the possibility of looking away? Your only option being to remain in the game?

Of course, you could just take off the headset if things become too scary, but it’s not really an instantaneous action. It is more involved and an all or nothing aspect. In other words, it’s more difficult to momentarily remove yourself from the game world. Now I was already experiencing difficulty in convincing myself that this game wasn’t real, but how much more difficult would it have been while wearing a VR-headset during P.T.? How would I experience that? Would I even want to? And wouldn’t it border on ‘torture’ rather than ‘fun’?

These kind of games combined with the promise of VR can suddenly put the traditional problems concerning games on edge: how ‘real’ can a game experience become? People not turning into aggressive monsters because of games is mostly true currently, but provide someone P.T. in a virtual reality environment for a few hours and what will happen then? The effect might be many times greater, especially when the graphics used become more realistic.

Cyberspace
Cyberspace

Future problems

The crucial difference between play and work is that you can see and notice the difference between reality and fantasy. Now we are starting to take away the barriers of reality, things could become increasingly dangerous. Is a game like P.T. supported by VR a responsible form of entertainment? Are we going to see the first players literally scare themselves to death?

If that would happen, the game itself would for the first time generate its associated problems, rather than those problems being a side-effect after playing. The result could be an extreme variation of the headache inducing problems of the Virtual Boy-flop and that in turn could spell trouble for the potential of virtual reality.