Buy any headset, and what are the first experiences you find? Rush of Blood? Don't Knock Twice? Dreadhalls? Now, they don't sound that cheesy...
Today I want to touch just briefly on VR's elephant-in-the-room, the Horror genre, and how we as VR critics and consumers perceive it.
A big reason to keep this blog short would be that I haven't played much VR horror. It's scary! It would be pretty shameless of me to talk about something I have no knowledge on (but I will proceed to do so anyway), however I do have a background on consumer culture, and film festival audiences in the medium. If the Horror genre wants to be taken seriously in VR, maybe the pundits should at least look at the games.
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YOU COULD NOT PAY ME.
We know Horror with a capital H previously exists as a popular, and historied genre of media. We also know it can be done well. Midsommar (2019), looked like it was on it's way to scraping an Oscar or similar accolade not too long ago. The movie It (2017) grossed $701 million dollhairs, baby. And you don't have to convince me that horror videogames are the best thing ever.*
Not to mention books, (The Haunting of Hill House, House of Leaves, M.R James) radio dramas, (War of The Worlds, Welcome to Night Vale), and let's stretch a bit and apply this to music too (The Paper Chase, Rob Zombie, Nick Cave).
Horror, despite sometimes perceived as being lowbrow, is fiercely well-liked. This isn't unique to Horror, this can apply to most Superhero movies too. And don't forget Comedies! They are hard to do right - but it happens.**
So why is it a problem when we see it in VR?
At it's simplest, VR is a medium uniquely able to perform sensory overload on it's users. Lots of games we see on the Oculus store are little more than elaborate set-ups for jump scares.
Just by looking at the front page of stores like this, it is impossible to discern between the "pop it on your gran" 5-minute freak-outs, and actual story-based experiential content. The 5-minute flicks may be a demo, a shoot-em-up, or maybe just a shock video to watch one time and then lob across the room. This content is something with no replayable value, which enacts the "thrill" of being scared, but ultimately, feels good to take off.
COULD TAKING IT OFF BE PART OF THE EXPERIENCE?
What everyone likes horror for is... well, generating adrenaline. They're a bit like rollercoasters or extreme sports. Where these activities are similar is that they need to end. You can't skydive forever, you need to land and get that "phew!" feeling. When people enjoy being scared and tense for a prolonged time, it's a bit more like... edging?
Psychological horror usually inflicts discomfort and dread on the audience, capitalising on fear and tension of the unknown. The human psyche is often weaved into the plot. Whilst feeling scared, the audience usually have a disturbing, yet intriguing mystery to keep them occupied, watching in hopes of a long-term payoff. An unflattering theory on plot twists is that they are used to make a story appear intelligent, or make the viewer feel intelligent, just for following along.
I might suggest psychological horror games are a bit like walking sims, with an extra spicy kick. They are about the mystery and the resolution - discovery and all that.
Regardless, Psychological Horror is not always brainy and sophisticated - these games and films can be shit too. In the end, it's each to their own. VR Horror may be someone's introduction to the medium, and put them off forever, but equally it has a chance to enthral them all the more.
There is no denying Gaming audiences love first-person-shooters. And they love arcade games, too. Consider how VR shooters can be meaningful for the player in an extended way. In VR, a player may get scared, get excited, and get immersed, but their experience may be transformative by giving them the chance to take control. Perhaps in VR, there lies a real-world benefit, the ability to overcome adversity and change as a person, even the potential to overcome one's fears. Something we are already seeing in the medical field, with trauma.
RESIDENT EVIL 7 BIOHAZARD (2017)
SHOOTING THINGS IN THE FACE IS TOTALLY EMPOWERING
GOOD STUFF I LIKE
Mule (2016), a VR experience, previously screened at festivals as a intermediary theatre piece. At such events Mule could be viewed whilst sat in a coffin. Creator Guy Shelmerdine has described his studio Dark Corner as; "crafting experiences that transport the viewer to places they could never visit in real life — or wouldn’t dare to.” which yep, fits the bill for good VR. The film is a rather simple embodiment in a body - a dead one. This horror-adjacent film, whilst still gimmicky, at least teases the audience with a story, and uses a slow and restrained pace so we can take the time to ingest the events. Although I didn't experience the film this way, I still think this piece is elevated by the use of a physical theatre prop, the act of laying down, and an accompanying actor greeting you as you arrive.
Dark Days (2016) Billed a bit like an escape room, what Dark Days is really, is an old-fashioned point-and-click. Solve the puzzles throughout different environments, occasionally run and hide from a symbolic little gremlin, but do it all in 360 degrees. Dark Days is made by some of the Life is Strange (2015) team, so it shares a few good things in common, like the graphic style, character-driven plot, gay stuff, mystery/thriller, and touching story. There are different endings, and unnerving environments to explore, all within the framing of a serious psychological horror.
Um, ports? This may be a jammy answer, but I would recommend porting anything and everything you already enjoy to VR if you have a headset yourself. Here, Beardo Benjo, a Youtuber I just found, has ported Amnesia Rebirth (2020) to an Oculus Quest 2 with VorpX. The developers of the Amnesia series (2010-2020), the Penumbra series (2007-2008), and Soma (2015), Frictional Games, produce the crème de la crème of the survival horror genre. It is a shame they have said porting their games to VR is not a priority, and hard to do. However, the community have found a way. Whilst I wait for more trustworthy content to become available in VR, at least I can play games I know the extent of brick-shitting to expect.
SOMA (2015), PLEASE
This isn't to say I don't believe there is any other good content. There are tonnes of reviews online. It just takes some light reading to decipher what survival / psychological / shooty / experiential is right for you.
Please play them so I don't have to.
*They are the best.
**I'm sure you don't believe me. Shrek was a comedy, and so was Little Miss Sunshine and What We Do In The Shadows... c h e c k m a t e .