If you’ve had so much as a passing interest in virtual reality (VR) technology over the past few years, then it’s likely crossed your mind that head-mounted displays (HMD) are a perfect companion to the horror genre. The isolation and immersion provided by the likes of the Oculus Rift can create an atmosphere unlike anything achievable with a standard screen. As those more deeply invested in VR will no doubt know, many developers have already tried to capitalise on this. The Oculus VR Share platform, a portal for free VR software, is littered with scary experiences while some high-profile studios such as The Creative Assembly have been using the Oculus Rift with their projects such as Alien: Isolation.
But, as genre fans will tell you, there are many forms of horror. Looking at the Resident Evil series, you can see these different types at play with the slow-daunting atmosphere of the PlayStation original, leading all the way up to the tight, pressure-based thrills of Resident Evil 4. VRFocus has talked about translating these types of horror to VR before, but one subgenre yet to be discussed is psychological horror. These are the kind of scares that try to mess with the player’s mind rather than make them jump or succumb to pressure. Nowhere is this done better than in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.
Silicon Knights’ 2002 Gamecube classic is fondly remembered for playing with its audience, much like what can be seen in parts of Metal Gear Solid and then later on, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and even sections of Batman: Arkham Asylum. In this third-person adventure players had to maintain a sanity meter that would drop when they were injured. When the meter was low players would be subjected to reality-bending scares such as whispers that increase in volume the lower the meter and even simulating issues with the player’s TV or console. In VR, these effects could be even more traumatising.
The very concept of VR is already performing half of the work needed to pull off these effects properly. VR is trying to trick players into thinking what they are seeing is real using convincing 3D imagery and accurate head-tracking. Once that sense of presence has been achieved the developer is essentially free to do what they like to players. Imagine using the head-tracking to put in place systems in which players would be suspicious of someone following them, with shadows and figures appearing at a quick glance but seemingly vanishing on a double take.
Suppose the consumer version of the Oculus Rift has a front-mounted follow-through camera as has been rumoured. Imagine developers taking advantage of this to convince players that the experience was somehow bleeding into real life, with insects creeping out of cracks in walls, or quickly switching to the camera and planting an idea that someone might be in the room with you. It all sounds remarkably cruel but no doubt something that horror fans would revel in. Yes, the Oculus Rift can make dark and damp places that much scarier, but it can do so much more as well.
It’s a shame, then, that Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem will almost certainly never see a true sequel. That said, Amnesia developer Frictional Games is just one of many teams that could more than capably carry the torch for this under-played genre. No doubt someone will unlock the potential of VR psychological horror as the technology takes off, and that’s both for better and worse.