Even with the virtual reality (VR) industry being so nascent, there has been a tendency by some developers to stick to easy norms – wave shooters anyone? – but that’s not the case across the board. A lot are trying to be innovative with this expanding medium, experimenting with ideas that aim to push the boundaries of VR and what an immersive experience can be. Gattai Games is one such studio, going for a visually simple, highly stylised design with its sound-based stealth thriller Stifled.
The Singapore-based studio first unveiled Stifled back in 2016, winning several awards prior to its first demonstration at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) last month. The demo, showcased on PlayStation VR – it’ll also support Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and consoles – began in a full colour, 3D world as you would expect from any modern videogame. There’s been some sort of incident where you find yourself in a forest, then as you start to explore the area suddenly becomes dark with white outlines of trees, rocks and other objects only visible. The world can only be seen through sound, a sort of echolocation, where making noise highlights all of the surroundings in a rather creepy line drawn style.
It’s this echolocation mechanic that’s the fundamental principle behind Stifled, in which the videogame picks up noise from the headset microphone – ambient or from yourself – to send out a pulse. As the title was being showcased on the convention centre floor (that sort of environment is naturally very loud), Gattai Games also employed a sound button to send out the pulse – a quick press would send out a little pulse while holding down the button would send out a louder shout.
But Stifled is a thriller/horror experience and the echolocation has a twofold effect. You need it to see, don’t make any noise and the world around you is black so you have no idea where to go. So by design you keep making noise to walk through the level, the flip side of this is that there are creatures lurking in the darkness just waiting for you to make yourself known.
It was interesting playing through the videogame with this in mind, the first half of the level was all outdoors and not being able to see any great distance certainly made Stifled feel compact, even claustrophobic at points. Because of this you don’t tend to dash through like you might normally do, making progress slow but steady, ramping up the tension as you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
After the forest Stifled then moved underground, into some sort of sewer type environment, with loads of pipes, railings and walls making that sense of confinement even more pronounced. Up until this point very little has happened, there’s not been a great deal to actually do or interact with. But it’s here that the first glimpse of an enemy appears, and vividly so. The black and white environment suddenly gets a flash of colour, the white lines turn red as a creature scrambles about behind a partially broken wall, looking like some weird baby as it screeches away.
The demo finishes with you and the creature in the same room, lurching towards you, death seemingly imminent. It’s an experience that leaves a feeling of puzzlement and intrigue all in one. Gattai Games has certainly created a title that builds a unique atmosphere that likely builds in longer play sessions. The downside to it all was the fact that apart form the echo location the demo really didn’t let you do a great deal, just a lot of wandering about.
Stifled definitely has a character all of its own. The concept plays with your mind in ways other horror experiences try and fail at – playing in a home environment will likely make that even more pronounced. An experience that just keeps you tense and on-edge isn’t enough however, so hopefully there’s more to uncover in the darkness.