This just in: I think I’m too much of a baby for horror games in VR. This afternoon I tried out the demo for Paranormal Activity: The Virtual Reality Game on a Vive, and in the few minutes it took to play I screamed out loud three times. Well I say screamed, but these were more like shameful, quivering, shrieks. You can see for yourself, thanks to the video which is embedded further down the page, but let the record state that I wasn’t screaming ironically or anything. I didn’t even know I was being filmed.
Also note that I proudly consider myself a horror aficionado, and have watched pretty much every scary movie released in the last couple of decades—right down to the bottom of the Netflix one star review barrel. But there’s a big difference between watching other people in peril and being the one who it’s happening to. I’m also particularly susceptible to jump scares, as the video, which I presume will now be my only legacy in this world, confirms.
The game is in currently in alpha and due out on Vive and Rift this summer. The Vive version is likely to arrive first because developer VRWERX wants to focus on using the twin controllers, though traditional gamepads will also be supported.
Structurally, it’s a survival horror sort of experience. You’re exploring a modern but spooky house familiar to the ones that provide the setting for the movies, and you progress by manipulating and combining objects—finding keys for doors, batteries for your flashlight, that sort of stuff. You’re effectively playing the part of the kind of person who ends up in the film’s found footage.
Interestingly, VRWERX has opted against the point-and-teleport solution to player movement that Valve seems to be pushing with its own demos. Instead you orientate yourself with your head and then use the touchpad on the controller to slide forwards, backwards and sideways. Your walking pace is steady and smooth, so I only felt a slight sense of the nausea I’ve come to expect from this sort of VR control scheme. (You will apparently be able to sprint at double speed, though, which might be a different issue.)
Having relative freedom of movement made exploring the house incredibly creepy. Do you head for the bathroom with the flickering light or step into the closet with, uh, no light whatsoever? Inevitably, unpleasant stuff soon starts to happen. Your flashlight illuminates an occult symbol on the floor, a mirror cracks behind you, chairs rearrange themselves into a stack whilst you’re not looking… None of those are the things that made me scream, though.
And honestly I don’t want to spoil what the big scares were, but let’s just say they involved pretty classic “jumps”, and the sudden appearance of certain… characters. Whilst another playtester screamed in terror, I asked VRWERX's disarmingly cheerful co-managing partner Russel Naftal whether VR games run the risk of going too far with scares. “We don’t know how far we can go,” he said. “Anyone who’s going to purchase this game loves to be scared. We could already do an entire thesis on people’s reaction to horror in VR. We know when they’re closing their eyes in the game, or trying to rush through it. The thing they do when they’re really terrified is pull the headset off. We’re still trying to work out how far is too far.”
What’s on show here at GDC is only a small slice of the game, and it remains to be seen how deep the gameplay is beyond some item management and big jumps. But as movie tie-ins go it couldn’t be much more appropriate, and horror is obviously going to be insanely fertile ground for VR—if you’ve got the stomach for it. And hey, if nothing else, inviting your friends over and subjecting them to a session of this is going to be endlessly hilarious. Just make sure to keep a phone camera handy.