Immersion is possibly one of the most important and intangible aspects of gaming. A first cousin to suspension of disbelief, immersion is what allows you to dissolve fully into a game, forgetting for minutes or hours that you’re just pressing buttons in order to manipulate shapes on a flat screen. It’s what bridges the gap between interactive code and genuine human experiences. Tension. Joy. Horror.
I put a lot of stock into immersion so the second coming of virtual reality really intrigued me. I’m old enough to remember Nineties VR. It was not good. The headsets were too heavy. The graphics were lifted from Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ video. These things – plus the prohibitive cost – reduced VR to a novelty best semi-enjoyed for a few minutes at Dave and Buster’s, not for hours at home.
The second coming of VR – the Oculus, the HTC Vive, and the PSVR – promised to change all that. The new hardware was supposed to be more affordable, more comfortable, and capable of supporting graphics on par with what we already play on our consoles and PC’s. Modern VR was reported early on as converting people into believers immediately upon contact.
After being gifted a PSVR last year, I’m certainly a believer. And if you’re a horror fan who can clear the still-not-insignificant price barrier, you should be too. Two horror games have been released for the PSVR in the past year that in my opinion more than justify the current price of entry.
Resident Evil 7
I’m not a Resident Evil die-hard. I always enjoyed the games when they stuck closer to creepy locales and monsters, my eyes glazing over once they reached the inevitable climax of sci-fi superlabs and bio-engineering. I also wasn’t a fan of the third-person POV. So Resident Evil 7, which seemed to deliberately minimize the Umbrella shenanigans in favor of a consistent backwater bayou Texas Chainsaw vibe and went full first-person, checked all the right boxes for me. It’s a fantastic game on its own merits, with a meaty campaign and plenty of reason to replay it once completed.
But I feel a terrible pity for people who weren’t able to play it in VR.
When I recall my time with a given video game, I remember the controller I used. I remember what apartment I was in, and what wall the TV was against. I remember if I was alone or if people were with me. I remember any feelings particularly engaging moments may have evoked, but I also clearly remember playing the game and the environment I was in at the time.
When I recall my time with Resident Evil 7… It’s harder to describe. The lines are blurred. I almost remember the Baker family plantation in Dulvey, Lousiana as an actual location I visited once, as though some part of my brain was tricked by my ability to look in any direction and see the virtual space I occupied. For certain, it’s a location I remember as a game world; graphics have not yet reached real-world fidelity. But still, there’s something to said for its ability to deceive the brain.
There’s an early boss fight I’m going to semi-spoil for anyone who hasn’t played the game, but it illustrates what I’m trying to describe.
You’re in a garage when the patriarch of the Baker family introduces himself in the ghastliest way possible. It’s gruesome and in-your-face, which is where these horror-themed VR experiences for better or worse find their bread and butter. But after that it transcends cheap shock. Quickly determining your attacks do nothing to this guy, you jump into a car, which obviously you can look around in great grimy detail. You can then drive over Pa Baker… until you can’t. He disappears.
I clearly remember this moment when, for a brief second, I was pulled out of the game long enough to realize that I was lifting up in my chair and craning my neck to look over the front of the car for the missing Pa Baker. It was the kind of horror moment you’ve seen in a dozen movies, but I was physically acting it out, heart racing, eyes narrowed.
And when Pa Baker ripped the roof off the car and leaned down into my face, I screamed. Out loud. When he yelled something about taking me for a ride, slammed on the gas pedal, and drove the car full speed towards several steel beams – one of which appeared to come within inches of my face – I reeled back in my seat, consciously aware what was happening wasn’t real, but sub-consciously… It was immersion on a level I’d never experienced before.
That’s probably why my one complaint with Resident Evil 7 was that it ended too quickly. Nine hours is alright for a single-player experience, and there’s plenty of hidden collectibles and DLC to keep you going longer, but I wasn’t ready for my first foray into virtual reality end. I immediately went back to the main menu and started a new game. That’s as high a recommendation as I can offer for any game, because I have backlog issues.
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
The second horror gem I experienced on the PSVR was actually the first released, but I had initially passed on it because I didn’t have a tremendous amount of faith in the Playstation Move controls. It so happens that was a valid concern in general, just not with Until Dawn: Rush of Bood. It’s true, Rush of Blood can be played with the standard DualShock 4 controller, but I recommend going the extra mile to play it a pair of Move controllers, which work great with this particular game.
Rush of Blood is an on-rails shooter, in every sense. The gameplay has you in something akin to a carnival ride, moving along a fixed track while shooting at the various and increasingly horrifying things that pop out at you. It’s not a complex premise and, with only seven short levels and a couple of alternate paths, it can be completed in about two hours. But all this can be forgiven in exchange for the sensation of unloading dual-wielded pistols into the face of a screaming wendigo four feet away from you.
Fans of Until Dawn – of which this is a prequel – will get a little extra out of Rush of Blood because without knowledge of the original title’s story, the images in this game have all the context of a professional haunted house. Things are jumping out at you and yelling ‘boo,’ but the uninitiated won’t have any understanding as to why any of it is happening or what it all ultimately means. That’s not a dealbreaker by any means. Also like a professional haunted house, the narrative isn’t nearly as important as the adrenaline rush that accompanies your eyes telling your brain that you’re in a position of imminent peril, despite what it knows to be contrary.
Whether you prefer atmosphere with a dash of jump-scares or vice versa will determine which of these two games you prefer, but they’re both solid and indicative of the same conclusion; VR gaming lends itself to horror particularly well. But as exceptionally good as I think these two games are, I can’t responsibly recommend paying the price of admission without mentioning the scariest thing about the platform – its uncertain future.
Despite the quality of these games and quite a few other non-horror titles, developers have yet to flock to the platform in droves. Outside of Doom VFR and another Until Dawn, there’s not a ton of horror on the PSVR’s horizon, which is discouraging. There’s a reasonable hope that what we’ve gotten thus far is the tip of the iceberg and high-profile titles like Skyrim VR will continue to drive demand, but given Sony’s past history of abandoning hardware when it’s not immediately successful, getting people to put faith in that may be a hard ask.
Still, if you can get past the price point, which is currently considerably lower than usual for the holidays (Rush of Blood is even free to PS Plus subscribers through January), and the idea that it may be an investment with limited future return, the PSVR paired with these games is an immersive horror experience unlike anything else in the whole of gaming and definitely worth checking out if at all possible.