Let me start by saying that I don’t like being scared. I don’t like watching horror films, and I don’t play horror games (with the exception of the Dead Space series). With this in mind, I actually tried my first VR horror game last week at GDC — The Brookhaven Experiment — created by Phosphor Games, a development team made up of two Chicago-based developers: Creative director Steve Bowler, and Jeremy Chapman, who is the game’s VR director and lead animator.
The objective of the game is simple: take out as many monsters as possible before they kill you. At your disposal is a gun and a flashlight. At the beginning of each level, you’ll have the opportunity to upgrade your flashlight or gun in a variety of ways, such as increasing the flashlight’s battery life or the gun’s clip size. Later on, you’ll even have the option to add better sights to your guns for increased accuracy.
It was somewhat easy to handle the first wave, despite my shaky nerves. Every few seconds, I would turn around to make sure that a monster wasn’t creeping up on me. When I did see one monster approach, I could only make out its silhouette. These terrifying beings don't slowly walk up to you, which adds to the overall tension. Instinctively, I aimed for its head and hoped to kill it quickly, but after the first two shots hit it in the face, it didn’t seem phased, and I shot four or five more bullets at it before it went down.
It was then I noticed that more monsters were headed my way from another direction. Already terrified, I shot a few of them in an effort to slow them down. One of them was already close enough that I could discern its horrifying and grotesque facial features. I unloaded the rest of my clip on it to no avail, so I was forced to reload as it continued to land a few hits on me. After a few rounds of ammo, I somehow managed to kill it and survive the wave.
Wave number two was more difficult in the sense that more monsters appeared at seemingly faster intervals. I was able to take one or two down. As a morale booster to myself, I told the developers, “This isn’t too bad.” At that point, I turned around and almost fell to the floor. A giant monster had crept up behind me. Terrified and in desperate need of a change of underwear, I fired my gun as fast I could. Unfortunately, I ran out of bullets, and I was so scared that I couldn’t reload my gun in time, and I died.
One of the developers’ main objectives, according to Bowler, was to give the player a feeling of helplessness. Certain aspects, such as the limited visibility of the flashlight and the inaccuracy of the gun at long distances contribute to this effect. Even your position in the game is fixed. You can’t move or teleport anywhere in the game. You’re stuck one spot, and you have to stand your ground.
“We want you to feel frustrated and scared,” he said. “Even reloading the gun takes up a lot of time.”
With helplessness comes fear. There’s a growing sense of doom that will cause you to waste ammo or mistakenly let a monster sneak up on you from behind. The experience is so terrifying that both Chapman and Bowler are still scared when they play it, even though they both know the spawn points for all of the monsters.
In this frenzied state, it’s hard to take in certain elements that the duo carefully placed within the game, such as the accurate movements of the gun. Even the action of pulling the trigger will cause it to move a few degrees away from your intended target, which changes the bullet’s overall trajectory. Rapidly fire a few rounds, and you’re likely to badly miss a monster, especially at long distances. Bullet conservation is key to your survival, and that means that you have to let the monsters come closer to you before you kill them.
A Taste Of What’s To Come
The game is still in the development stage, and Bowler and Chapman have more work ahead of them before the game comes out on April 26 for the HTC Vive. They will continue to add certain story elements, such as the ability to listen to radio conversations as you go on a pursuit for the monsters’ leader. There’s even talk of an endless mode where you have to survive for as long as you can, and then you can compare your score to other players on the in-game leaderboards. Both men recently played the Bullet Train demo, and they believe that they can use that experience to improve the authenticity of the in-game pistol.
Obviously, there will be many horror games in VR that follow in the footsteps of The Brookhaven Experiment. However, this was my first experience of horror in VR, and after a wave and a half, I’m convinced that the genre works well for the new medium. Just don’t expect me to try more of them in the future.