When it comes to horror, there’s few things I shy away from. In fact, a large chunk of my media intake has been squarely focused on horror content for as long as I can remember. That’s not to say nothing ever manages to scare me – quite the opposite! Many things still prove spooky within the confines of a good game, book, or film. Nevermind is one of those video games that initially caught my interest during its Kickstarter campaign before disappearing from my radar. It then reappeared during its run on Steam Early Access. At this point, the team were showing off some super creepy screenshots and mostly positive buzz surrounding it. Still, it passed right by me yet again. Now, Nevermind finally added virtual reality reality support which is great news for those of us with an Oculus Rift.
This was just the push I needed to finally take Nevermind for a spin. Despite owning a Rift since launch, I’d yet to even play a horror game within it. The concept of VR horror actually frightened me. After all, seeing copious YouTubers scream themselves silly within headsets made it seem like perhaps the experience would be far too much. After my formative adventure into virtual reality horror, I don’t that’s quite the case. At least, it isn’t the case just yet in gaming history. That’s not to say Nevermind is a cakewalk.
Nevermind manages to scare best when the player simply has no idea what to expect from the entire experience. It opens up in a fairly pristine hospital location and leads one into a false sense of security. Even the introductory patient you’re tasked with starts on a high note. After diving into their mind you’re greeted with a picturesque forest and charming cabin. Things quickly take a turn, and that’s where the game managed to scare me the most. The once green, well-lit forest transformed into a dark, splotchy environment with naked baby dolls strung from trees. As laughable as this would be in 2D (I’ll always contend that dolls are not creepy!) something about the all-encompassing nature of this mental patient’s realm hooked me in. What would normally be worth giggling at managed to unnerve me. As a doll fell from the tree just out of my sight, I gasped.
For all intents and purposes, I had given into the digital world plastered across my field of view. Standard (non-VR) games simply can’t give you this sensation of presence. It got worse as the forest was obscured by black blobs floating in front of the scenery. Although this probably isn’t the case for most players, I happen to have frequent nightmares about losing my vision. This scenery recalled these nightmares and amped up the experience further. Here I was exploring an already creepy environment while being taunted by a legitimate fear of my own. Again, no 2D title could manage to accomplish this. Even with “obscured” visuals, I’d still feel safe in my living room or office due to seeing the real world surrounding the TV set. Aside from the small gap of light underneath the Oculus Rift headset, there’s nothing to cement players in reality.
Fear is Personal
The disappointing aspect is that this wonderfully disturbing sensation did not continue throughout the rest of the patients/levels. It seems spending enough time in Nevermind’s world normalizes the otherwise eerie experience. Exploring a bloodied home didn’t draw on any of my fears, nor did exploring places like abandoned cityscapes. There were definitely moments that felt odd, but that strange deep-seated fear settled down on its own. The best guess I have as to this relaxation phase was due to the realization that nothing could actually hurt me. Certainly not in real life, but also not much in game.
Sure, there’s ways to die in Nevermind, but death is hardly a barrier. The allowance given to staying alive is also so generous that you can almost always get out of dangerous situations. Part of my initial terror was in not knowing what the game would throw at me. But I quickly came to realize what it would do – and what it wouldn’t. Not even being stuck within horrific sequences and set pieces could stir my heart any longer. Instead I felt secure to enjoy the scenery and take it in as some tremendously surreal artistry. When it comes right down to it, Nevermind is playing it safe.
If the game could remain unpredictable throughout then perhaps that instinctual fear would have stayed at the forefront. Unfortunately, most virtual reality developers seem afraid of taking things too far. None of the community knows just yet how people handle different VR stimuli. Some folks have jumped/fallen while wearing a headset from far simpler games than this. Others stay completely stoic and unfazed by virtual horrors. I think there’s a worry that pulling out all the stops could truly harm a player. Even so, more needs to be done. My biggest disappointment is that technology is not where it needs to be yet to create the scariest games.
Biometric Sensor Use
Nevermind actually made me realize the limitation of technology thanks to its optional usage of a biometric sensor. Once hooked up on your PC, your heart rate is read into the game in order to adjust its scares accordingly. If you’re calm, the world is not as frantic. If your heart beat is raised, however, things get all the more messed up in-game. It’s a neat gimmick but one that failed to do much for me. For one, I had no idea what level of fear my heart beat was sending out and how that did/didn’t contrast from the standard game. It also made me realize that the scariest thing about Nevermind was when it appealed to my personal fears. Now, if there were a device that could pump my actual terrifying memories into it, well, that would be a personalized haunted house far scarier than even the best horror title. Until then, it seems the best we can do is utilize biofeedback.
There’s a lot the virtual reality community needs to work out before this technology can truly become mainstream. Even the PlayStation VR is still turning its wheels a bit with standard gameplay concepts shoehorned into a headset. Nevermind shows promise for where horror can go – even though it’s obvious the team held back from truly terrifying players. Still, I’m excited to see where virtual reality horror goes from here. At its peak, it provides an awesomely personal horror show.