You kneel down on a wooden platform, several feet above a crowd of murmuring onlookers. To your right is a man, shouting, apparently getting the people riled up. As your gaze continues upward, you have just a moment to notice the blade resting above your neck before — thwack! — suddenly it comes down, and your head starts rolling.
Disunion is a guillotine simulator for the Oculus Rift. Like many of the demos available for the fledgling virtual reality headset, it's a bit rough: The crowd is nothing more than cardboard cutouts and the entire experience lasts just a few seconds. It also makes far less of an impact the second time you try it, since you know what to expect. But Disunion shows the frightening potential of the Rift. While the device can be used to recreate incredible experiences, like flying through the air or piloting a spaceship, its added realism can also make you very, very uncomfortable — which could just make it the ideal platform for horror games.
Horror games played from a first-person point of view have an advantage over more traditional titles like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, as the perspective can make players more immersed in the experience. Unlike third-person play, where you have an expanded view of the world around you, when you're playing in first-person you can only see what's in front of you — making it a lot easier for creepy or crawly things to sneak up on you. It's what makes games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent so terrifying; there's a greater sense of the unknown. And the Rift just so happens to be perfect for first-person games: the headset encompasses your entire field of view, fully immersing you in the game world, while the 3D display provides a pretty convincing recreation of reality. This makes jump scares quite a bit more jarring. And developers are taking notice.
"The eerie feeling that you are actually inside the world."
One of the creepier Oculus games on the horizon is Among the Sleep, where players experience the world through the eyes of a two-year-old child. Things seem bigger — you'll need to look up to see a doorknob, for instance — and all you can really do is stumble around like a toddler, walking or crawling away from danger. "Immersion, and the eerie feeling that you are actually inside the world, is definitely key in horror," Krillbite's Adrian Tingstad Husby tells The Verge. "This is exactly what the Rift offers." And for a game that offers something so different — the ability to experience life from a child's point of view — the Rift also some other advantages, primarily in its ability to simulate what it's actually like to only be a few feet tall.
"We can definitely confirm that looking down at your own baby body, or up at the door handle towering high above you, is quite a special experience while wearing the Rift," says Husby. The headset also allows the developer to simulate a smaller distance between the player's eyes, which, just as it does for children, makes things in the world appear bigger than they are. "The sense of scale it adds also makes everything more firm and relatable, and the child‘s perspective more genuine," Husby says.
The team at Krillbite has managed to play around with an Oculus Rift dev kit already to see how well it works, but even those who have yet to receive theirs are excited about the possibilities. Lunar Software is still anticipating the arrival of its two dev kits, but the platform holds a great deal of potential for the studio's upcoming '80s-inspired sci-fi horror game Routine. Even without the headset, Routine is a game that does its best to completely immerse players in the experience. As you explore an abandoned moonbase, you'll find that Routine is missing many common features — you won't be able to pick up health packs, for example, or see any information displayed on-screen. And when you die, you die for good.
"Your peripheral vision is no longer your living room or bedroom, it is the dark lonely corridors of a lunar base."
Lunar's Aaron Foster tells The Verge: "What really gets me excited [about the Rift] is the extreme increase in immersion. Your peripheral vision is no longer your living room or bedroom, it is the dark lonely corridors of a lunar base." The studio hasn't confirmed that Rift support will be coming to Routine — they're still waiting to get their hands on development kits, after all — but Lunar definitely seems excited at the prospect. "With our horror setting and full-body awareness, we really believe it will make Routine even more immersive," they wrote back in August.
There are multiple other examples of horror games looking to increase the creepy factor by supporting the Rift. Montas, in which players take on the role of an alcoholic suffering from "unsettling hallucinations," is supporting the headset, as is The Forest, an upcoming game where you play as the lone survivor of a plane crash who's stuck on an island brimming with cannibalistic mutants. According to the developer, Rift support will allow for "the most immersive experience possible." In fact, even before the Oculus Rift became a household name and a Kickstarter success story, our very first experience with it was playing Doom 3, a demon-filled first-person shooter.
"It was more about making something strong and radical that your body can feel."
In games where support is being added, the Oculus Rift will simply amplify an experience you could already have on your TV or computer screen, making them all the more disturbing. Not everyone is convinced, though: Dan Pinchbeck, creative director on the upcoming sequel Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs has compared the technology to adding 3D to movies. "I don't think there's been a case yet where 3D has made a bad film good, or a good film great," he told Gamingbolt. "I think it'll be the same with games."
But as Disunion shows, there's the potential for new, terrifying ideas that are entirely unique to the platform. "I never thought of the ‘horror' aspect while making the experience," says André Berlemont, who also worked on Disunion. "To me it was more about making something strong and radical that your body can feel." And as anyone who has played the demo can attest to, it certainly works. "I was definitely surprised by the intense reactions," adds Trummal, "until I got beheaded myself."