When PlayStation VR came out earlier this week, one of its lesser-known launch titles was a horror game called Here They Lie. Developed by Tangentlemen, a studio that includes Spec Ops: The Line co-director Cory Davis and Tomb Raider series designer Toby Gard, it promised something unique in a lineup of abstract games, unconventional sports titles, and tie-ins to non-VR series: an original, full-length psychological horror experience created specifically for PlayStation VR.
Unfortunately, Here They Lie doesn’t live up to its potential. Like many VR exploration and walking games that use an analog stick, the game makes me sick, even when I take the periodic breaks suggested at the end of each chapter. Its black-and-white environments quickly become repetitive and look alternately fuzzy and jagged on the relatively low-powered PSVR system. Its creepiness is overwhelmed by a coating of banal, “edgy” seediness.
Like many VR games of all genres, it feels under-polished and under-playtested. The objects you can interact with are inconsistent, the level pacing is erratic, and the whole thing meanders in a way that is less meditative than frustrating. In many ways, it is neither a particularly enjoyable game nor a particularly satisfying one.
But as much as Here They Lie misses the mark, it’s oddly compelling.
While it’s clearly modeled on horror walking games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Here They Lie draws from unusual sources of inspiration. Graphical problems notwithstanding, the game aims at a vibe somewhere between David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and an M.C. Escher sketch. For much of its length, you’re simply trudging further and further down an infinite series of tunnels and staircases in a mysterious gray city.
It’s a hellish twist on an ambiguously 20th-century world, although touches like record players or your character’s hideous plaid suit put it around the ‘60s or ‘70s. “Devastating reports from dead city,” reads the front page of a local newspaper, The Evening Lamprey. “Victims too numerous to be counted.” The only inhabitants are you, a bevy of animal-headed humans, and a woman in a yellow halter dress whose path you follow.
This aesthetic often falters or fails, whether by becoming too monotonous or pretentious or by slipping into trite depravity, like a red-light-district level that culminates in some erotic encounters between beast-women and televisions and a vaudeville act involving public hanging. Even when it does, though, it’s a refreshing change from the normal deluge of VR zombies, Lovecraft pastiches, and haunted houses / forests / mansions / circuses / asylums.
The levels alternate (again, somewhat roughly) between exploration, horror stealth sequences, and ominous surrealist set pieces that evoke virtual art projects like The Unknown Photographer and Never Forget: An Architecture of Memory. Subway stations shrink around you and erupt in flames, buildings splinter into thin air, and every death sends you into a sea under a blood-red sun, whose edges slowly twist into a door back to the city.
The best thing to do when you see cruelty is look away
Beyond walking and finding the occasional photograph or typewritten page, the main mechanic in Here They Lie is sneaking past enemies, which usually won’t attack if you avoid looking at them. Amnesia used a similar mechanic, but Here They Lie seems to apply it literally: you can catch something in the corner of your eye, stare down at your virtual shoes, and sidle by while it growls and gurgles a few feet away. In practice, this is often boring or even a little ridiculous, especially because the game’s path is convoluted and dependent on hitting certain checkpoints to make architecture change around you — you don’t feel like a character navigating a world, just a player trying to guess what the developers are going to do next.
Sometimes, though, the mechanic leads to fascinating moments. In the red-light district, for example, not everyone you see will attack you on sight; most are harmless, preoccupied by drinking, dancing, and loitering. A few, though, will prey on both you and the bystanders. And the best method of avoiding them is to see some poor creature being attacked and turn the other way.
In other cases, you’ll approach an ordinary citizen only to quickly realize that they mean you ill — a friendly seeming couple beckons you over, while one of them reaches for a cinderblock. The safest thing is to trust no one, to walk with your head down, hurrying ahead. It’s oddly reminiscent of walking a real, unfamiliar neighborhood at night, warily ignoring everyone around you but feeling like you’re unjustly judging them by doing so. You are defenseless in Here They Lie, but you also have great privilege: you’re the only one with any chance of escape.
In this respect and others, Here They Lie evokes The Void, a 2008 survival horror game by Russian studio Ice-Pick Lodge. While it’s far shorter and simpler than Ice-Pick Lodge’s work, Here They Lie is similarly grim, enigmatic, and periodically confusing — just awkwardly designed enough to feel a little avant-garde. Both games throw players into a decaying netherworld they can’t readily understand, making them physically vulnerable but incredibly important.
The difference is that The Void was fascinated by the particularities of that world: its characters, its social order, even its literal ecosystem. (It also didn’t make me physically ill.) The spaces of Here They Lie, meanwhile, turn out to be little more than generic metaphor. The scraps of writing and spoken monologues that pepper the levels never add up to much, nor — based on the game’s vague ending — do the occasional moral choices you have to make regarding the city’s inhabitants.
Which is too bad, because journey-to-the-center-of-the-mind solipsism is far less intriguing than having to navigate a place full of real (or at least fictionally real) individuals with independent inner lives. As the frequent “NO EXIT” signs around Here They Lie’s city might remind players, hell is other people — or, at least, the most interesting version of it is.