I've always been a fan of the horror genre: movies, tv shows, games, and even Halloween haunted houses - all of it. They almost never actually scare me; sure I get surprised every now and then when something jumps out unexpectedly, but I don't actually feel "horror".
This is NOT THE CASE with virtual reality horror experiences. I've tried two horror narratives so far , Abbot's Book and The Bellows (VR Demo), and both literally made me yell out loud and physically react to try and defend myself against things that weren't really there. If this is how other people feel when they watch horror movies, I can now say that I truly empathize!
I won't give away any spoilers, but I'd like to describe some of the interesting aspects about each application including techniques used to move the story forward, ways they drew attention, and locomotion styles used in each.
Abbot's Book was my first horror experience in VR. This was also the first experience I had that placed me on a ledge, giving me the feeling of extreme height. It was as if I could fall off at any moment if I took one more step forward. Now, I'm not afraid of heights, so this experience was just fun, not anxiety inducing. The old man that stood behind me in the program is what gave me anxiety. He introduces the story, so I'm not giving anything away, but I have to say, he’s really creepy. I began to get used to him, but it certainly took a while.
The locomotion technique in this narrative uses teleportation to move to pre-defined locations, so you don't have much choice as to where you can go. With room scale, you can walk around a little bit, but eventually you will have to rely on teleporting to progress. The developers place this creepy guy in a location where I was always inclined to keep an eye on him, but he was never in my initial line of view after teleportation. Since I like to look around scenes as much as possible, I'd always turn and see this guy standing there, giving me the willies. Having this guy around helped the horror aspect of the narrative to build great suspense. With this guy standing there, I always felt like there was a chance that I was going to be attacked.
There were some surprises, cramped spaces, dramatic lighting, and spatial sounds that made me turn my head. The true feeling of horror came with the lack of any method of defense. Carrying just a torch to light my way, I had no weapon, and when something approached with the intent to do harm, all I could do was throw my hands up in a feeble attempt to protect myself and yell.
The next horror experience I had was a free demo called The Bellows. The full version is released, but I don't even know if I want to buy it considering how terrifying the demo was. This terror, like in Abbot's Book, mostly came from the lack of any sort of method of self defense. This feeling was heightened with suspense from hallway doors that I wasn't sure would stay closed as I passed them by, from changes in lighting as I walked through the house, and from sounds that would constantly make me wonder if something was about to descend on me.
The Bellows starts in a room with a menu asking you to choose a locomotion style. I was a bit surprised that they suggested using the directional pad as a joystick to move yourself around. I gave this a shot and immediately felt my stomach turn. I hadn't experienced VR motion sickness this immediately before. It was instantaneous, but was also a great learning experience. I now know to never try this in my VR development, or else I'll have people bent over a wastebasket emptying their stomach's in real life.
The locomotion style I chose ended up being a unique one to me. I was allowed to walk the whole way through the narrative even with my tiny room scale setup. To do this, I would press the thumb button down to freeze the viewpoint while I physically turned around in my room. I would then release the thumb button and continue walking down the same virtual path, just in the opposite direction in my actual room. I had to do this a lot because of the small size of my room, but it kept the motion sickness away. The unfortunate thing about this method is that it removed a bit of the immersiveness when I had the thumb button pressed. This removal of immersion was surprisingly temporary and certainly didn't remove the terror that came with the story. Once again I found myself throwing up my hands and yelling out loud with no way to protect myself against the horrors.
I honestly don't know if I'll continue trying more horror VR experiences because of how terrifying they feel. These two felt like nightmares while being awake, especially the Bellows. If I build up the courage to play the full version or continue the next episodes of Abbot's Book, I'll write another post to let you know if I emerge with my sanity still intact.