Whether you’ve run out of rings and you’re dodging fireballs in Sonic the Hedgehog, creeping around under a cardboard box and trying desperately to avoid detection in Metal Gear Solid, or simply forced to make a difficult decision that’ll affect the course of events in games like The Walking Dead, there are plenty of interactive experiences that can play with our emotions and fill us with suspense.
Game developers are always on the lookout for increasingly successful methods of making gamers connect with the game, invest deeply in their character, and truly feel suspense when something goes wrong (or is about to).
With VR games, though, comes an unprecedented opportunity: games can become more immersive—and therefore, more intense, scary, and suspenseful—than ever before.
The Terrifying Power of Atmosphere in Gaming
All gamers can point to a specific title in their past that has succeeded in really making them feel like the peril in the game is genuine—for me, that game is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
This game is hardly the darkest of videogames—in fact, it’s not even the scariest title in the Zelda franchise, but its shadowy environment, creepy noises, and formidable monsters meant that, even from the first dungeon, players experienced a very tense, occasionally petrifying gameplay experience. Even as an adult, it’s hard not to buy into the game’s moody atmosphere and feel a little uncomfortable when hearing the scratchy-scratch of hidden enemies lurking in the dark.
Creating a sense of peril is something that games do very well naturally, but maintaining that peril is difficult when the player is in control of their experience. If a gaming experience becomes too nerve-wracking, it’s easy to look away from the screen—the distance between the player and their game needs to be shrunk for a game to truly feel immersive, and for there to be a sense of consequence to failure.
In this aspect, virtual reality shines, and titles like Loading Human, which put players directly behind the eyes of their avatar in a rich colorful world, give gamers an opportunity to increase their level of immersion by taking away their ability to physically remove themselves from the experience when things get tense.
Yet the technology of VR isn’t enough in and of itself to create the level of immersion required to truly amp up the levels of suspense that players feel throughout a game. In order to get the most out of these experiences, it’s important for developers to fall back on the key building blocks of narrative in gaming.
For the most part, VR games are about the freedom that comes from removing input barriers. Moving the camera by turning the player’s head feels natural, and gives the player more control over the way they experience a game. This leads players to interact with the world around them instinctively, as they develop greater immersion thanks to their newfound freedom, which better prepares them for the uneasy feeling of losing that power.
Suspense in gaming comes from a lack of control—the idea of knowing that there is something lurking in the shadows or some key plot point coming that can’t be avoided or prepared for. The anticipation is, if anything, more psychologically impactful than the eventual climactic arrival of the event itself.
A friend of mine once told me about his most tense moment in gaming (warning: spoilers for Portal incoming): playing to the end of the popular first person puzzle game, he found himself stuck on a conveyor belt that was moving inexorably towards a furnace. My friend explained that, for an instant, he panicked—whereas throughout the rest of the game there were plenty of surfaces available to create portals onto, he found this corridor completely barren. The game’s biggest freedom—the ability to create portals to escape death—had abandoned him in this instant. Once he was used to playing with a certain game mechanic, losing that ability was what led him to a heart-pounding, blood-pumping moment of suspense.
This narrative device is often used throughout games to force players to sit up and pay attention. Even the two-dimensional platformer Metroid Fusion utilizes a hugely overpowered enemy which leaves the player no choice but to run away or face death. This challenges gamers’ perceptions, as retreating is not normal protocol for a videogame.
Nowhere to Turn
The freedom of controlling your own movements in a game, and getting the chance to see directly through the eyes of your avatar, creates an opportunity for the tension and suspense within story-based games to rise to greater levels than are previously seen.
This happens in two ways: firstly, there’s the inescapability of the experience. Players can’t turn away or disconnect from the play experience during tense moments. The outside world is cut out to the point that the simulation dominates the player’s senses. Sounds and music engulf the player, refusing to let them leave the experience of the game behind. This creates a far more emotional, suspenseful experience when engaging with the game world. The player has lost the freedom to separate their consciousness from the game, and as such, the experience becomes far more intense.
The second way that VR games amp up the suspense is far more subtle, and has to do with characters and their motivation. As a VR headset makes the gaming experience inescapable, interactions within the game feel more realistic, and the player can’t help but empathize with the characters they meet.
In Loading Human, for example, the player is motivated by a desire to help their father recover from a terminal illness. When a story like this plays out on a screen, audiences will naturally feel sympathy for the characters’ sufferings. In VR, though, this isn’t a disconnected character that’s in pain: you’re interacting with them as if they were a real, living breathing person. It’s from this that the tension of the game comes: the player isn’t just working towards an arbitrary goal, but is instead pushing to save the life of a character who feels very real.
With VR comes an excellent opportunity for games developers to provide an intense, atmospheric experience for the players. Through forcing the player to enter an immersive world that they can’t easily turn away from and limiting their control over the situation, VR games can reinvent the way players interact with a game world, and produce plenty of exciting, suspenseful moments as a result.
Loading Human is a truly unique experience, where players enjoy greater levels of immersion and personal investment than is typically possible in games. Click here to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on all the exciting new developments with this groundbreaking VR title!