With the commercial versions of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive releasing soon and a major announcement regarding the PlayStation VR expected during GDC this week, excitement over virtual reality is reaching an all-time high. However, even the best hardware will need great experiences to drive consumer adoption. That’s where games like The Brookhaven Experiment come in.
Developed by Phosphor Games (known for Heroes Reborn: Gemini, Nether and the mobile game, Horn) The Brookhaven Experiment is a virtual reality horror survival game releasing on the HTC Vive on April 26. A demo is available now, and although it was put together in just three weeks by two developers, it already promises to be one of the scariest experiences to hit virtual reality.
Jeremy Chapman, VR director, and Steve Bowler, creative director at Phosphor Games—the two developers who put The Brookhaven Experiment together—talk to [a]listdaily about how fear reaches new heights in virtual reality.
What is The Brookhaven Experiment?
The Brookhaven Experiment is a survival horror shooter experience for the HTC Vive. Something has gone horribly wrong: The Brookhaven Experiment has torn a hole in reality. Terrible creatures are now everywhere throughout Chicago, and as one of the lone human survivors it is up to you to save humanity from these monsters from another reality.
After games like Horn and Nether, what inspired Phosphor to develop a game for VR?
We have a lot of freedom to play around with dev hardware here and one day Jeremy Chapman decided he was going to take one of the Vive dev kits we had home over Thanksgiving weekend and he rocked the original prototype for Brookhaven in a few days. After he showed it to the rest of the office, Steve Bowler got inspired and started prototyping other VR ideas while Chip Sineni (director of Phosphor Games) started prototyping a project on the Oculus Rift hardware. After we wound up demo-ing Brookhaven at a couple of Chicago VR meet-ups, we realized it was the crowd favorite, so Jeremy and Steve dropped everything they were working on and cranked out the full Brookhaven demo in just a few weeks.
What convinced Phosphor to create a game for the HTC Vive, as opposed to the Oculus Rift?
It turns out we’re looking at both! We didn’t pick just one and run with it. For now, Brookhaven is a Vive experience because of the increased presence of seeing your hands and having pure skill be the survival differentiator. We are currently looking at porting it to Oculus Touch when those become available to the public, but we obviously need to finish Brookhaven first!
What made Phosphor decide on an all-new game, instead of adding VR support to existing PC games?
The first thing we learned back when Jeremy and Steve were doing some internal prototypes with the Oculus DK2 and later the Vive was that VR needs to be its own platform. Even first-person shooters, which are the closest analogy to VR from traditional video games, really don’t compare to what happens when you experience VR for the first time. We quickly realized that all of our previous ideas we had for video game conventions had to be re-evaluated when working with VR and we approach working in VR as its own medium.
How does a VR horror experience compare with that of a traditional game?
There’s this unique power dynamic in play with a horror game versus typical gameplay mechanics and controls. Steve took a look into what makes a horror game tick a few years ago, but it essentially boils down to this: true horror or fear can only occur when the player feels a lack of control. That’s really tricky to make feel right, because video games are largely about a power fantasy—the concept of being more in control of something than we could possibly be in real life.
So, to give that sensation of not being in control and not doing any jump scares, we’re doing a lot of really subtle things—the first of which is taking your vision away from you and making it really dark. Then when we give you a flashlight—it only illuminates a short area and a limited distance in front of you and the batteries drain really fast. Every time you think you’re in control, we find a way to take it away from you in a subtle, limiting way. When you put all of those sorts of puzzle pieces together, you can start scaring people pretty effectively.
Are there extra challenges in promoting a VR horror game, compared to a traditional one?
There really are. We have to present the game in a light where it looks just scary enough that people are curious of how that works and want to try it, but hopefully can laugh at themselves at the same time. The fear you’re going to feel in Brookhaven is real. We’re not using a single jump scare. We’ve created “situational horror,” and even when you think you’re performing brilliantly, you’re eventually going to make a mistake, and suddenly you went from feeling unstoppable to completely terrified.
We’ve had people scream… loudly. They instinctively jump backwards from the threat and lash out with their hands. It’s your body’s natural fight or flight response reacting to threats your brain is perceiving as very real things in front of you. That’s the magic of “presence” in VR when you get it right; we’ve fooled your entire self that this threat is real. So, we have a really fine balancing act of trying to make the player have a heart-pounding scare of their life, mitigated with feeling like they’re accomplishing feats they could never face down in the real world. That’s a huge challenge, and I think we’ve found a happy medium, as everyone keeps coming back and asking for another run at it.
How soon do you think it will be before we see mass adoption of VR?
We love this question, because we’re there now and most folks haven’t realized it yet. This is it! We’re at the very cusp of mass adoption. Ten years from now when everyone is enjoying VR in their home and work, possibly in their self-driving cars, we’re going to look back at 2016 as the year the magic happened and people got to experience VR for the first time.
Oculus ships at the end of this month. Vive ships a week after that! PlayStation VR, which is VR on your home game console you already own, is later this year. You’ve got GearVR which is a great entry-level experience using just your phone and a $99 piece of equipment that’s been out since Christmas 2015. If this isn’t the dawn of mainstream VR, we don’t know what is. We’ve only met a handful of people who, after trying the current VR systems, aren’t immediate converts. Seeing really is believing. Literally in weeks, you will be able to go over to a family member or friend’s house, try VR, and see it for yourself.