The New Nightmares

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” - H.P. Lovecraft

The American author, father of cosmicism, and creator of such mythical beasts as Cthulhu, Lovecraft was famous for practicing what he preached. Sadly never having found much fame or fortune in his life, he is posthumously revered for his works featuring malevolent monsters whose motivations weren't always so clear, yet the fear they instilled was innate, existing subconsciously, in all of humanity. Lovecraft was right, too. Fear is something inescapable. It's necessary for our own survival. Anyone who says they are truly fearless is lying. Fear keeps us alert, hearkening back to the days when our ancestors were constantly at war with the elements as well as other animals. Fear can keep us alive. When do we feel more alive than when we're threatened with imminent death?

Such feelings that we all share are why we as people seek out experiences that deliver to us these intense moments of fear. We want to reach out and touch death, but we don't want to keep it forever. Roller coasters allow us these moments, as do haunted houses. Horror and the experience of fear are well represented in different forms of media -- movies, books, and, of course, video games. As an interactive medium, gaming is already ripe for these experiences, too. It puts us in the body of the haunted or threatened. When we venture into Silent Hill or Raccoon City, it's us, the players, taking on those roles. Developers are forever trying to go darker, deeper, to the core of players' fear response.

Just recently hitting stores and already fast expanding as a tool with which developers can tear down previous barriers, virtual reality technology is here. Among all of its benefits, its greatest gift will be giving us the most terrifying and memorable scares the industry has ever seen.

A xenomorph can't possibly be more nauseatingly terrifying, can it? With VR, yes it can.A xenomorph can't possibly be more nauseatingly terrifying, can it? With VR, yes it can.

The arrival of VR in games has not been met with universal excitement. Many remain dubious, as evidenced by a poll we conducted a few months ago where almost 30% of respondents said they aren't at all interested in VR, while nearly 40% said they remain skeptical and will need to be convinced that the technology can live up to its mountainous hype. I don't fall into either category. I'm very excited for the technology and, if the reviews are promising and the launch titles are worthwhile, I plan on being an early adopter, a behavior I rarely partake in, of the PS VR.

I hope Xbox gets more involved with it as well, beyond the impressive things they're doing with augmented reality. I believe VR will enhance the way we play games in numerous, far-reaching ways, though I do acknowledge current faults. The machines are in their infancy, however, and I don't think it's fair to judge the future of possibilities based on things that might need tweaking over the next few months and years. So yes, I'm a believer. And as a fan of horror games above all others, I'm impatiently waiting for the tech to come home with me.

When I watch videos of people playing VR games, most seem pretty interesting. There's a vast spectrum of quality being shown across the numerous titles right now. Some look like excellent current gen games while others are blocky, barely-there attempts at ages old visuals. Job Simulator, a good example, is as goofy as it sounds, and sort of represents the tech as a whole. Many titles are gimmicky right now, which is to be expected. People are paying for the new experiences, so initially, plenty won't be worried about engrossing story or top notch graphics. The moments VR delivers with a headset on will be enough to sell the idea, at least for some people, and at least for a while. For dedicated gamers that are looking for the most true to the medium experiences however, horror will be where to put your money.

The blinding fog of Silent Hill would be even more debilitating if we were there ourselves.The blinding fog of Silent Hill would be even more debilitating if we were there ourselves.

Imagine the scenarios we've seen or read in countless scary stories over the course of our lives. Now put yourself in those situations. To walk the stairwells of the Amityville house unwelcomed by malevolent spirits, or the boiler rooms of Springwood, stalked by an evil man with knives for fingers, these are situations that would be much more unnerving if we weren't just watching them, but experiencing them. It's why games work as horror stories, and removing the barrier that sitting in a room looking at a TV inherently constructs is the next evolution of delivering the best horror games. VR allows us that thrill. Not specifically Amityville or Nightmare on Elm Street games, at least not yet, but there are plenty of haunted houses, paranormally intense locales, and insane asylums playing host to the VR experiences that are out now, and over time many more will hit stores.

Like a lot of current VR games, these are experiences, not so much stories, being sold to us. But again, that works for now. I've played almost every horror game the past few console generations have had to offer, and I'm ready for the next experience. Horror is criminally underdeveloped already, so VR's perfect fit should provide a boost to the number of games being made for the genre. Traditional horror will retain a special place in the lives of those willing to take dark trips through questionable graveyards, but if you're a horror fan, there's really no downside to VR gaming. It will only make what you love better. Over time, as the technology evolves and advances, these simplistic haunted house simulators will grow to become narrative-driven games where the jump scares are secondary to unnerving atmospheres and mysterious pasts. The games industry has an enviable number of extremely talented people in it, working on new ways to tell stories and deliver gameplay all the time. Optimism says these minds will deliver these next level horror experiences.

Would you walk through this door?Would you walk through this door?

There are other genres that will benefit greatly too. Racing games come to mind, as do certain sports titles and varied adventures that we can't possibly imagine going on in our normal lives. But what adventure is more grand than one where your life is imminently threatened? Reaching out, touching death, with no real-world consequences. The science behind sleep paralysis already informs us of how innately afraid of feeling vulnerable humankind is. When our minds awaken but bodies remain paralyzed due to the physiological stages of sleep, some people naturally induce visions of shadowy intruders lurking in doorways, at the edge of our beds, sometimes even choking us. The mind panics when it feels so vulnerable that it creates reasons as to why it feels that way. Blanketed in shadows, in the unknown, we're left terrified as to what their intentions are, what they're capable of.

Moments later, when freed from the paralysis, we realize it was all in our heads, but it doesn't matter. For all intents and purposes, it was real. And that feeling stays with people. For minutes, days, sometimes forever. That's the promise of VR. With the right creators, and the constant march of progress, these new games will leave us shaken long after we remove our headsets, in ways few games have yet done, and in some ways I'd bet no games have ever done.

When I play a horror game now, I do so when my family is asleep, the lights are off, the sun is down, and I can provide the atmosphere needed to give the game its proper setting. With a headset, the game does all the scene-setting for you. You're pulled into that world by the headset removing the world from your perception physically, but also mentally, emotionally. Like Lovecraft said, fear is the strongest of all human emotions, especially that of the unknown. With VR horror finally here, and constantly improving, there will be days when I need to remove my headset and find not more darkness, not the unknown, but the rescuing sun, waiting for me to catch my breath from the encroaching horrors I only narrowly escaped.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.