Have you ever wondered what it might feel like if you were actually in a horror movie? Wondered maybe, why people freeze in certain situations instead of just reacting? Or simply why the characters always seem to react so irrational? I am no one step closer to understanding these characters after playing the game Dread Halls with and Oculus Rift on PC – it was literally horrible!
Today’s post is structured into two parts. The first will be a description of the game and my experiences playing it. The second part is an attempt to understand my reactions when playing the game and an analysis of the game’s effects based on this anecdotal evidence.
The Game experience
When going into the game I was slightly nervous, anticipating frights worse than anything experienced previously. I wasn’t let down. The first thing I really noticed when starting the game was the sounds. Imagine standing in a room that you know nothing about, and then you hear these eerie ominous sounds of foreboding, or heavy footsteps that sound as though they crush whatever may lie beneath them. All of this comes from an indeterminate direction, like sounds bouncing off walls, masking their true origin (if any). The sounds may as well be “imaginary”.
Remember, everything I describe is based on what I experienced when playing the game, and it is also worth note that the Oculus Rift does have a major impact on the game, it being a pair of glasses that block everything other than the game out of your vision – the game is all you see and hear. When wearing these you are more in the game than ever before and since the game is 1st person, you are also the protagonist seeing the world as you do when you walk around doing your everyday errands.
In the game, you head out of the first door. The sounds from before are still there, and continue to confuse and keep you on edge. The corridors are dark, but your goal is to escape the dungeon, so there is no other choice than to push forward. Oil canisters are placed in various rooms. They offer a bit of relief as they light up the corridors slightly more.
The before mentioned sounds are not a figment of ones characters imagination, as you soon find out. Imagine wanting to open a door, but it is locked, so it takes a while to open, which is fine as it gives you time to peak over your shoulder in order to make sure nothing is sneaking up behind you. Nothing is, for the time being. The door finally opens, but at that same moment, a sound like someone whispering combined with a blowing wind is heard – not a great omen, and generally something that comes to mean danger. You head through the door in spite of the sound, peak around a corner, and a (typical) horror-sound blasts in your ears followed by the screeching of a ghostly girl. The girl in mention turns around, emits the scream, and begins moving towards you. You freeze as a result of it all…
In other words, a typical reaction here is to panic, which may result in ripping of the Oculus Rift as fast as possible and experience the instant relief of being “out”.
One thing is going in the first time, not knowing what is to come, this is bad enough in itself, but to return after experiencing a horrible shock, well, one might want to reconsider. All the same, I played this game twice and with a certain amount of reluctance. Knowing that this girl could appear at any given time, and be in any given room I enter. It resulted in more engagements with the girl and more panicking, but this time around it was more of the “let me get out of here as soon as possible” kind – in other words just running down which ever corridor seemed safe. This is also the only possible way of surviving such an encounter, because there are no fighting mechanisms in the game. As though the girl was not enough there are also ghoulish sentinels patrolling the corridors, and gargoyles in some of the rooms that only move when you don’t look at them (Doctor Who anyone?). But for every encounter I did begin to figure out the various enemy’s patterns of behaviour, and also which sounds are connected to which “monster” – e.g. the whisper-wind warns you that the girl is nearby.
As I progressed through the game, my attitude also changed slightly. Don’t get me wrong, I was scarred throughout, but my general nervousness in the beginning was slowly replaced by a steeliness, wanting to beat this game and not let any of these monsters catch me.
In the end, I found the exit and finally got to take the headset off. I don’t remember the last time I was that relived and exhilarated about getting through something!
A couple of hours after playing I still felt shaken up though. Took about three hours before I felt in balance again so to speak…
Reflections on Dread Halls and the Oculus Rift
Let us start with the actual Oculus, which is really what makes this game as scary as it is. As I mentioned earlier it takes over your visual and audio senses, and additionally it tracks head movement. This last point I found especially effective in creating an increased sense of immersion. The way in which you can physically look behind your back, and see what it 180 degrees behind your character in the game gives a very peculiar feeling. It just somehow made the experience feel more personal. This means that every time you look down to have a look at your map you take your eyes of what is in front of your, which leaves a short period of time where something could attack. On the other hand, the compulsion to look behind your back is almost irresistible once you know that it is possible. It results in many jerks of the head from side to side, and much a looking ones shoulder when opening doors.
One thing I later noticed was the way in which I began to search for and study the patters of my enemies. It is something I think many people automatically do, without even noticing it.
In some games it is more important than others; the Splinter Cell series e.g. bases a lot of its gameplay on the player being able to figure out patrol patters and from that develop the best possible plan of action.
It is not quite the same here, as nothing draws our attention towards the necessity of studying our enemies, other than the fact that you die if you do not, and this will to survive may just be enough to trigger out attention to focus on things that can ensure survival. So, playing this game, although a lot more realistic, ties into ideas that people can vicariously learn how to manage certain situations and threats through stories, and that this exchange of vicarious experience can increase survival chances.
Now before ending this post I want to return to the effects of the game. As mentioned, I reacted quite strongly to the game, and felt it afterwards. I have never experienced a game that affected me in such a way, and I do believe a lot of that comes down to the added immersion from the Oculus. The game in itself was pretty good at setting up scares, but I did play it shortly afterwards without the Oculus, and it didn’t affect me to nearly the same degree. So if this added immersion also affects people who play horror games more, also on a physical level (this merely is a theory that still needs to be research), then it does raise questions for what will happen when this technology develops further?
There are cases of people being scared to death, in the most literal manner, so we know this is possible. Will this effect become an increasing risk as these games become more immersive and scary? And what about the mental affect they can have? It has been proven that games do e.g. not make people more violent from playing them, but that is also based on regular games, on screens we can detach ourselves from and that we can easily distinguish from reality. It might therefore be relevant to raise questions about the possible mental effects these games may have on people who for an extended period of time subject themselves to war scenarios or haunted houses? Mental instability? Post-traumatic stress?
I am not saying these things will happen, or discouraging the development of this immersive technology, I am simply putting some questions out there because they may become relevant, and should, at the very least, not be neglected.
Nonetheless I encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to try out an Oculus Rift, or the like, in order to experience its effects on your own body. It is interesting, exciting, and, depending on the game, scary.
Thanks for reading. And play safe.