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VR devs call for restraint on horror games and jump scares

"To throw someone into the most intense experience? We're very against that"

There is much to enjoy at the GDC VR Lounge. Games and 'experiences', in first-person and third, ambient and action-packed, but one in particular has caught the attention of a crowd. They watch as the player spins on the spot, first one way then the other, her mouth slack beneath the bulk of the HTC Vive's headset, a controller gripped in each white-knuckled hand. Every few seconds she screams, a piercing exclamation of what looks very much like legitimate terror. Whether anyone who saw Paranormal Activity at the movies reacted in quite this way seems unlikely. The same subject matter applied to VR, however, is a very different proposition.

"Nope the f*** out of any jump scare kind of game, and try to avoid that. It's really rough on the players"

Owlchemy Labs

In a sense, then, Beast Media Group, the creator of the Paranormal Activity VR experience, has delivered in spades. And yet just a few hours before a panel of developers debated the value of aggressively terrifying experiences as the market for VR software takes shape.

The panel was composed of five developers working with room-scale VR. The moderator, Google's Patrick Hackett, enquired about the medium's strengths, the areas where it is more effective than an experience playing out on a television screen.

"There's one thing that I find it [room-scale VR] does a little too well," said Scott Stephan, design lead at WEVR, the company responsible for the HTC Vive demo, TheBlu: Ecnounter. "I find that scary experiences, horror experiences need to be really finely calibrated. If you see a horror movie on a screen, you have the abstraction. It's not so frightening, and you know you're there for fun.

"I found that, in room-scale VR, things that might be fun on a TV screen, like jump scares... We actually have a rule that no creature should be larger than the size of a small dog. Anything above that and you get this primal, lizard-brain thing of, 'Oh, this isn't a fun scare. It's a survival scare.'

Alex Schwartz, CEO of Job Simulator developer Owlchemy Labs, was more direct, stating that the need for finer calibration was a "soft" way of describing the issue. "I think I would say we would nope the f*** out of any jump scare kind of game, and try to avoid that," he said. "It's really rough on the players. VR is now making gaming and interactive entertainment more accessible than it's ever been, and so to throw someone into the most intense experience? we're very against that. I'd definitely try to push in the opposite direction."

"We're all gonna be taking baby steps. HTC and Facebook have already said '13 and up.' They don't even want to deal with the kids"

Jesse Schell

Stephan referred to the extra "responsibility" involved in the way VR content is presented, and the need to prepare the player for surprising or shocking events. In a traditional game experience, eliciting a visceral reaction might be desirable, but the same content and the same techniques can be heightened to unexpected levels in that new context. Indeed, Stephan even encountered high levels of discomfort among players of early versions of TheBlu - a relatively sedate experience compared to almost any horror game you can mention. WEVR tried to, "mitigate some of that, especially with the use of audio, to be like, 'something is coming. You may not see it, but it's behind you.' You have a responsibility to cue users."

This is not a new concern. In 2014, watched a similar panel in which Cloudhead Games' Denny Unger described horror games that traffic in jump scares as, "the low-hanging fruit of VR." Unger expressed concern that developers would underestimate just how immersive and powerful VR can be. "When the commercial version comes out, somebody is going to scare somebody to death," he said, "somebody with a heart condition or something like that."

Shortly after the room-scale VR panel concluded, spoke to Schell Games' Jesse Schell, who has been working with VR since the early Nineties. He was quite clear that he does not share Unger's concerns over VR's potential impact on the physical health of its users, but he also acknowledged that caution and restraint around the user experience is well advised.

"This is really interesting," Schell said. "The weird, twisty irony of it is that VR works better for children than it does for adults, because their imagination is stronger. It's almost like it's perfectly designed for them, but at the same time that may be way too much. We're all gonna be taking baby steps. HTC and Facebook have already said '13 and up.' They don't even want to deal with the kids."

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Latest comments (8)

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Ha. NO jump-scare games in VR = a lot of YouTubers moaning that they're not getting traffic because that's all they do and that's all their viewers want to see.
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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 5 years ago
And yet it's the scary stuff that makes VR really interesting.. Some may not like it, but a lot of people do like the real 'survival scare' and think that's 'fun'.
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Mark Hardisty CEO & Founder, No Yetis Allowed5 years ago
I remember working at Virtuality (yes, a very long time ago) making early VR arcade experiences. I had friends come around for a playtest (I think it was Legendquest) and remember one of them 'leaping out of the unit, pulling the headset off their heads' as a very blocky, polygonal giant spider appeared in front of them (and I tickled the back of their necks).. Jump scares have been around in VR from the very beginning... Just now, they are probably a bit more realistic and honed to terrifying perfection.
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Show all comments (8)
Robert McLachlan Game Designer 5 years ago
Jump scares are lazy game design, doubly so in VR.

It's harder to generate an atmosphere of authentic horror without simply saying "Boo" every five minutes, but it's what we should be striving for - leave jump scares to the gimmick games and aim for something a little more legitimate if you want people to actually play, complete and ultimately get something out of your game.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises5 years ago
I don't really like jump scares in movies or games. But a deep primal scare? That sounds awesome!!
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Kevin Patterson musician 5 years ago
Jump scares are ok, but nothing beats a very creep atmosphere that builds tension as you go along.
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Ruben Monteiro Engineer 5 years ago
Ahh good old jump scares. The sweet safety refuge of the untalented developer.
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I think I've heard this story before. VR jump scares are so realistic that they will drive you INSAAAAAANE! [insert scary music]

Edited 2 times. Last edit by John Byrd on 25th March 2016 11:20pm

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