It was a weeknight like any other. Weekdays are busy with work and my evenings are filled spending time with my wife and child. Long after the dark of a Canadian winter set in and my family was off to bed, I finally had some time to jump into my Gear VR undisturbed. During the previous week leading up to this night, I’d read quite a lot about Dead Secret, a murder mystery game. Some reviews described it as an interesting puzzler, but others hinted at something darker and more sinister. Knowing how poorly I handle horror games, the purpose of all of my reading was to convince myself that Dead Secret was too good to skip, despite numerous hints of a horror theme. Tonight was the night I would find out if I made the correct choice purchasing it.
This was one of the first virtual reality games I played that offered a first person perspective in a seemingly normal world. I found myself in a rural home. Alone, or so you would hope. Part of my reading about Dead Secret also involved watching the trailers, and there was one scene in particular that stuck out. After solving a few puzzles on the main floor, I needed to head upstairs. I opened the door to the stairwell and immediately recognized that stairwell from the trailer. A feeling of dread came over me. I took off the headset and called it a night.
I don’t recall exactly how many days passed before I decided to suck it up and jump back into Dead Secret. What I do recall was a plan to overcome the fear of playing through the next few scenes, knowing I’d have to deal with that stairwell again soon. My next session was played in the living room of my home with my wife sitting on the adjacent couch, no more than five feet away. I told her I may randomly talk to her and that it would be very uncool if she tried to scare me. Hearing my tone, she knew I was serious and agreed.
I put on the headset (without headphones) and after some hesitation, I loaded Dead Secret once again. Pretending as if all was fine, I started talking to my wife about something inconsequential, and my plan seemed to be working. I was so determined to get passed that part of the game that my plan was to intentionally break the immersion. There was the stairwell. I searched rooms upstairs in the virtual home, passing the top of the stairwell between them. Then it happened. Without spoilers, I’ll just say that I had arrived at the scene from the trailer. My heart jumped and I seriously felt the fear sinking in. I ran to a door and opened it, afraid to turn around and see what was behind me. I picked the wrong door. I was trapped. Needless to say, it didn’t end well.
I peered out below the headset to remind myself that I was still in my living room at home within a few feet of my wife. Again, I don’t recall exactly what happened before I jumped back in to replay that scene, but I imagine there was some internal “you can do this!” Back in I went. It happened again, but this time I chose a different door. Overwhelmed with fear, I once again couldn’t even get the courage to turn my head around to see behind me, I just rushed to the exit. I made it for now.
That scene had me so scared that I actually struggled to play much more of Dead Secret. I played a bit more, but the fear of another encounter made even the seemingly safest rooms seem terrifying. Once I arrived to the kitchen, I looked out of the window and saw the top of a well. Another disturbing memory from the trailer flashed in my mind. That was it. I was done playing Dead Secret.
The last game that scared me into quitting was “Thief: Deadly Shadows”, thanks to the “Robbing The Cradle” level. Unlike the rest of that game, this particular level had a heavy horror theme. It took place in a haunted building that was previously a mental asylum and orphanage and it was just too much for me to handle. All I recall is narrow hallways, super creepy enemies that have been described as “the reanimated bodies of former inmates”, and locked doors that forced you to pick the lock, not knowing what lurked behind you. This was the exact feeling I experienced playing Dead Secret. I’ve mostly avoided any games with a horror theme since then.
Here’s the big difference between Dead Secret and Thief: Deadly Shadows, I could simply look away from my PC screen while playing Thief. Dead Secret is something else … or should I say, virtual reality is something else. You cannot simply look away from your screen, or peak between your fingers. With VR, you are in that world and turning around in the real world only shows you what lurks behind you in the virtual world. It’s inescapable, short of taking your VR headset off in what ultimately results in being too scared to put it back on. Once you remove your headset, you’re safe in your living room. You’ve instantly escaped that frightening rural home and everything hiding within. You take that deep breath and sigh with relief. This is exactly why I don’t see myself even trying a horror game in augmented reality in the future. If you aren’t following my train of thought just yet, allow me to explain.
Unlike placing yourself in a completely fictitious world in virtual reality, augmented reality alters your real world. You’ll still see your living room. You’ll still have all of the familiar sights of your home. You’ll still see your television and your stairwell; you’ll still see your doorways and your windows. However, in augmented reality, anything can happen within your very home. Imagine this for a minute. I have no idea what concepts we’ll see come to life in augmented reality, but I’m sure that the horror theme will give people a new, ultimate scare.
Perhaps you’ll be able to map out your home, only to have augmented reality alter it as you wander your familiar surroundings. You load up the latest horror game, not knowing what to expect. You see an arrow materialize ahead of you, directing you to the basement. With some hesitation, you walk toward the basement door and pass the same window you pass every day. Only this time, out of the corner of your eye, you see something in that window. You quickly look over and see nothing more than branches swaying, although you were sure it wasn’t windy out. You start heading back to the basement door when suddenly, you head banging at that window beside you. You freeze with fear. As you slowly turn your head toward the window, you feel your stomach sink. There’s something staring back at you.
The same horror concept of augmented reality could portray a number of terrifying scenes. A television that suddenly turns on with some gruesome message or image. A shadow beyond the doorway; an encounter at the top of the stairwell, all over again. But this time, it’s in your home. It’s on your stairs. You remove the augmented reality headset from your head while screaming and the horrifying encounter ends. Thank goodness! You call it for the night, “enough heart-pounding excitement for one day”, you tell yourself. Over the next few days, you find that those experiences are still haunting you. Why? Because they happened in your very home. The same home where you watch that same television. The same home where you once witnessed shadows moving in doorways. The same home with the window that you are now too afraid to look at as you pass it. You aren’t playing that horror experience, but you still have flashbacks every time you pass that window or hear a noise. “Probably just the house shifting,” you tell yourself, because I’m guessing that I’m not the only person who tells themselves that in the middle of the night.
Days pass. You’ve finally dissociated your home from that augmented reality experience. You turn off the television and it stays off. You look out the window on your way to bed and see nothing but the still branches of trees. You pass through a few doorways without hesitation. Finally, you head up to your bedroom. You hear a familiar sound, “must be the house shifting again.” You look behind you as you reach the top of the stairs and you see a figure. You scramble to remove your augmented reality headset and realize that this time, you aren’t wearing it.