If I had known what Dead Secret really was I probably wouldn’t have reviewed it at night when I was home alone. I knew from the pictures and from the little I could find to read about online that it was a point and click murder mystery. I didn’t know about the creepy, paranormal science aspect of the game and I’m not going to lie to you, it freaked me out at times.
The story revolves around a gossip columnist from a small newspaper in a smaller town, but she dreams of her big break and moving to the city to do real reporting. A scientist who was living with a much younger woman winds up dead and she is sent to get the juicy details of their torrid love affair for her column. But having the sniffer of an intrepid reporter she spots something on the coroner’s report that everyone else missed and realizes there is more to this story than an old man shacking up with a girl young enough to be his daughter. Realizing this could be her big break she sets off to solve the mystery.
The game begins with her (you) standing in the front hallway of the victim’s home and directly in front of you is a large mirror. One of the better, immersion additive effects in VR is moving your head and seeing it move in game, whether it be because of your shadow or, often to greater effect, because you are looking in a mirror. It’s a good thing that I was alone in the room for this part because I probably looked like a complete doofus rolling my head around, looking up and down and side to side for several minutes while I watched my character mimic me in the mirror. It’s a cool effect that is slightly marred here by judder in the reflection.
There is only one direction to go because the other direction is blocked off by boxes and a piano that have been hastily stacked in the hallway. One of the things you notice in the mirror is that you are wearing a cast on your arm, which was a neat way to explain why she can’t just move those things out of the way and skip ahead in the game. So you head the other way across the hall and there are two doors. One leads to the study and you don’t yet know where the other leads because she refuses to go anywhere except the study.
I realize that sometimes in order to make a story work you have to restrict the player movement. Having a dialogue box pop up explaining why the character won’t do what you are asking them to do is a pretty old gaming concept, but I hope it’s something that we don’t often see in VR. There are many other places in the game where you are prevented from going off course because it’s not physically possible for her to do it. The door is locked, or it’s for some reason jammed or there is something in the way that she can’t move with her broken arm. But if I’m supposed to be the character it’s a little weird for me to decide I want to go somewhere only to have the game tell me that I don’t actually want to do that. Why not lock the door then? It’s by no means a game breaker, but it is just an odd choice, especially when it was handled better in other places in the game.
It didn’t take me long to get a Resident Evil vibe from Dead Secret. Exploring an old house, trying to find items that I need to progress, secret passage ways, the sound of a typewriter as words are written on screen and the way a 3D model of the items you find comes spinning into view over a black screen all made me think of the first Resident Evil. At the beginning I actually said that it was like a “not-scary” Resident Evil. But the game would soon lose the “not-scary” qualifier, and once it did I had to keep taking my headset off to make sure that I wasn’t surrounded by murderers and ghosts.
Actions are controlled by looking around and watching for the dot in your view to change into something else. Shoes if you can walk somewhere, a magnifying glass if you can inspect something and a hand if you can take something. It’s all stuff you will be familiar with if you have played an adventure game before, which isn’t to say that it’s old hat or boring. Far from it. But rather that it’s easy to pick up and you don’t have to spend time figuring out what to do. Even if you have never played an adventure game, you should have no trouble with Dead Secret.
Movement can be handled in two ways. If you have a strong negative reaction to motion in VR, you can turn on comfort mode, which has the screen fade out and back in at the new location, kind of like teleporting. I tried this for a few minutes but left the game to switch out of comfort mode because I find it totally immersion breaking. But if you simply can’t do motion then it’s good that there is a mode for you to be able to enjoy this game as well.
If you are on the scale of motion sickness somewhere between mild and not at all then you will be fine with comfort mode turned off. What Robot Invader has done to limit vection induced sickness is to remove all acceleration and deceleration. The moment you start to move you are going at top speed and that speed does not fluctuate until you get to where you are going. They also have you moving in straight lines only. If you have to go around something you will walk to the corner, stop, physically turn your body, choose your next destination, and then move in game again. As someone who almost never experiences sim sickness I can’t tell you whether it works or not, but I can say that it feels natural. When I first heard how they handled motion I thought it would feel really fake, but it doesn’t. In fact, if I didn’t know they were doing it, I probably wouldn’t have guessed it.
Perhaps my nostolgia is getting the better of me, but I think that Dead Secret looks pretty amazing as well. It definitely looks like a video game. There was nothing in the game that I felt could have been real, but it doesn’t have to and I appreciate it when developers know this and work with it. It may not have felt like I was in a real world setting but it did feel like I was actually inside a video game, and to be honest, for the twenty odd years I waited for VR that is what I was waiting for. I wasn’t waiting for real life, I was waiting to be inside a video game.
In my opinion what is best about the look of Dead Secret is the sense of space. I don’t understand why some games pull it off better than others, I’m sure that there is some sorcery involved but I was just standing in the doorway of a bedroom in the game about ten minutes ago (as of writing, obviously) and I was looking across the room and really appreciating the sense of depth, the sense that I was looking into a space that was actually there.
I often try to induce presence in VR and usually I fail, but there are times when I am able to trick my mind and, for a few seconds, I get it. It feels like when one of those Magic Eye images emerges after you’ve been staring at the flat image forever. You don’t really know what happened, it just all of the sudden comes together and you hold perfectly still because you know that it’s fragile and you don’t want to break it. I was able to do that with Dead Secret in a couple of places; once was in the bedroom and once was while walking outside.
I often try to induce presence in VR and usually I fail, but there are times when I am able to trick my mind and, for a few seconds, I get it.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it but I was physically walking on the spot, holding my arm up as if it were in a sling and when I looked down my walking matched hers, my arm was close enough that it felt like the image of her arm wrapped around mine and they became one. So much so that, even though I knew it wouldn’t happen, I felt somewhere deep down in my brain, that if I moved my arm, hers would move too. And then I got an overwhelming sense of presence. It startled me actually. Sadly as quick as it came, it left again. But not before leaving me with a distinct impression of how great VR can be and hopefully will be on a regular basis in the not too distant future.
If a game is going to be scary the sound has to be done well. When I play the horror game Dreadhalls with the sound on I often can’t even finish it. But if I turn the sound off, suddenly it’s no harder to play than Tetris or Mario. Dead Secret is not Dreadhalls scary, but it is unsettling. As I mentioned above, there were quite a few times when I had to take the Gear VR off of my eyes just to make sure there were no murderers in the room.
For the most part Dead Secret doesn’t have music. Instead it relies on the amplified sounds of your footsteps, the caw of crows outside, or the creak of doors and floors to build atmosphere. When it does have music it’s usually subtle and creepy and leaves you feel like something important or scary is about to happen. Often the people in charge of sound on movies and in games will say that if they did their job well you won’t really notice it. not that you won’t hear it, but that the sound doesn’t draw your attention. I had to load up Dead Secret twice while writing this just to check on the sound and make sure I was correct about there being no music a lot of the time. And honestly, I would wind up engrossed in the game and forget to pay attention to the sound. That means they did their job very well. My only complaint, and it’s a small one, is the voice acting could have been better.
Dead Secret plays like a whodunnit novel. And like the best among these novels it has the main overarching mystery as well as many smaller ones that crop up as the hero tries to solve the main one. It is a deeply satisfying story that fits together well and at no point are you ever certain who the killer is before you reach the end. And there are several endings to be reached. It is reminiscent of older games in the horror genre while never losing it’s own identity. Dead Secret is a must play for all who have a Gear VR.