Scared Sick: Can Oculus Create Discomfort And Horror?

My arms are aching, I’m anxious and I want to be standing on solid ground again. I’m just about as uncomfortable as I can remember being while playing a game, and I think that’s a good thing.

At Gamescom, I played two games using the Oculus Touch that impressed me. One was Wilson’s Heart, a horror game that reminded me of Frictional’s work, and the other was a climbing game. It wasn’t the horror game that caused my anxiety to spike, it was The Climb. After playing, I spoke to Jason Rubin, formerly of Naughty Dog and now head of Oculus’ “first-party initiatives”. He’s spent the last two years figuring out what VR gaming is capable of, and working with game studios to identify projects that might work and problems that might arise. We talked about what is possible now and what the future might hold.

Rubin stays in his seat for most of the interview. At one point, he jumps up and runs over to a door to demonstrate the difficulty of making a virtual hand interact with a handle, and there’s a moment when he jumps out of his chair while describing the time he tore his trousers while playing Dead and Buried, a multiplayer shooter. He’s animated and enthusiastic, but he begins the interview by asking me a question.

I’d just finished playing The Climb and while the view from the vantage point I’d reached was a splendid reward for my efforts – the game is the most attractive I’ve seen in VR and I paused for a full minute to take in the view – I was disorientated and a little queasy. Hanging from a cliff-face, scanning up and down for hand-holds and then reaching across to them as stamina runs low and tension rises, I’d become quite anxious.

Maybe I’d played the game for too long without taking a break, which is a sign of how much I was enjoying the challenge, but I needed to sit down and gather my thoughts. It’s a remarkable game, played with the Touch controllers, mimicking the movement of your hands incredibly well and using visual and audio feedback to hammer home how close you are to slipping and falling. I was relieved whenever I found a spot where I could rest and started to worry about making my way back down to terra firma, even though I knew that wasn’t necessary.

I hadn’t realised Rubin was close enough to hear my reaction as I finished playing – he may even have been in the room for a brief time when I was climbing and providing a nervous commentary – but he had picked up on something I said to the person chaperoning me through the session. And so, as we sat down, Rubin began the conversation:

“I know we’re working on your time and you might want to jump straight to your questions, but do you mind answering something for me first? You said that this was the first time VR had really made you feel uncomfortable, but said that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. What exactly did you mean by that?”

I’ve played enough VR games to believe that the hardware can create spaces convincing enough to trick my brain into accepting them, but mostly the experience has been pleasant and playful. Games aren’t always pleasant and playful though, and having missed out on Resident Evil 7 VR recently, I hoped Wilson’s Heart would be the game to show me that VR could make me feel uncomfortable, scared anxious and even a bit nauseous.

To my surprise, it was The Climb rather than the actual horror game that managed to make me feel all of those things. I explained that to Rubin and how it made an activity that I have little interest in absolutely fascinating, and intense. The focus on a specific type of movement and challenge brought out the best in both the hardware and the control scheme.

I mention Uncharted 4, which I’ve recently played through, and how Naughty Dog have changed the climbing system ever so slightly, allowing closer control of Nathan Drake’s leading hand as he reaches for hold-points. It’s a tweak rather than an overhaul, giving finer control of a process that is still mostly guided. The Climb takes that one aspect of an action adventure game and builds a whole set of interactions around it.

That wasn’t always the plan though. Rubin described the origins of the game:

“There are three kinds of game we’re seeing in VR: the games that can have a VR element but don’t need it, the games that suit VR, and games that always WANTED to be VR games but couldn’t be before now. A big game, something like Uncharted, could risk falling into the first category.

“Crytek wanted to do a big game, with driving, walking, shooting, climbing. They think big. I asked them if they had tech demos for any of that and they said they didn’t at that time. The climbing made sense so I asked them to put something together and they did – just climbing on blocks, no backdrops or graphics like you see in the game today. It worked though and that’s when I said we should just make that the game. Just the climbing.

“We’re probably not going to see the big game for a while. People are learning how to do things in a new language. Some of that is easy but other things are hard. How do inventories work in VR? Can we use UI in the same way? Things that were never a problem before suddenly become difficult. Movement is difficult. It’s the most simple thing in the world to move a character in a game but in VR it becomes a huge challenge.”

That brings me to Wilson’s Heart. Although the setting hits horror Bingo far too quickly – asylum, amnesia, documents of extreme foreboding – the opening half hour is well-paced and builds up a sense of dread effectively. You move by teleporting from place to place, each possible location indicated by a ghostly figure. There are plenty of things to interact with at each spot, some of which are there to add flavour rather than to solve puzzles.

I ask about the teleportation trick for movement, which I first saw in Budget Cuts:

“It’s an interesting idea because so many designers try to think of a narrative reason for it. It’s not enough [for them] that it just solves a problem in an abstract way, it has to be explained within the setting. I think we have to move away from that kind of thinking.”

I understand his point; it’d be like trying to find a narrative reason for characters being able to carry an arsenal’s worth of weaponry rather than just accepting it’s that way because that way works for the game. It can be interesting to explore these questions but that doesn’t mean they always need to be raised as questions in the first place.

The doors in Wilson’s Heart are my favourite thing though. The game has a variety of them and I’m not embarrassed to say that I enjoyed interacting with them more than I enjoyed actually progressing through the story. Some require both hands to slide two partitions apart, some have handles that must be turned, and others require a gentle push, to which they respond by creaking open and allowing you to peek through the opening.

I like opening doors in VR. It’s an extension of a similar feeling in Frictional’s horror games, which have superbly tactile objects in their environments and allow you to manipulate them with some fine control, inching drawers open rather than clicking a button to shift them from one state to another. My favourite parts of SOMA don’t relate to the story at all – it’s interacting with the machinery and all the switches, levers and buttons.

“You wouldn’t believe how much work the door handles took. The problem is, you’re reaching for the handle and how do we deal with the fact that you don’t actually touch it? Because there’s no resistance in the real world, your hand in the game feels like it should pass right through the handle, through the door, through the wall. A lot of work goes into figuring out how to give that feedback.

For a while, so many developers came up with the solution that the player character should be a ghost. That way, it’s fine for their hands to pass through things. But you can’t have every character in every game be a ghost! That’s not a solution.”

Wilson’s Heart isn’t as immediately impressive as The Climb, as a selling point for the hardware, but it does show that a horror game can work without resorting to jump scare after jump scare, or excruciating violence. More importantly, from my perspective, it plays out a little like a point and click adventure, except without the pointing and clicking. VR is very good at creating believable spaces and having the player concentrate on the details of those spaces, and then, through Touch, allowing interaction with individual elements.

I have a habit of referring to design as a process of finding solutions to problems. Good design doesn’t just find clever solutions, it approaches interesting problems. Rubin is refreshing in that he’s happy to talk about problems. There’s sometimes a hesitance from developers or publishers to refer to problems within design when in conversation with a journalist. I get that. It can sound like I’m trying to introduce a negative spin and the echo could run through an entire article – “Here are the problems developer X faced while designing game Y.”

Rubin is refreshing in his willingness to talk about design as a series of problems, and acknowledges that helping developers to recognise and solve those problems is part of his job. I asked if curation of the Oculus store was important, in the sense that for people who are already wary as to the benefits of VR, a storefront full of games that don’t make good use of the system could be an immediate warning sign.

“Absolutely. Anyone can release a game on Oculus but we curate the store quite heavily. And we choose the developers that we want to work with carefully.

“As I was talking about with The Climb, we’ll work with a developer, even somebody with a lot of experience like Crytek, to help them make the best game possible. Often that’ll mean telling them to think smaller because we know that trying to make lots of different elements work in a single game is a huge task. For now, I’d rather see games that do a few things well than games that do a lot of things and only do a few of those things well.”

The Climb, with the Oculus Touch, was a revelation to me. It’s on a par with the first time I ever used a Rift, back in 2013. I started that article by stating that “I didn’t believe in the Oculus Rift”. Taking a passenger seat in a fighter plane, flying over low resolution scenery, convinced me that there might be something to the tech.

Playing Climb using the Touch controllers gave me a similar feeling for the first time since. It’s exciting and it doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever played.

With Sturmovik and The Climb as my reference points, I asked Rubin to pick out the moments that had convinced him that VR was a plausible future for games.

He describes an early Oculus demo where the player is standing at the edge of a sheer drop. “People will not step forward over the edge. They know that they’re in a room, standing on solid ground, but they do not want to put their foot forward because they can see that they will fall. I loved that.”

And then there’s Toybox, which allows two players to mess around with the contents of a… toybox. Players are represented by a face and two hands, so that their intent and interactions can be seen.

“When you see that avatar, even though it’s abstract and you know that there is nobody in the room with you, people often have a flight response. When another person comes toward you, right up to your face, you don’t know what its intent is: it could want to fight, it could be curious, it could be a sexual thing. There is always a reaction though; people don’t just stand their ground, unaffected.”

Perhaps it’s because I’ve just been playing two games that induced anxiety, but I find the whole idea of avatars in VR slightly unnerving. Rubin agrees that the Toybox experience can be unnerving but also recognises the possibilities of opening up new kinds of social interaction – “There’s a reason Facebook bought Oculus, right?”- and enabling people to experience things that would otherwise be impossible for them.

That’s something games have always excelled at. I joke that the number of fatal falls I suffered in The Climb shows precisely why I should stick to VR climbing rather than the real thing, and Rubin responds with a serious point, telling me about a wheelchair user who played the game at a convention.

“However playing The Climb feels for the two of us, it’s hard to compare to how it felt for him. That’s part of what VR can do as well, placing people in different bodies and different identities. We can enable but we can also challenge how people think of themselves.”

The most memorable moment in Wilson’s Heart doesn’t rely on anything overtly creepy or otherworldly. You come across a mirror and are suddenly face to face with yourself. Except it’s not yourself. It’s a haggard white man who looks like he needs about a week of sleep to shake away the waking nightmares.

For me, that’s a fairly accurate reflection, and yet the scene is still bewildering. Shocking even. I can raise my hands and turn my head, and another person copies my movements. There’s a reason for the scene beyond the reveal of your other self, and I won’t spoil that, but it’s the thing that comes to mind immediately when Rubin turns to playing with identity.

“Imagine how much stranger that would be if you didn’t look anything like the guy in the mirror, or if the person in the mirror didn’t look anything like you. We can shock you and scare you, but what about empathy and thoughts about stepping into a different body? That’s something that we want to explore as well.”


  1. Radthor Dax says:

    Answer? Yes.

    You don’t even have to play any of their exclusive games on their closed and restrictive platform to feel the very authentic discomfort and horror.

    Oculus have some great games and dev studios shackled up in the dungeons underneath their walled garden. If only they’d let them, and those outside too, come and go as they please. It’d be a wonderful world indeed.

    • SingularityParadigm says:

      The Oculus Rift and the OculusVR runtime is able to execute software that was not purchased on the Oculus Home storefront. Their technological platform is by definition *not* a walled garden regardless of how many times people claim otherwise. The term “walled garden” in software has always been used to refer to forcing users to stay within your software environment, it is not about keeping others out.

      The only stipulation that Oculus has about supporting other hardware on their store is that to be officially supported it must access Oculus Home by using the OculusVR runtime/SDK. If you are angry that other hardware doesn’t have official support, perhaps you should complain to the manufacturers of said hardware that you want them them to cooperate with Oculus so that your hardware is compatible.

      The reality is that Valve is acting monopolistic and wants to extend their domination of PC gaming software distribution into the VR space, and it is in their profit interests to not co-operate. Oculus on the other hand, with its timed exclusives on some third-party developed software, is just trying to secure a sustainable cash-flow, as are the developer studios of those games who are trying to stay financially afloat in what is currently an exceedingly small market to risk your company’s resources on. They will live or die on their success in VR, Valve will not.

      • aepervius says:

        That is an interesting way to justify Occulus VR trying to have DRM.

        Occulus VR tried to have timed exclusive like the console do, in an attempt to try to reserve slices of the market to themselves. While it is a good thing to do in a mature market (for the companies – not for the player/user), it can be problematic in a starting market : it can extinguish it before it even mature by having a too thin division of the market. That was a miscalculation and they earned all the flacks player/user are aiming at them.

        This has for all practical purpose nothing to do with valve having a good slice of the PC market digital platform.

        • SingularityParadigm says:

          That is not DRM in any sense of the word. Requiring the use of their runtime/SDK is saying “We have the best software technology backing our hardware and we are not going to provide support to inferior alternatives that we can’t maintain.” The importance of Asynchronous Timewarp, a render pipeline technology developed by Oculus that prevents framerate dips from making the user physically ill, can not be overstated. Additionally, the OculusVR SDK provides access to lower abstraction levels than Valve’s OpenVR SDK does (with its misleading name since it is not open source) which allows developers greater control over optimizing the performance of their product.

          “It can be problematic in a starting market : it can extinguish it before it even mature by having a too thin division of the market.”

          Tell that to the developers whose games would never be profitable other than the fact that they were subsidized, due to the current size of the market. Investing in content is investing in the success of the overall VR market. Someone has to be pouring money into the market to keep it going until growth reaches critical mass sufficient to pay developer salaries and keep the studio’s electric bill and rent paid.

        • k.t says:

          This doesn’t make much sense. The market doesn’t change size when it’s split over multiple stores. The number of users remains the same, and that number is so inconsequentially small at the moment that developing anything beyond a tech demo isn’t financially viable. That’s why Oculus provides funding. It’s the only way good content is going to be created, and that’s the only way the market will grow and become sustainable. Of course they want a slice of the revenue in exchange. That’s not unreasonable.

  2. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Great article. I still haven’t taken the VR plunge, but it’s fun to keep tabs on how the technology is developing.

    The last point (regarding identity and the sense of “self” in VR) is interesting, because it illustrates a novel way that these games differ from what we’re used to. It makes you wonder how games we’re familiar with might have been received if they had been designed for VR: assuming it were technically possible, would the Witcher 3, with it’s storyline that is so intertwined with Geralt’s own identity and history, have been as well-received as a VR game? I’m sure it would have still been a marvelous experience, but there’s a difference between directing Geralt and being Geralt. If you’ve been immersed in a world to the point that you are made to feel like you truly are the protagonist, would it not be especially jarring to have that control taken away (say, by cutscenes, or by dialogue, or by being railroaded by the plot)?

    Again, I haven’t played with the technology, so I can’t speak from a place of experience here. I do wonder, though, if we’ll end up seeing VR games settle into a groove in which the protagonists tend to be ambiguous everymen of the Bethesda variety.

    • MiniMatt says:

      Agreed, I love these articles precisely because they’ll age terribly.

      We’re at the (kinda) dawn of a new technology, it’s either going to crash and burn, or it’s going to evolve very rapidly and become ubiquitous and I have no idea which. But I have a feeling these articles will end up like those press stories from the dawn of the steam age about the perils of young ladies travelling faster than 20 miles per hour (“their wombs will surely fall out at such great velocities!”)

      • Ericusson says:

        The market with technologies available today will stay a niche.
        You can’t expect mass market when you have to put a helmet which cuts you off from your whole entourage.
        The key to a broader adoption of VR lies probably (and sadly) once again on the shoulders of future consoles whose design will have integrated VR and capitalised on the first available versions of VR helmet, eventually.
        Well that is just my view of the thing.

    • MiniMatt says:

      Your other point, re directing Geralt vs being Geralt is really interesting.

      In Witcher games you don’t role play “yourself with a sword” – you, as you say, direct a grumpy pragmatist with his own personality. Though “grumpy pragmatist” probably describes a lot of us.

      I wonder if we can take anything from book-film adaptations in that regard? People often say the movie version of a character doesn’t fit with their interpretation of them – perhaps some formats (movies, or third person flatscreen games) force a rigid characterisation & others (books, or VR games) force a more personal interpretation.

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        phuzz says:

        I’ve noticed in W3, that when I rush into a tough fight and wind up killed, instead of cursing at myself (as I might with Fallout 3), instead I say “Oh Geralt!” as if it were all his fault and not my own.
        I have no idea why this is.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Really interesting points. I wonder though if players would feel a similar disconnect if the Witcher game had simply been entirely first person. Also, and this might be a really stupid question, but is there any reason why you couldn’t make a third person game work in VR?

      • Chaz says:

        There already are 3rd person games in VR that work very well. The Witcher 3 would work just fine. I think that whether the game is in 3rd or 1st person is a thing that would affect the game in the same way regardless of it being in 2D or VR.

        VR just puts you there in the game world. So the Witcher 3 would still be the same game to play but you would just have a more intimate and human perspective on the game world around you. You’d get a good feel for the sense of scale of the buildings, people, landscape and of course the huge monsters you have to fight.

        Currently you can take 360° stereoscopic screen shots in the Witcher 3 with Nvidia’s Ansel thing and it works quite well. Really puts you there in amongst the towering mountains and little villages.

    • Ny24 says:

      I don’t think it is so much different really. Since games started you are actively controlling characters. There are different states of immersion in or identification with a character but when you ask players about the story or their experience with a game, they will mostly reply that “they” did this and “they” did that. It doesn’t matter if they played a character or not. Of course there is a difference between a Skyrim where you play a faceless thing (in your mind at least) or a Geralt, but still “you” are choosing what to do and “you” are actually doing these things. Granted, the dissonance that might arise in cutscenes might be higher, but maybe mostly because it takes away the camera perspective from the “view”. At least if you do cutscenes in a classical sense. Also in VR there are third person games. You also control the character.

  3. milligna says:

    Anybody who gave Alien: Isolation a spin on DK2 when it had that janky support enabled will answer: YES.

    • Technotica says:

      Ih yes, so much YES. I played through it normally but only managed about 10 minutes with my DK2 until my heart wouldn’t take any more.

  4. fish99 says:

    The price of the Rift certainly caused some discomfort and horror, at least until we saw Vive price.

  5. Jackablade says:

    As someone developing for the Occulus Touch at the moment, I’d suggest making the player feel uncomfortable and nauseous is very very easy. The real challenge is making the player -not- feel uncomfortable and nauseous.

    • Chaz says:

      Yeah, I think he means from an emotional standpoint though. Like “OMG! I’m gonna fall off this cliff!” rather than “This control scheme makes me want to puke.”