When I first saw the premise of Stifled, from Gattai Games, over a year ago it seemed like a good idea that probably wouldn’t live up to its potential. A horror game that uses your own voice and mic to project audio in the environment, while you’re in VR? Surely that wouldn’t work very well. Luckily I was dead wrong. Stifled is one of the most smartly designed and inventive horror games I’ve ever played.
In Stifled you play through the traumatic life of David Ridley as his mind slowly starts to deteriorate and snap over the course of the game due to significant grief. The core premise of the game is that, unlike in most other VR titles where you inspect an environment and explore with your eyes primarily, the sound of your own voice and character’s footsteps are just as important.
Much of the game takes place in almost total darkness. When you take a step, throw a rock, make a sound, or do something that would create a sound wave, it’s sent reverberating through the level for a short distance. Every time that sound wave hits an object it creates a white line. Those white lines then become the outline of the world around you, but they only last a short while. In this way it’s almost like you’re walking through a memory of the world, what it looked like just a few moments ago, rather than actually seeing where you’re going. It’s a brilliant idea for a game that would work fine outside of VR, but is amplified tenfold inside the headset.
When you’re wearing a VR headset horror games take on a whole new life. Playing Resident Evil 7 in VR was a harrowing experience that literally gave me nightmares. A Chair in a Room: Greenwater told a story that stuck with me for weeks and some of the scares in games like Until Dawn: Rush of Blood left me shaken and scared. Stifled has its fair share of moments to make you jump and the traditional creepy voices in the distance, but how it makes you feel with the absence of jump scares, music, sound, visuals, and other stimulation is the real achievement.
Stifled is an exercise in extreme minimalism. The developers at Gattai Games ask players not, “What can we do to scare you?” but instead, “What atmosphere can we create that allows you to scare yourself?” It’s a subtle thing and it’s hard to explain until you experience it for yourself. The majority of the time I found myself hesitating to take steps forward, or afraid to even breathe in fear a creature would hear me, because of my own lack of confidence and terror. Gazing into a deep, black, quiet food of darkness — too scared to move — is quite different than running from a zombie.
With each step the sound waves echo and provide that brief illumination, but in doing so I run the risk of alerting my enemies. You’re feeling out the world around you with your eyes and ears, yes, but you’re also playing a twisted game of hide and seek with creatures that can only see with their ears. As a result, Stifled is truly a game in which players can hear their fear.
Usually a game isn’t able to stand on its mechanics alone as the main reason you should play. Admittedly I’m in the camp that believes a good story with excellent pacing is usually more important than gameplay, graphics, or anything else. But in the case of Stifled, it’s all about the experience. That core game mechanic and visual style that uses your sounds is what makes this special.
Beyond that the game is rather simple. It’s only around 3-5 hours long, the story isn’t too memorable, the enemies themselves don’t have the best AI, and some of the non-dark areas where you explore a house to find story bits can drag on and feel like unnecessary padding to extend the length. But all of that is worth overlooking to get to the meat of the experience and feel scared like you never have before.
Stifled is a one-of-a-kind horror game that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. The use of sound to allow you to see the world around you but also alert your enemies creates a terrifying and suspensful dynamic that left me quivering in my shorts. The pacing isn’t perfect and some other pieces felt lacking, but the core premise of Stifled is so very strong it’s impossible not to recommend it. This game should be experienced by anyone that wants to see how VR as a medium can transform the way we interact with video games.