Supermassive Games made a name for itself last year with surprise horror hit, Until Dawn. Taking Quantic Dream’s ‘choose your own adventure’ structure on board, the developer faithfully crafted a creepy B-movie experience that was big on scares. Now it’s tackling both the genre and IP again in VR.
On paper, this is a no brainer; Until Dawn‘s cinematic thrills and multi-choice narrative could make for a perfect VR horror game if properly adapted, but that’s not what Supermassive is making.
A Different Dawn
Instead, the UK-based studio is developing a VR rollercoaster shooter named Until Dawn: Rush of Blood for PlayStation VR. That couldn’t sound further away from the original game, but executive producer Simon Harris assures me this is very much a spin-off, taking place inside the mind of one of the original cast. No spoilers but if you’ve played Until Dawn then “you can pretty much guess” who it is, says Harris.
So why make such a radical departure? “The focus of Until Dawn was to provide the most cinematic branching story we possibly could,” Harris says. “I think – especially in those early days – that actually fought a little with some of the things we’d like to do in VR.” He explains that the team didn’t think a first-person view for VR would suit the game because of the shifting characters, while the changing camera angles of the third-person perspective weren’t ideal.
Instead, we’re getting something that leverages Until Dawn‘s disturbing pool of assets, combined with on-rails shooting with the aid of the PlayStation Move controllers. It really is a completely different experience, drenched in a carnival atmosphere as you’re dragged up and down tracks, with the only branching paths being literal splits in the tracks. It’s been in development since around early 2015 and not, as the rumours would have you believe, since the original game itself went missing as it made the transition from PlayStation 3 to PlayStation 4.
What interests me most about any VR horror title – especially one that puts you on a defined track – is just how far the developers are willing to go to scare you. I’ve sheepishly side-stepped around Room Scale environments in Chair in a Room: Greenwater and pretended to keep my eyes open to Paranormal Activity VR, and I want to know what Supermassive Games’ level of acceptability is, especially with a gruelling experience already under their belts.
Horror on a Bigger Scale
Harris is similarly interested, but equally sceptical about just how affecting VR horror can be over what’s come before. “I’ve seen some very interesting things written about people in horror,” he says. “I saw a great one where they suggested that horror in VR was going to be so intense that nothing should be larger than the size of a small dog. I can promise you in Until Dawn: Rush of Blood there is horror and a lot of it is much, much bigger than the size of a small dog.”
Cue the examples: Supermassive is preparing levels that features horrors “bigger than a small skyscraper”, spiders (the very mention of which makes our PR companion shudder), and ghosts among others.
What the studio believes will keep players from being overwhelmed, though, is themselves. “Horror’s a very interesting thing because a lot of people talk about scares,” Harris explains. “We talk about surprises. One of the things is what makes people afraid or scared is incredibly different from person to person.” In Supermassive’s experience, not every level will scare every type of player, and variety is the key to both keeping things interesting and making sure it’s not too much for any one person.
Clearly the team isn’t holding back. “We don’t believe there is any difference in the actual level of intensity of a surprise in VR compared to in film,” Harris happily claims. Instead, the tech’s strength lies in setting up those surprises and playing on your phobias “in a much better way”. I didn’t check my definition of “better” with his, but I know what he means. In VR, you can set your scene much more effectively and play with the fact that users have complete control of their vision. You can tempt them to look closer at tiny details, or tease them by putting things in the corner of their eyes.
“We don’t feel that there’s a significant danger of VR delivering levels of terror that are over and above what we’ve done before unless you are incredibly predisposed to those things,” Harris says. But, if he’s wrong, he also accepts there’s an easy way out: taking the headset off.
Shockingly Good Fun
Supermassive don’t want it to come to that, though, which is why all levels will be open from the start so that you won’t have to face any particular theme that’s too much for you, while each will last “about 15 – 20 minutes”, giving you the chance to catch a break in-between. The six areas also come with hidden tracks and more to explore.
Gore is another factor to consider. Supermassive got inventive with its kills in Until Dawn; people lost jaws, got sawed in half and plenty more. Rush of Blood will deliver its own gruesome sights but, crucially, they won’t be inflicted on you. It’s an interesting point; getting split in two in VR might not be as disturbing as you expect when you can (thankfully) still feel your torso connected in the real world.
Ultimately, I’m a little surprised to hear Harris be so bullish on just how far Supermassive Games will push the horror elements of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, especially given the platform it’s appearing on. Oculus has gone on record in saying it strongly discourages developers from using jump scares and other such tactics, and you’d think a game appearing on a far more accessible HMD would follow suit. But it’s clear the studio sees the fun that’s to be had with VR scares. I can see myself daring friends to jump into the headset just as I would a movie theatre.
Perhaps that’s the key to Supermassive’s approach; Rush of Blood certainly doesn’t seem to be aiming for P.T. levels of dread, and looks to bring some joy back to the monster closets that many of us have tired from in traditional gaming.
We’re hoping to see more from Rush of Blood at E3 in a few weeks before it arrives as a PlayStation VR launch title in October.