Horror Games unwillingly revisited in “The Caretaker”

Horror computer games have become increasingly sophisticated over the years. As the graphical capabilities of machines accelerates, so does the ability of the developer to raise the blood pressure of a gamer with tension and jumpscares. With the birth of VR technology, the horror genre raises to incredible heights with it’s ability to immerse, no, drown a player in an environment. So much so that industry leaders are warning against the development of horror titles as being a very real threat to the health and well-being of the gaming community. An early example of a red flag being raised was around 1 year ago, the creative director at Cloudhead Games’ – Denny Unger – came forward and addressed the elephant in the room with some clear concerns. The most poignant…“… Somebody is going to scare somebody to death, somebody with a heart condition or something like that. It is going to happen. Absolutely.” — Denny Unger

Denny made it clear that developers held the power of life and death in their code repositories, that there decisions may kill people and ultimately, it is the developer community that should accept responsibility for this inevitable occurrence.

On January 11th, the godfather of VR – Palmer Luckey – said…

“We are strongly discouraging developers from using jump scares. They are such a cheap way to get a reaction in VR” — Palmer Luckey

He must know and he must be worried.

But let’s set aside our humanity for one moment, let’s remove our hearts and set them firmly on a shelf. Let’s becoming marketing people. If someone died in VR, it would be picked up by every media outlet on the planet. Do you really think this will damage VR? No, of course not, it will make it more tantalizing. Humans crave terror. For the same reason we happily strap ourselves into a roller-coaster being operated by a spotty, barely trained teenager and maintained by a company who won the bid with the lowest price. We love it.

VR will be massive and horror games will keep being big business. People with diagnosed and diagnosed conditions will keep dying and the cycle will continue.

So let’s talk about “The Caretaker”. First, let’s be clear, horror slips into two broad camps, gore and psychological. The Caretaker is slightly more forgivable as a horror title as it doesn’t have much in the way of “jump scares” and it not relying on cheap gore, instead it cleverly builds tension and tricks the mind into terrorizing itself.

As soon as I transported into “The Caretaker” I was immediately struck by a clear and lovingly constructed homage to Stephen King’s “The Shining”, more specifically the film adaption by Stanley Kubrick. The details were optimized well for VR, not overly complex in design but enough to convey a genuine sense of presence in an eerie fictional world.

Developed in Unreal it is heavy on the GPU, but overall a more believable environment. The scale was spot on accurate and the control mechanisms simple and intuitive, no immersion breaking “comfort mode” controls here, thankfully.

The terror builds with subtle cues, things that remind the brain that all is not right, the wet footprints leading away from the bathroom, the rattling door, the movements in the shadows. What impacts me the most in a good VR titles is sound. Sound combined with VR is so critical for immersion. In this title the bangs, squeeks, taps and pops built me into almost a frenzy of torment. My spine and shoulders began to shake uncontrollably, the hairs on my arm went up, I felt like a small child wanting to cry out for his Dad.

Somehow, I continued on. 

In the finale of this demo you find yourself crunching through a snowy maze, following another set of footsteps, until the worst possible thing happens, but you will just have to find out what for yourself.

But please, PLEASE, play any horror game at your own risk. Oh why bother, you will do it anyway.

Brought to you by UKRifter of the VR Spies