The Morning after the Fright Before
Picture the scene. You groggily come to, bleary-eyed, and find yourself in a dark, grimy kitchen. You try to get up and move, only to discover that your hands and legs are bound with rope to the chair you’re slumped in. The unblinking glassy eye of a camcorder stares back at you from atop a creaking tripod, recording your every wince and struggle against your restraints. A dishevelled man in a dirty suit lies sprawled out across the greasy tiles, and you can’t tell if he’s unconscious, dead or somewhere in-between the two sorry states. A typical morning after the night before in Huddersfield, you might say.
But no, this isn’t the morning after a particularly sordid night of bacchanal northern excess, or the opening to a new SAW film, but rather the opening to Kitchen, Capcom’s virtual reality horror demo for Sony’s PlayStation VR. While in Birmingham for EGX 2015, I got the chance to try out this sleek blue-tinged helmet to see what Sony is bringing to the virtual reality table…and find out what horrors were waiting for me in Capcom’s scary scullery.
Though I’m still yet to be truly swayed about VR gaming in general, from my hands-on with Kitchen I can safely say that there are some very cool things to be excited about if you’re even just the slightest bit interested in the marriage of horror and virtual reality. Particularly so if, like me, you’re also a cheery masochist who happens to enjoy having virtual sharp pointy objects thrust close to your virtual eyeballs from time to time, Dead Space style. Oh yes.
Before we get to the juicy bits though (quite literally in this instance) it’s time for a quick recap on Sony’s VR device itself. Initially revealed to the world at the 2014 Game Developers Conference as Project Morpheus (named after the Grecian God of dreams, and sadly not Lawrence Fishburne’s pill-popping pugilist), PlayStation VR is an in-development virtual reality visor designed for use in conjunction with the PS4 and due out in the first half of 2016. With a 1920×1080 display capable of running at speeds of 120fps, it’s a beefy piece of kit, and one that many of Sony’s first and second party studios are busy creating games and experiences for. There’s already a fair few decently fleshed out VR demos that are currently available to play on the device, many of which have been doing the rounds at previous events such as E3 and Gamescom. Sony followed suit with EGX in the UK, and so the usual suspects such as The London Heist and Battlezone were among the titles available for people to try out over the course of the event.
Sadly, due to the way the public appointments were scheduled, you couldn’t actually choose which demo you’d like to try in your PlayStation VR demo slot. Instead, it was simply down to the potluck of getting whatever demo just so happened to be free at the moment you strolled up for your allotted time. Luckily for me however, finding out that I’d be sampling Kitchen was pretty much the ideal personal scenario; after hearing Lucy O’Brien positively detailing her experience with the demo on the IGN AU Pubcast, I was keen to strap on a mental apron of bravery and check out this kinky kitchenette simulator for myself.
There’s an Onryo in My Kitchen, What am I Gonna Do?
Okay, so here’s how things played out. After an extensive wait in a Sony holding pen (seriously), I’m eventually collected, stripped, sheared, hosed down and deloused (not seriously) before finally being seated for my demo session. As my demo assistant carefully adjusted the PSVR unit for my noggin, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the PSVR headset is way less bulky and heavy than I expected. Although the only other hands-on experience I’ve had with VR tech was with the Oculus Rift earlier in the year at March’s Rezzed event, I can’t exactly remember an awful lot of how the Rift physically felt on my head, but that’s most likely because I was having a lot of fun running for my virtual life in the fantastic Monstrum at the time, but I digress. Having said that, the PSVR felt both lighter and comfier than the Rift from what I can remember. Of particular note is the fact that Sony’s headset has an adjustable slider to set the position of the internal cushioning around your nose and eyes, which is great if you’ve got a bit of a wonky ol’ konk like mine.
With eyes, ears and proboscis all sealed in my virtual sarcophagus of headset and headphones, it’s finally time for the fun to begin. A brief title screen appears, which is quickly replaced with the decrepit kitchen of my first paragraph. I’m told to hold my hands out, and shortly after I feel the warm clammy contours of a DualShock 4 placed in my palms – nice. I’m then instructed to keep hold of the controller with my hands loosely held together in my lap (to simulate being kinkily tied up), and to gesture forwards with it to begin the demo. I thrust my hands forward, clattering the camera tripod to the floor, and an unfortunate set of events are slowly set in motion.
So yeah, you’re sat in this grungy kitchen (think something along the aesthetic lines of The Evil Within‘s environments and you’re on the right track), and for a while, nothing happens – which is good, as this gives you ample time to have a good look around. Looking down at my virtual body, I see that yes, my hands (and also presumably my virtual feet) are trussed up, hence my current immobility.
However, unlike my virtual body, my physical one is under no such restrictions, so I can actually turn round in my seat and get a 360-degree view of the room. It’s hard to overstate just how impressive this basic motion is, even though it’s an extremely basic tenet of pretty much any VR experience, but it really is quite something. Even though it is sort of immersion breaking in this instance – surely if these bonds are loose enough for me to fully rotate around in my chair, I could wriggle out of them in no time right?
Another small point on the visuals was that while the overall fluidity of motion of PlayStation VR was very slick, the picture quality of the display did seem a tad grainy and fuzzier than what I had previously experienced in Oculus. This may well have just been a visual filter added for a gritty horror aesthetic in just the Kitchen demo itself, but it was hard to say for sure.
Anyway, I’m just nit picking here – time to go back to the demo. Eventually, the man on the floor slowly starts to get to his feet, looking dazed, confused and, perhaps most importantly, not hostile. In fact, he looks scared. No idea why though, as nothing has clearly gone wrong already, and surely nothing could continue to go wrong in a kitchen in such fine upkeep as this. Nonetheless, he picks up a rusty knife off the floor and gestures for me to hold out my hands – AKA the controller – that he can cut my bonds. Gulp.
As someone who gets a bit queasy thinking about things like wrists being in close proximity to rusty knives, this next section is a tad uncomfortable to say the least. Holding up the DualShock 4 doesn’t really feel like holding one’s bound hands together at all, yet somehow the sensation of holding the controller out in front of you whilst your eyes are simultaneously seeing your virtual hands held aloft in the visor is surprisingly immersive.
This immersion becomes even more effective when this dude starts hacking away at the messy tangle of rope lashed between your wrists. Seeing the blunt knife slip and slide through the thick ropey cords in quick jerky motions suddenly makes what you’re seeing feel all the more tangible and distressing. It’s easily one of the more uncomfortable bits of the demo, and it still makes me feel a bit queasy just thinking about it now as I write this. To make matters worse, with no warning at all, suddenly a ghostly Onryo woman raises up out of the floor behind your rescuer and shanks him up pretty badly before cutting off his head. Brilliant. Just brilliant.
From here on out, the final minutes of the demo involve this Hisako lookalike fiendishly toying with you in a number of dastardly ways, the most memorable of which happens in another uncomfortable section where this ghastly ghoul slowly points the business end of the knife closer and closer towards your eye. Even though it’s an ancient 3D film cliché at this point, it’s still effective and really unsettling to see something come within inches of your face. There’s a few more moments of her scuttling around the room while you rapidly try to locate her position, but eventually, a cold grey hand covers your eyes from behind, and it’s game over man. Game over.
Ghosts Versus Cockneys
So, what did I think to PlayStation VR and Kitchen? Overall, they’re both pretty neat. The PlayStation VR unit itself is an impressive (and surprisingly comfortable) piece of tech, and though it’s just a basic demo at this point, Kitchen certainly does make a compelling case for full-on VR horror experiences very nicely indeed. But…
Okay, so I’ve got a couple of issues here. First, there’s the classic problem of VR motion sickness. Just like with the Oculus, PlayStation VR it’s a device that seems to quite frequently make a significant number of its users feel sick, including yours truly. I started to feel pretty queasy only a few moments into the Kitchen experience – definitely from motion sickness I might add, and not the grimy aesthetic of the demo – and I continued to feel pretty grim for some time afterwards. Although Sony claim that the fast refresh rate (120Hz) of the PlayStation VR greatly reduces motion sickness in comparison to other VR headsets, I personally didn’t feel any noticeable difference on a user level and quickly found my stomach roiling with waves of nausea in no time at all. But hey, this technical wizardry is beyond my tiny little pea brain, and I’m sure this is the sort of the thing that will eventually be solved given the inevitable march of progress, technology and time.
Secondly on a software level, although Kitchen was a lot of daft fun, it wasn’t really what I’d consider an interactive experience by any stretch of the imagination. The only sort of interaction the game required of me as a player was to roughly gesture forwards with the controller on two occasions – that’s it. It’s immersive and visually impressive certainly, but Kitchen is basically just a short VR horror film. Not exactly the killer app you’re looking for in a new piece of gaming-specific hardware, right?
Perhaps if I’d got to try out Sony London’s The London Heist for example, my opinions here might be slightly different. In that game, I’d have needed to duck and crouch on the spot in reality in order to pop in and out of virtual cover in the game, and use PlayStation Move controllers to point and shoot weapons at incoming enemies. That’s while I’m also Benny Hill slapping burly Statham-like skinheads on their shiny domes, slurping down great salty bowlfuls of jellied eels and yelling “Cor blimey mate, get down them apples ‘n’ pears, faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaackin’ ‘ell!” between each briny mouthful of moray. Typical video game stuff, in other words.
Yeah, I know, it’s pretty standard faire to want to shoot endless hordes of goons in a video game, but at least The London Heist‘s gameplay actually requires a significant level of interaction from me as a player, as opposed having me sit still as a passive observer like in Kitchen. A VR experience like that with a few basic mechanics and gameplay elements in play might have sold me on the use of PlayStation VR as a serious gaming platform, and not just a fancy supplementary VR cinema contraption. The small vignette demos and experiences on the PlayStation VR right now are very cool and exciting, but personally I need to see something more involved, more interesting and way more interactive to seriously consider buying a finished retail unit in the future (I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky).
Speaking of which, there’s the cost issue. PlayStation VR is certainly a flash and exciting device for the PlayStation 4, and going forward we’re probably going to see Sony put a much greater emphasis on its VR headset as a premium way of enjoying its burgeoning catalogue of games. But damn, what a premium it’s going to be. The latest news on the pricing is that PlayStation VR will retail at somewhere around the $300-$400 mark, after Andrew House (President of Sony Computer Entertainment International) suggested to the press that the headset would have a price point comparative to the cost of a new next-gen console, and would be marketed as such. That’s one hell of a lot of money to spend on what’s essentially still just a console accessory, no matter how revolutionary it may be.
Obviously, developing this VR stuff is expensive – I’m an idiot (that’s a given) but I do understand that developing tech like this costs a lot of money. Hell, you could even say that the headset being priced at the equivalent of a new console is actually cheap considering how advanced this VR visor actually is. But the fact remains that $300-$400 for a secondary PS4 device is still a hefty price tag for the average consumer, no matter which way you cut it.
However, even with all those whiney concerns of mine, there’s still an awful lot to be excited about with PlayStation VR and the whole VR industry in general. If you’ve read this far (you poor misguided sod), you’ll have no doubt realised by this point that one of the inherent problems with trying to explain all this VR stuff lexically is that it’s a massive injustice to the whole concept. Particularly when it’s an idiot like me who’s the one typing all these lexemes out for you to read. VR is an experience which you really have to see for yourself in order to grasp it’s full potential – you have to get your head inside a VR unit and nearly have your eyes poked out by a knife-wielding wraith to see why it’s such an exciting concept. It’s way more fun than it actually sounds, trust me.
While I personally think a great game will draw in and immerse a player in its world regardless of whether they’re experiencing it with a VR headset on their cranium or not, I’m sure that one day VR will probably be the way most people experience and play video games. It’s a cool and exciting future, definitely, but I think for most of us, that future is still a way off from being a practical and affordable reality any time soon. In the meantime, I’m happy to be stabbed by ghosts and shot at by Cockneys in the place where I’ve always enjoyed those activities – on the TV. Now where did I put those jellied eels…