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Behind that terrifying Oculus Rift horror game

Greenwood Games managed to make a standout virtual reality horror game that breaks the fourth wall a little bit too efficiently. The studio's developers talk about VR, immersion and real scares.
With every Oculus Rift prototype I see, my urge to grab my wallet and put down the money for the early VR developer kit rises. This urge reached astronomical heights earlier this week when I witnessed the Alone demo from Greenwood Games. The short prototype experience puts players inside an empty house at night, playing a horror game on a widescreen television. As the character on the screen reads notes left around a dinghy house, noises begin to fill the house around the player, and a massive sense of paranoia sets in. Bryan Cohen and Dan Wallace of Greenwood Games saw a gap for a horror game on Oculus Rift, and took the initiative. "We've both always really loved horror games, and I think as soon as we discovered the Rift we immediately knew it would bring the genre to a new level," Cohen tells me. "The added level of immersion allows developers to create more 'creepy' situational horror as opposed to the jump-scares we've all grown used to," he continues. "There's a great opportunity to place players in environments that make them uncomfortable without ever implying there is anything to be scared of. With this in mind we couldn't think of a better place to start our dive into VR."

No Oculus Rift? No problem!

The story of how Alone originally came about is pretty incredible. Cohen and Wallace heard about the Oculus Rift VR game jam that was going on back in August, and really wanted to take part. There was just one problem -- they didn't own an Oculus Rift. "We were so enthusiastic about the hardware that we decided that we would enter anyways, despite the disadvantages," Cohen explains. "Since there was no way that we could test our game during development, we had to make sure whatever we created wouldn't give players nausea, but still gave them an immersive experience without ever leaving their couch." This goal of creating immersion without leaving the couch took a literal route, as players in Alone spend the entire experience sat on a sofa. It was the pair's love for paranormal stories movement Creepypasta that led them to consider horror as the best direction to move in. alone 1.jpg"We've actually always talked about making a horror game that breaks the fourth-wall, and the Oculus Rift really gave us that chance," Cohen adds. "Being afraid isn't always about something jumping out and scaring you, or a spider running across the floor; sometimes it's just about assuring people that they are in a safe familiar environment, and then totally shattering their illusion of safety long before they realize it." Being in a VR scenario forces the player to really live the horror experience, says the Greenwood co-founder. Playing Amnesia with all the lights off heightens your sense of horror, he notes, as it helps you block out the outside world and really immerse yourself in the game. In the same way, the Oculus Rift blocks the player out from the rest of the world, and therefore horror games can work wonders with the hardware. "The Rift and future VR devices essentially do this for you and more," Cohen says. "Not only are the lights turned off but you're actually there; there's no more light switch, there's no more comforting whirr of your computer - it's just you and the experience."

"I think being in VR really forces the player to be there - to 'live the experience.'"

"That said, I think we as developers have a responsibility to tread these new waters carefully," Cohen warns. "Media of any kind - especially the kind that affects you in such a profound and immersive way - can have long term and possibly detrimental effects on players psyche. We should champion to scare players silly without causing psychological damage, and with VR the possibility of that happening is a more realistic hurdle." This act of convincing the brain that it is somewhere else is a neat trick, and something that the Oculus Rift will no doubt be used more and more to simulate -- but what we're seeing right now is just the beginning. "Education, telepresence, travel, medicine, concerts - the possibilities are endless," Cohen suggests. "I think we as developers have a unique opportunity to let the world boldly go where no man has gone before." Greenwood Games plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a full release of Alone next month. Cohen says the team has some great ideas for where to take the base concept next.

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