Why a VR Game About Flirting Is as Scary as a Horror Game
On the surface, the two PlayStation VR games on display at Sony’s Tokyo Game Show booth couldn’t be any more different. One is a horror scenario that drops you into a gruesome, terrifying predicament. The other puts you on a beautiful seaside next to an attractive young lady.
But after playing both, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d played the same demo twice. The sheer intimacy of these experiences—the feeling of having one’s personal space invaded, if you will—was unmistakeable, and I can still feel it now, at a distance.
A long line stretches to the back of Sony’s Tokyo Game Show stand, people patiently awaiting their turn on the 20 or so demo stations of PlayStation VR (nee Project Morpheus), Sony’s upcoming virtual reality headset for PlayStation 4. There were many different demos, but those that left the deepest impression on me were Capcom’s horror demo Kitchen and Bandai Namco’s romance sim Summer Lesson.
I’d already had a lurking-horror experience with Alien: Isolation on Oculus Rift that caused me to seriously contemplate ripping the VR headset off my head midway through. I didn’t, but when Kitchen started I felt like maybe this was the time I finally did.
I awoke with my hands bound together—in real life I was holding a PlayStation controller, which of course placed my hands close together, a nice touch—in a dingy room. A man next to me was screaming in my face telling me we had to get out. We did not, because some kind of female ghoul entered the room and killed that guy, but not me. She was all up in my face. Very close.
My reaction to fake scary things, I have discovered by going to a few of those crazy haunted houses, is to laugh nervously. I was cracking up during Kitchen because Kitchen was some no-holds-barred scary stuff. At one point, I am ashamed to say, some part of the VR rig slipped down and tapped me on the shoulder, making me gasp quite loudly and reach around ready to kill whatever it was.
Then the ghoul left the room. And nothing happened for a while.
This was the scariest thing of all, because I knew something was going to jump out at me. But where? When? In a PlayStation VR demo, when time is of the essence because you move people through as soon as possible, Sony let this go on for a while. Nothing was happening—nothing—and I was as riveted as I’ve ever been in a game. When I died, following another very up close and personal encounter from which I could not look away, it came as something of a relief.
I didn’t expect to feel similarly uncomfortable during Summer Lesson, the pitch for which is you are a teacher providing a private tutoring session to an attractive female student.
Things started off fairly benign, with the student appearing and sitting down next to you, reading from a textbook. You could choose to teach English to a Japanese student in her bedroom, or Japanese to an American student at a beach house. At one point, and this happens in either scenario, the student leans in very close and asks, “Sensei, how do you read this word?” Then she places the book in front of your face, leaning into you in what can only be described as an extremely intimate manner.
My heart rate went up. The experience triggered the same alarms that would go off if a real-life stranger got so close I could feel her breath. This goes on for a few minutes, with the student perhaps leaning over you to pick something up, or leaning in to whisper something in a hushed, conspiratorial tone.
It’s important to note that this is not about gawking at a virtual woman. Everyone involved is dressed entirely appropriately. There are no bikinis, no peeks up a skirt, nothing like that. This isn’t salacious. But it is, quite plainly, erotic. It’s supposed to be. The genius of Summer Lesson is how it illustrates the sheer power of virtual reality to not only transport you but to create genuine emotional reactions to what you see. The women in Summer Lesson need not dress provocatively, or talk about sex, or do anything more than get slightly closer than societal convention typically allows.
As in that long stretch of nothing in Kitchen, there’s tremendous power in the tiniest interactions. That underscores a counterintuitive truth that makes VR gaming so exciting: Despite its ability to hijack your senses and immerse you in hyper-realism, the real power of VR may lie in its ability to foster quiet intimacy so realistic it’s unsettling.