Saturday, February 24, 2018

#115 Resident Evil 7 - Biohazard : Inside the VR Headset

(Credit to this artist for the font)
Ever since a friend(?) asked me to join him in campaigns across Dead Space 3, Resident Evil 5, and Resident Evil 6, I have tried to broaden my horizons and open up to the horror genre. Up until then, I had avoided them like the plague because I was (for lack of a better phrasing) afraid to be scared. With mixed results, I've dived into the previous Dead Space games, Amnesia, Outlast, and a couple of others. This is why Resident Evil 7: Biohazard caught my attention last year despite not caring too much for RE6. Game critics and personal friends of mine who played it sang its praises, raising more than a few eyebrows.

But instead of rushing out to buy it, I waited... I waited because Resident Evil 7 would serve as a flagship game for the virtual reality headset Sony had created for the PS4. This wasn't just some mediocre extra mode that takes 5-10 minutes to play to stick some “VR Compatible” sticker on the box: The entire game was fully playable in VR from start to finish. Since I had already made plans to buy a PS VR headset, I decided to hold off on getting Resident Evil 7 until then. One Christmas and one playthrough later, and now I want to talk about the game, VR, and how they affected my opinions of each other.

Prior to Resident Evil 7, I had already begun using my VR headset on other games. I did not spend long with them: A few 20-minute sessions of Rez and an hour and a half with Thumper at most. Resident Evil 7 was just the first one I played that wasn't deemed “VR Safe”, since those other two weren't really known to induce motion sickness. Though I was aware of the possibility, it is one thing to hear about VR-induced motion sickness... and quite another to experience it first hand. After the first 20 minutes of playing with the headset on, I had an overwhelming nausea. Since I generally have a strong stomach, I thought it might have been something I ate, but it was growing increasingly clear that the game was the root cause. Thankfully, I wasn't sick enough to induce vomiting. That said, the unpleasantness almost swore me off playing Resident Evil 7 in VR altogether.

A good night's rest later, my stomach given enough time to settle, I resumed my run, only without the headset. After making some progress, I felt the urge to VR Mode another chance. “Maybe it was just a fluke,” I thought to myself. Admittedly, it took a little longer than the 20 minutes of the last session, and my symptoms weren't as severe, but once again I found myself ejecting the headset off my face in the name of sweet relief and once again I found myself thinking I would never do this again, this time saying so on Twitter.

Fortunately in this case (and unfortunately in several others), I'm a stubborn fool when I want to be. Whether out of some misguided, macho notion that “I can't possibly be so weak that a video game is making me ill”, a feeling that I couldn't let the money spent on this VR headset go to waste, a sense that the third time might actually be the charm, or some combination of the three, I was compelled to make one last attempt to play this cursed game in VR. Only this time, nothing happened: I was no longer experiencing the ill effects of motion sickness. Those symptoms never came back for the duration of my playthrough, most of it with the headset on. I'm not saying that everyone will get magically cured of VR-sickness through sheer force of will, but it did take several play sessions before I was personally able to handle it.

After crossing that threshold, analyzing the other effects virtual reality had on my experience became a lot easier. The first thing that comes to mind is how the control and camera systems are modified for VR Mode. Obviously, the developers couldn't map the control scheme in standard play to virtual reality without exacerbating the aforementioned motion sickness. Concessions needed to be made, and one such change is in the way the camera works. Since the headset can track cranial movement, players can simply move their head to look around the environment, crosshairs in the center of their view. To allow people (like me) to play while sitting, the camera can both be re-centered at anytime, or moved to the left or right in 30 degree increments by tilting the right analog stick.

When contrasted against the standard control scheme, this offers an intriguing trade-off. One can move their head to accurately hover the aiming reticle over a target, allowing for a level of precision that is simply not possible with a controller. In-game, this meant that while I was in VR, I was able to put off headshots consistently, rarely missing a shot except in dire circumstances. This doesn't mean that I had too much difficulty aiming in normal play. But without the headset, there was a noticeable increase in wasted shots, where I either hit my enemies in less vulnerable body parts or missed altogether. Considering that Resident Evil 7 is a survival horror game where ammo is scarce and every shot counts, this made my life in the Baker house a lot safer.

Sadly, all boons come at some price, and where the headset improved my basic ability to point-and-shoot, it detracted from my ability to move about the space. As previously stated, in VR it is only possible to move the camera to the left or right in 30 degree increments. While roaming around a relatively safe area, this is hardly even noticeable and barely worth calling attention to. The drawbacks are more pronounced once players are thrown deeper into the action. In my run, this became clear early on during the confrontation with Jack Baker after the dinner scene. As you can see in this video, it's a simple scene. The player merely needs to backtrack to the dining room, run passed Jack, grab the hatch key, and sneak under the house.

This exchange can be done easily in standard controls, but in VR this isn't quite as straightforward. Notice in that short clip all of the times where the camera moves slightly to the left or right, orienting the player such that it's easier to sprint around/passed Jack. These micro-movements aren't as simple to perform in virtual reality. In this segment alone, I had to tilt both my head and the camera a great deal so that I could navigate this space without getting pummeled. Coincidentally, this was also where I got motion sick the 2nd time. I took off the headset to finish the scene and progress a little farther. It was remarkable how much easier it was without it. As the game granted me more weapons and options to fight back, this became less of an issue because I could fight back. Though the awkwardness never truly went away, it would be more accurate to say that I simply learned how to compensate for it.

What was most affecting about using the VR headset was the way in dramatically increased the sense of place. It's a tired cliché, but the adage that the “immersiveness” of virtual reality is much easier to demonstrate than it will ever be to describe on paper is an apt one. Since I don't have the resources to hand a headset and a copy of Resident Evil 7 to every single person reading, I will instead do as best a job I can explaining what it feels like.

In a mini-rant I wrote on Twitter, I described the helmet as a “sensory deprivation chamber”. While I'm not the first person to make that comparison, drowning out the outside world is as much as advantage as it is a hazard of VR. Lacking the ability to see or hear anything from outside the game brings sharp focus to the events occurring inside the game. I can’t speak for anyone else, but while I'm gaming I like to catch up on podcasts or watch a couple of videos from my YouTube queue. For horror games like Resident Evil 7, I try not to in order to preserve the game's atmosphere, but I do occasionally slip into old habits while sorting through inventory or when I'm certain the game won't be trying to unsettle me. When I'm stuck, I might even just go look for a walkthrough to figure out where I'm supposed to go. Needless to say, doing any of this is difficult with headphones piping the game's sound directly into my ears and a headset streaming my character's perspective directly into my eyes. With those barriers in place, it is impossible to perceive anything aside from the experience, drawing all of attention directly to the Baker House and the monsters within.

This focus created a bizarre intimacy with all the things that were trying to murder me. Being able to fully move my head and see with the eyes of Ethan, the protagonist, is certainly one aspect to what makes virtual reality so immersive, but another is simply the blurring of the fourth wall. I was still aware that I was just playing a game, especially since they was still a HUD and I could physically see that my “hands” were just free floating objects unbound to any form of in-game body. But in that space, there was no TV separating me from my in-game avatar. For all intent and purposes, it felt like I was transposed onto the main character. It wasn't Ethan who was fighting for his life, it was me.

I could also tell that I was more affected by the oppressive sense of dread Resident Evil 7 was trying to evoke than I would have been without wearing that helmet. This is slightly embarrassing to admit, but when I play scary games, one of the ways I cope with the dread of what might try to attack me next is by trash talking. I can't even begin to explain why, but insulting whatever monster or death trap I’m up against helps me not only to keep calm, but stay focused and figure out what I need to do. During my first playthrough of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, this is how I was able to face the infamous watermonster without losing my cool, and eventually figure out effective ways to outmaneuver it.

In the early game of Resident Evil 7, when the player is given limited means to fight back, much of what sustains the tension is that sense of dread. While I was playing normally, without the headset, my behavior was in line with what is described above. To “psyche myself up”, I hurled an untold number of insults and innuendos at the Baker family and the monsters they kept around their estate. I did not notice until I had taken the time to ponder my experiences, but while I was in virtual reality, that trash talk immediately ceased. It seems foolish to clam up because I was afraid that the immediate threat would hear me and come running. They are as artificial as any other monster from any other horror game, but the common sense to make that observation eluded me. Inside that headset, the illusion was great enough to pierce the veil of confidence I normally wear for games like this. Again, at no point was the fourth wall ever truly dissolved, but it blurred such that I no longer felt as “safe” as I would have when playing normally. That, more than anything, exemplifies how radical virtual reality can be.

While Resident Evil 7 definitely doesn't require VR, it's a great game to show off both what gives it its potential and what holds it back. After fighting through the motion sickness, and learning to adjust to the new control paradigm, I was able to get an amazing experience that I would have never been able to otherwise. VR probably won't ever get more than a niche audience, but within that space there's still a ton of potential. Having finished my trials at the Baker Estate, I'm more eager than ever to see what other applications, even outside of gaming, the technology has to offer.

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