This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series. I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony. When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued. You want to know something weird? The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did. I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.
Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn. Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series. While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.
I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood. Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience. The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members. It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.
The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come. As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush. From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize. Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.
Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook. The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers. The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used). The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes. There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me. I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill. The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them. True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.
Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology. Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre. Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion. I think it’s the head tracking that really does it. There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before. When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.
Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares. Cheap jump scares at that. And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways. Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on. In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game. The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me. I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen. I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.
Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly. Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty. To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming. Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension. Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.
Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time. I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares. In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic. But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points. Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience. And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.
The explosion of the indie gaming scene over the last couple of years has led to the popularization of a handful of new genres like survival games, run-and-hide horror games, “walking simulators”, etc. And every once in awhile these new types of games manage to pierce into the highly homogenized world of $60 boxed releases. As a game, Until Dawn easily falls in line with the “interactive movie” style adventure game that was popularized by The Walking Dead. There’s less a focus on puzzle-solving and more a focus on rich storytelling that gives the player some choices to make in the game which ostensibly controls the trajectory of the plot.
Until Dawn can best be described as a game made in the mold of a teen slasher movie. The template of the slasher movie is an interesting thing for gaming to broach. The vast majority of gaming is focused on powerful lone heroes overcoming massive quantities of enemies. Even most horror games are made in this mold with protagonists like Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Isaac Clarke, Harry Mason, etc. forcing their way through armies of horrible abominations that are meant to be scarier than the average video game enemy, but nonetheless go down in great numbers to the protagonist. The slasher film, on the other hand, is an inversion of this. You have a group of protagonists that are facing a single overwhelming and resilient enemy who will inevitably succeed in thinning out the heroes to some extent. So as someone who has been playing games all his life and is interested in seeing creative new directions take form in this realm, Until Dawn had my interests piqued.
Until Dawn focuses on a group of eight teenagers who have come together for a night of partying on the secluded Blackwood Mountain. The mountain is owned by the parents of one of the teens, Josh Washington, who we’re told (and shown) are exorbitantly wealthy. This is no cabin retreat, rather it is a massive lodge that once served as a high-end hotel before the mountain was abandoned by its previous owner. This same previous owner also ran a sanitorium and mining operation on the mountaintop until the mine collapsed. The sanitorium and mine are now abandoned. And one year prior to this particular party, Josh’s sisters went missing on the mountaintop, and he’s throwing the party in their honor. Can you see where all this is starting to go?
The only way up and down the mountain from the lodge is by cable car. And of course, the cable cars become cut off as an escape option, and the teens find themselves assailed by a murderous “mystery man”, as well as facing the dangerous secrets of the mountain’s dark past. You trade-off controlling each teen as the story dictates. Sam is the closest to what I would consider to being the main character, as she’s the most morally-centered and shows the most focused-thinking. She’s also the only female character that doesn’t turn into a whimpering mess when faced with harrowing situations. Aside from her, the teens mostly follow very well established tropes. There’s the funny guy, the funny guy’s girl next door love interest, the athlete, the class president, the hot girl, etc. But I thought there was a small amount of subversion of these tropes. For instance, I found Matt the Athlete, who would in other forms of this template be the most self-centered of the characters, to be the most reasonable and diplomatic in the face of interpersonal conflict. Meanwhile, the more academically-accomplished and intelligent Mike and Emily are the most manipulative and cruel of the protagonists, far from the meek, socially-inept nerds that they would be in other uses of this trope. And the “hot girl” Jess, who to the others appears shallow and superficial, shows real depth in moments of self-reflection and confessions of her insecurities.
Over the course of the story, we see conflict and betrayal as well as selflessness and loyalty evolve in these characters. Some might call these individuals “flawed”, but I’m not sure that I would use that exact wording. Rather, I just think they’re very realistic. They can be cruel to each other, they make mistakes, but they also have redeeming qualities and moments. The game features a “celebrity” voice cast led by Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare. I’m usually very skeptical and annoyed by big name voice actors, since most of the time they don’t take gaming seriously and do poor jobs. But I have to say that this crew mostly does quite well in their roles.
Choice is something that developers have been enamored with for quite some time now. After all, video games are an interactive medium, so it’s logical that players should have some ability to influence the course of events that occurs in a game’s plot. Unfortunately while this is a great ideal, in the real world it’s a rather hard thing to implement probably because having significantly deviating paths in a game requires the production of a lot of additional content by the developer. As a consequence, most choices in games tend to work like little diamonds. The player’s choices can have some impact on the unfolding of immediate short-term events, but the story is set up such that in the long-term the divergent story paths find a way to come back to the same point. I think most gamers have caught on to this, but developers still love to use the concept of highly consequential “choices” as a selling point for their games.
And Until Dawn is no exception considering its genre. The game begins by introducing the player to the butterfly effect and explaining how their choices will result in significantly diverging events in the game’s story. There’s also a menu in the pause screen that shows you the critical determinant choices and actions the player has made. I’ve only played through the game once, so at this time I can’t really say how radically different the story can play out. But as far as I know, the three acts play out roughly the same regardless, with the first act introducing us to the characters and setting up the rest of the night’s events, the second act sees the slasher’s plans set in motion, and the third act brings together all the mysteries surrounding the teens’ ordeal. There are pre-scripted parts where a specific teen can die if the wrong decisions or actions happen, but, as I understand, that doesn’t change the story beats. I think it just changes which characters are involved in each event (and their collective survival odds), not which events happen. But like I said, I really can’t say for sure, as I haven’t exhaustively explored the game’s many divergent paths.
But what about Until Dawn as a scary game? After all, this is a Halloween Gaming post. I have to say Until Dawn probably isn’t one of the scariest games I’ve played. It does have an appropriate atmosphere and mood for the story it’s trying to tell, but I was never really spooked by it. There were a few exceptions that did really rattle me, though. In particular, the abandoned sanitorium that the player must visit really set my teeth on edge for some reason. It might have just been the mood I was in at the time, and maybe a function of how many drinks I had that night. I did worry about the teens survival, but it wasn’t really dread or fear I felt for them. It was just that I liked these characters and wanted to see their stories play out. I managed to keep all the teens alive until the climax of the game, and the first time one died I was so disappointed with myself that I turned the game off in anger at myself.
One thing I will say about this game is that it likes its jump scares. This is particularly true in the first act of the game where there’s really not a lot of danger, and the focus is on introducing the protagonists, their relationships with each other, and the mountain location that they find themselves on. This part of the game, in particular, has a lot of cheap “BOO!” moments even though there’s really not much threat to them. I suspect this is because the developers didn’t want the player to forget that they were in a horror game considering how peaceful things were at the start. I have to say, the jump scares got kind of annoying after a while.
One thing I did like about the game was the fixed camera that it employs. It made me nostalgic for the survival horror games of old that used this perspective, even though this game isn’t survival horror, itself. I definitely think the camera was a big part of the tension I felt in the sanitorium that I mentioned above.
Although I didn’t necessarily find the game to be among the scariest I’ve ever played, I do think I really enjoyed it in the end. It does have a good atmosphere and mood and creates a cast of characters that are compelling to watch and play. The third act goes in a direction that I felt was less interesting than what was set up earlier in the game, but I still found myself suitably invested in the game’s climax and seeing the protagonists through to the end of the story. I actually would really like to talk about the story and characters more in-depth, so I hope to get a spoiler-tagged post on this game out in November, after I’ve finished my final Halloween gaming post.
Thanks for reading!