Seeing a Xenomorph in person, watching it hunting you, is one of the scariest moments I’ve ever experienced in my long history of gaming. I had spent the past five minutes or so walking around what looked like a derelict spaceship, making sure to check my motion tracker as often as possible.
I was told there might be a flame thrower I could find, but soon enough there was a blip.
I pulled up the motion tracker and leaned in to see it clearly. Yes, there was movement. Behind me. The lights flickered. I turned around, and there it was. The alien took a moment, looked at me, and then bolted in my direction. It held me down and hissed in my face. It felt like it I couldn’t breathe, and I definitely couldn’t move. The Xenomorph lost interest in my face and began to eat my brain.
Game over, man.
"You can’t win," Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey told me as I removed the Oculus Rift. The Alien: Isolation demo in virtual reality was being shown at a meeting room in E3, and the company’s Palmer Luckey and Nate Mitchell were having way too much fun watching my shocked reactions to the game as I died.
The game works incredibly well in virtual reality. Your body moves as shifts along with your head, further fueling the illusion you’re a character inside this world. The latest version of the Oculus Rift hardware allows you to lean in and out to explore the environment and to get a closer look at the motion tracker. The sense of place, of being inside the world of an Alien film or game, is hard to describe. It’s like waking up inside one of your favorite nightmares.
"That was mostly with the Creative Assembly team. They reached out and basically said, I believe, that they wanted to do a vertical slice of the game for E3 with Rift support," Mitchell told Polygon. The game’s development team threw a number of resources at the demo and worked with the Oculus team to change the necessary parts of the game significantly to make it work in VR. This wasn’t stapled-on support for the Rift, everything from the UI to the menus looked great and worked well in virtual reality.
"I told them the first time I played it that you don’t want to have any jump scares. Anything can be a jump scare, it’s really easy to scare people that way," Luckey explained. "So you notice the Alien, when it sees you it doesn’t instantly fly at you. It will stop and look at you for a second, take a slower step, and then go fast. Even if hadn’t have run behind the corner, if you had just stood there, you would have had a brief stare down with it."
"It's a slow, nightmarish death."
It doesn’t feel like the creature comes out of nowhere and kills you, the effect is more like being hunted. You look each other in the eye, and then it takes you by force and kills you. You have time to think about the fact you’re going to die. It’s terrifying.
"It makes a big difference," Luckey continued. "It’s not easy to tune AI like that and still have it be believable. They did a good job. It’s good at seeing you close up but far away it’s not. It will look, it will peer, and then it will figure out you’re there and go for you."
"That made it way better than when it’s a jump scare," he said.
The portion of the game I tried at E3 was a tech demo, but there’s a possibility that the positive reaction to the game at E3 will help make a full VR release attractive to Sega and Creative Assembly. The little piece I played was enough to convince me that would be a great idea, at least for players who don’t mind a bit of terror with their games.
To drive that point home, Creative Assembly had to work out a way for the Xenomorph to kill you from behind. It doesn’t grab your head and wrench your view around, which could be uncomfortable in VR, and also would be just another jump scare.
"It jams its tail spike through you," Luckey said, pantomiming the motion of having the long, leathery alien appendage explode through your chest. "So you look down, and you look up and it’s over you."
"It’s a slow, nightmarish death," he said with enthusiasm.
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