There is no aiming correction in The Brookhaven Experiment, an upcoming survival game for the HTC Vive. You either know how to shoot, or you don't.
And every missed shot is a real problem; the game is over once you run out of bullets.
"It's actually been pretty funny to hear reactions from people who've played it at shows," Jeremy Chapman of Phosphor Games told Polygon. "One person will tell us it's way too easy while they're getting head shots on every shot. Then next person will tell us it's way too hard after they die 30 seconds in."
The reality is that the game's mechanics aren't tuned to any difficulty, outside of the number and intensity of enemies. If you know how to shoot already, however? It's going to be easier. Past experience with games doesn't matter. Knowledge of how to use a real gun is what helps you, although the lack of recoil outside of the haptics of the Vive controller certainly makes recovering from each shot a bit easier.
"My first response to everyone is to ask 'have you ever fired a real pistol?' Generally the people who have are the ones that do better, as they know pistols lose accuracy pretty quickly as the range increases," Chapman continued. "Shooting with motion controllers is a totally different animal than using a gamepad or keyboard and mouse, and over time people adjust and get better at using them."
Steve Bowler, the other developer working on the game, went into more detail.
"We are actually doing relatively nothing as far as accuracy is concerned," he explained. "We took the gun model, positioned it relative to the Vive controller model so that it should feel comfortable in your hand when holding the Vive controller with your finger on the trigger, and then we had to do a slight adjustment one time to fix the assumed angle players felt the gun barrel should be relative to how they were holding 'the gun' in the real world."
After that? "Then we just made the gun shoot perfectly straight, every time. If you miss in Brookhaven, it's because you would have missed in the real world on a range or in that real-world situation," he said.
Being methodical and lining up your shots is good strategy, but it's also fun to lose yourself to the fun of the game and try things that would get you thrown out of a firing range. Aim at zombies over your shoulder, or try a Deadpool-style spray of shots from the crotch. I'm partial to the no-look, behind the back headshot, myself.
"When people miss in Brookhaven, they're missing because the act of them pulling the trigger, even carefully, will make the gun twist ever so slightly in their hand, or make their own wrist turn by even half a degree," Bowler explained. "When you're shooting at point-blank range, that half a degree is meaningless. But when the enemy is 50 feet away or more, you just missed to the right by four inches, which means you wasted a bullet, which means your limited ammunition reserve going down made your day two percent more stressful."
I've been spending the past few evenings playing The Brookhaven Experiment, both by myself and with friends, and it's a tense, surprisingly fair take on what amounts to a standing survival experience. You have a gun and a flashlight. The gun has limited rounds and the flashlight has limited batteries. There are monsters — not zombies, it was stressed to me multiple times — come at you from every direction, and you have to kill them before they kill you. Better accuracy and nailing headshots will earn you more ammo and upgrades such as laser sights and grenades.
It's a simple premise, made interesting due to the motion controls and positional tracking of the Vive headset. You have to look around constantly while tracking your targets. The closer they get, the easier they are to hit, but of course if too many get close you'll be overwhelmed.
There are monsters that charge once you hit them once, so you have to make sure to have a full clip before you engage them. There is no escape, and the sounds of the monsters getting ever closer is hard on the nerves. There are no jump-scares; if you turn around and there's a monster right on top of you it's because you messed up and weren't adequately aware of the threats as they came in. Turning around, only to have your flashlight illuminate a giant monster, is a situation you created yourself due to poor planning.
"We just decided to let human skill be the differentiator," Bowler said. "It's hard, but that's mostly the point. We want you to sweat this. You should feel the stress of having to actually aim a weapon, for real, while threats are coming at you from all angles."
While you have to manage your ammunition and things like the battery of your flashlight, the most precious resource is your attention. If you're keeping a track of a monster in front you, you may miss the one behind you. It's crucial to always be looking around, tracking every target in 360 degrees. When things pile up you have to make sure you're thinning the attacking monsters in a way that makes sense, while tracking how many times you've pulled the trigger. Reloading is done by squeezing the buttons on the side of the controller, but it takes a few seconds.
Those seconds can be the difference between seeing the next wave or being overwhelmed. Keeping track of one or two things isn't tricky, but counting shots while making sure your flashlight still has juice and also tracking the number of enemies on the screen, their locations and proximity to you and how many bullets you'll need to take them out? That gets challenging very quickly, and the dark environment and unsettling sound design does everything it can to try to slowly lose your nerve.
This creates an interesting truth to the game that shooters with canned animations and aim-assistance lack. When you do poorly you have no excuse. But when you do well? During one session I missed a shot, and blew through the rest of my clip on a particularly large monster who soaked a number of bullets. I reloaded, only to hear the sounds of a monster behind me. I spun around, jumping backwards as I realized it was right in my face. Without thinking my hand with the gun flew up and I pulled the trigger at almost no range; its head exploded. I felt like I was in an action movie ... but it also took a few moments before my heart slowed down.
"It turns out when you nail a head-shot in VR it feels better than it does in any other video-game, because you know on a primal level that you did that," Bowler said. It wasn't a matter of just hitting the right button at the right time, my entire body had to react appropriately for me to survive that encounter.
The amazing part? The demo, and the core of the game, was created by two industry veterans in a matter of weeks.
The Brookhaven Experiment was actually something of an accident, although the small portion of the game I was able to play seemed way more polished than its rapid development would suggest. The game was born when Chapman had the Thanksgiving weekend to himself and decided, spur of the moment, to try his hand at a VR shooter. With his family out of town for a few days, why not make a game?
"Within an hour I had a fully functioning gun and then decided I needed targets," he said. "I set up some default characters to spawn in, walk toward me, and die when I shot them, and before I knew it, in one evening I had the base for this game." He then showed it around the office.
"There were no breaks, no upgrades ... and barely any enemy variety, but it was an amazing proof of concept that everybody couldn't believe he had pulled off. He's seriously a machine," Bowler said.
Chapman took another day adding in some archived assets Phosphor had laying around and created some custom enemies and an environments. It wasn't until the very basic demo got an enthusiastic reception at a local VR meetup in Chicago that they began to think about turning it into a real game.
"We approached management and said 'hey, we have time, don't schedule us on anything else if you can swing it and we're going to blow this out," Bowler explained. They began crunching immediately.