Further travels with my skull

I remember the sun piercing the clouds, the sound of waves lapping my boat. I remember the feel of Dillion’s skull hanging from my belt. I remember the staked and flayed bodies and the shapes, half-monstrous, half-familiar, lurking in the fog.

Most of all I remember the voices.

What is new, though, is that the world isn’t contained by a rectangle of light in front of me. No, Helheim surrounds me, it envelops me. Hell is wherever I turn.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

I have written about the psycho-mythological action adventure Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and its audiovisual representation of psychosis before, but I hadn’t yet checked out the version of the game that lets you experience it entirely in Virtual Reality. Partly I thought that the game wasn’t well suited to VR, partly I was, well, a bit scared. Hellblade‘s depiction of its main character Senua’s mindscape was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had in gaming in recent years, and the developers’ research into psychosis and collaboration with experts in the field of psychology paid dividends in creating an experience quite unique in gaming. Hellblade‘s main asset was its binaural sound, using a recording method that closely replicates the way human beings perceive sound, which made the voices in Senua’s head frighteningly real. (I remember several times while playing the game when I heard the voice of someone mocking or taunting me right behind me and spun around only to remember that this was only an acoustic illusion, though a highly convincing one.)

However, since the VR version was included as a free update for people who’d already bought Hellblade, I finally installed it, thinking that I’d probably check out the first five minutes and then forget about it. After all, I’d played Hellblade fairly recently, and while it was an impressive experience, I didn’t think I needed to revisit it again so soon.

Naively, I hadn’t counted on just how immersive VR can be.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Two ways in which VR amplifies the experience became apparent almost immediately, the first of which is scale. The norm is still that you play games on a screen. Now, this may be a big screen or a small screen, but in either case you don’t really see scale. You perceive composition, you see that the character you’re playing is large or small compared to the world they inhabit, but neither cognitively nor sensually or emotionally are you likely to relate the size of characters, creatures and environments to yourself. When I started up Hellblade in VR, I found myself sitting behind Senua in a boat crudely carved from a tree trunk. Senua’s size wasn’t half the screen: she was my size or perhaps a head shorter. When telling others about what I like about VR, I often bring up scale, but the word sounds abstract, conceptual, when the actual experience is anything but. Senua is human-sized, inhabiting a world that more often than not is of inhuman size. Sheer rock faces, stark, ominous trees, forbidding fortresses: their size means something else when you don’t look up at them by moving the mouse a centimetre or two but by actually looking up. If an opponent towers over Senua, they tower over you as well.

The other way that VR immediately makes a difference, doubly so in a game that strives to put you in the headspace of another, is by enveloping you in a virtual world. A screen, whether it’s a computer screen on a desk or a TV a couple of metres in front of you, is self-contained. Unless we’re talking about the largest of IMAX screens and you’re sitting in the front row, you will see where the screen ends. Turn a few degrees and you see the wall, the windows and curtains, you see bookshelves and dining tables and the door to the next room. In VR, you turn and you see the same world that’s in front of you. You’re not looking at Senua through a high-tech window in front of you, you’re looking at her because you’re right next to her.

Hellblade

Combine these two aspects and add the binaural sound used for the voices Senua is plagued by, and it’s so much harder to feel external to Senua and the way she experiences the world – which in turn makes it easier for the brain to sketch in the gaps in what your senses tell you: the humid, salty seaside air on your skin, the damp cold of barely lit caves, the smell emanating from plague-stricken villages. What was still relatively abstract, a 2D image in front of you, starts feeling surprisingly concrete.

There is a third thing that developer Ninja Theory did in adapting their game to VR that seems simple and almost obvious at first, but that resonated with me to a surprising degree. One of the lessons of early VR games was that you take camera control away from the player at the risk of making them queasy and in some cases violently sick. In VR, players expect their eyes to be the camera, so to speak, so if they are still but their view moves, the brain translates that disconnect into discomfort not unlike sea sickness. At the same time, games often work with non-interactive sequences (or cutscenes) that use cinematic techniques, and those tend to use the virtual camera as a cinematographer might. Hellblade has some such sequences, where the game may show you Senua interacting with apparitions – and the VR version signals those by slowly reducing your field of vision to a rectangle – an approximation of the screen people normally play games on, floating in the darkness in front of you. By doing this, you no longer associate the camera movement with your own movement, as you’re watching something that is clearly external to yourself. This is an approach often taken by VR games, switching to a virtual screen inside the virtual environment you’re in, and it’s one I’ve seen in various games – but in a game that is about mental illness and altered states, I found myself strongly reminded of Get Out and its Sunken Place, where the hypnotised protagonist finds himself looking through his eyes as if at a distant screen. In Hellblade, I felt the dissociative effect of that aesthetic choice: where before I was there with Senua, now I was looking at her from a distance, unable to do anything. I was no longer in control of the game but floating in an empty, disconcerting limbo.

Get Out

I don’t know if that effect was intended, but I don’t think it matters: while arguably the virtual-screen solution to cutscenes just mirrors the actual screen most people play games on, Hellblade‘s setting and premise and its various approaches to making the imaginary and the virtual feel real made me feel the contrast between being with Senua and having agency and then looking at her from far away and having no agency at all all the more keenly.

I’ve had an Oculus Rift for roughly two years now. Some of the games and experiences I’ve checked out were gimmicky, others were intense, and some were simply… there. By and large, the ones that made best use of VR were the ones that were created specifically for the new medium. I wouldn’t have thought that one of the most intense, most immersive experiences I’d have would be a version of a game developed for regular 2D gaming, adapted for VR after the fact. And that’s after barely half an hour spent right next to Senua. Just imagine how long the blog post will be once I’ve replayed the entire thing!

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