It’s most frightening the first time.
That isn’t to say that one every adjusts to the scares while playing through the 40 mini-games of “Five Nights at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted” with the PlayStation 4’s virtual reality headset.
But that first moment when one of the creepy people-sized animatronics lurches into your face screaming as you sit in the virtual dark of an office, or repair shop or inside the ductwork of a restaurant, is jump-out-of-your-seat, sorta-shout, definitely-rip-off-your-headphones scary.
I tried to play it cool when it happened to me, finding my seat again, PSVR headset titled back from my face, headphones sort of dangling from my neck, as I spoke too fast while chatting with one of the developers, pretending that I hadn’t just shout really loudly in the quiet of a demo station at a PlayStation event earlier this week. I don’t think I pulled it off.
Rodney Brett, character artist at developer Steel Wool Studios, said that the team actually had to take a second pass on the characters of the game to make them scary in VR.
The game’s original vertical slice, he said, wasn’t quite fun enough and certainly wasn’t scary enough in VR.
“So we went back and we took another pass on it and we added all of these animations and we made things a little more creepy,” he said.
The concept for a virtual reality take on the creepy “Five Nights at Freddy’s” franchise actually came from the franchise creator.
Scott Cawthon came to Steel Wool because he liked some of the other VR games they had created.
“The original pitch was that Scott wanted us to make the original ‘Five Nights’ game,” Brett said.
So Steel Wool dutifully went to work, faithfully recreating the game in virtual reality, but soon realized the end result was both a bit too light in content and didn’t exactly translate well as a port. So they went back and amped things up a bit.
One of the main things the team struggled with internally was whether to keep the game’s minimal animations or redesign them for VR.
“That was part of the charm,” Brett said. “So we struggled with whether we should keep that or whether we should create better animations for them. One of the reasons why I went with the latter was because in Vr they came across as more silly then horrific.”
That’s because, Brett said, changing the game from something occurring in a flat 2D plane to a virtual world really exposes some things you may not typically notice as a player. He likened it to movies that used higher frame rates like “The Hobbit.”
“That revealed a lot of things,” he said. “Once you increase the fidelity of the medium you’re looking at, all of a sudden the user or the player notices flaws.”
“So we noticed that if we left the animations as they were that it didn’t look good and more importantly it wasn’t scary.”
So the team went back in and worked to increase the detail of the characters and their animations without losing the original feel. That included making sure they moved like machines and adding details like hydraulics to their design.
When Cawthon saw the game in action, he loved it.
“He started wondering how the other games would look in VR,” Brett said. “And then what was originally a port of the first game just started growing.”
Soon all of the “Five Nights” games were in the VR experience, and then they started adding a few new experiences.
“Our internal development team came up with some ideas and then we ran it by Scott,” Brett said. “We eventually developed this fully-featured 40-plus mini-game version that I would describe as a best of ‘Five Nights.’”
The demo shown off at PAX East this week features three of those mini-games. The first is the classic “Five Nights at Freddy’s” experience where you play a guard sitting in a room with cameras trying to keep an eye on the roving animatronics so they don’t murder you. The game features new animations because the development team realized that the original motion, which essentially had the characters sliding down hallways, looked more funny than frightening in VR. They also built out the detail of the models to enhance how frightening they are.
The goal of the game is to survive the night, locking one or both of the doors to your office at the right moment to both prevent your death, but also to preserve the slowly depleting energy.
The second experience has you following simple instructions while you repair one of the giant creatures, up close and personal.
The final experience on hand has players sitting in ductwork, following slightly complicated instructions to keep the AC functioning correctly, while making sure they’re not murdered.
The gameplay is very simple, relying on the Move controllers to push virtual buttons, turn knobs, pull levers and do minor repairs. The real payoff is the games’ ability to steadily crank up the tension and try to distract you until it’s too late.
After playing through the included mini-games and surviving, players can go through them again in a sort of nightmare mode, which cranks up the difficulty and distraction in every game. Beat that and players are treated to an end game which Brett said adds to the lore of the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” world.
“It’s all new content to kind of fill in the backstory,” he said.
That’s a big payoff for fans of the series who’ve long had to extract the game’s story through snippets. What little is known about the game and its setting is that there’s a pizzeria with a dark history of dead security guards and missing children.
Brett said the team hopes to work with Cawthon again, this time on something entirely new for “Five Nights.”
“He wants to make another ‘Five Nights” hopefully with us in the future,” Brett said. “I’m not sure if he wants to do another VR game though.”
“We think that would be a perfect platform for it,” Brett said of the Quest.