With virtual reality making a comeback, horror fans should be brimming with excitement. Mystery thrillers and horror games lend themselves well to VR. The tech is essentially all about making the user believe they’re in a fantastical-yet-real world, so filling that with various creatures and serial killers out for blood is just good business. Developer Robot Invader’s mystery thriller Dead Secret is a prime showcase of how to nail psychological horror in VR, from a frightening and tense atmosphere to well-earned scares.

In short: Horror is taking over VR. Insomniac Games’s Edge of Nowhere, a Lovecraftian game about an explorer trapped in snowy mountains along with ghastly creatures, is one of the best Oculus titles out right now; and one of the most anticipated PlayStation VR games is Resident Evil 7. But, pulling off a great thriller in VR is incredibly challenging, as Robot Invader explains.

'Dead Secret' makes psychological horror in virtual reality.
In some ways, 'Dead Secret' is about negative space.

A Flat Screen Won’t Do

“Building a horror game for a flat screen is a constant fight to prevent the player from being pulled out of the experience,” says Chris Pruett, co-founder of Robot Invader.

The studio knew from the start that VR was the best way to make a horror experience like Dead Secret. It’s about you, a 1960s reporter, looking for your next big scoop walking into a secluded farm house searching for clues about the recent murder that took place there. The most important thing the studio wanted — and needed — to nail with the game was to avoid including predictable and lazy jump scares. Instead, the team wanted a methodical, and more slowly paced thriller that can keep a player’s attention for a long period of time.

While searching for clues as to the killer’s identity, the game continually plays with your mind by including frightening demon masks to find and dimly lit cellars to explore. Creepy shadows constantly linger around the house, making you feel like someone’s watching you, waiting patiently to strike. There are a slew of scares and sadistic twists that make playing Dead Secret a truly frightening experience.

Subtlety was a key design goal of Dead Secret, as we are not fans of games that are just a series of jump scares,” says Pruett. “These are the easiest type of horror games to make but they cannot create a lasting emotional connection. One of the things we try to do is to keep the player guessing about whats going on. “Who’s the killer? What does this weird thing I just saw mean? Am I alone? What was the victim up to in this weird house anyway?” These are the types of questions we want the player to be mulling over as they play.”

“Sometimes we answer questions incompletely,” Pruett continues, “or with just enough information for the player to connect the dots themselves. It is critical that the player is thinking about what’s going on rather than acting as a passive consumer of content. There are some pretty difficult balances to strike between story complexity, environment design, and puzzle difficulty, but hopefully we land in the sweet spot where the player is engaged, thinking, and occasionally holding their breath.”

'Dead Secret' is all about atmosphere and theme.
Don't go into the basement. Or, if you do, maybe use this door to get out.

You Got to Nail That Movement

The inevitable limitations associated with early VR tech, like poor text rendering were the crux of Robot Invader’s problems during Dead Secret’s development. Robot Invader had to come up with clever ways to avoid unreadable text as it’s often an issue in VR. Nailing the camera, and making an intuitive and simple UI were especially difficult as well. The team also spent a long time working on avoiding motion sickness.

Resident Evil 7 has had similiar problems early on. Camera controls were a big area of complaint for the first demo. It had you use the right analog stick to look around, which made people nauseous and dizzy. The second demo, called Lantern, fixed the problem by making you control the camera using your head, but the jury’s still out if the full game can avoid motion sickness.

“A lot of the challenges we faced had to do with the mechanics of VR itself,” says Pruett. “We understood very quickly that we could not treat this title like a traditional video game that simply ran in a headset. For example, we spent nearly a year on the movement system in Dead Secret. The basics were defined very early on, but developing it to a state in which it served its gameplay purposes and minimized VR sickness was a lengthy project.”

Robot Invader spent a lot of time working and refining locomotion, but it still had to include a second solution.

“Even after a year of work on our movement system we still included a ‘comfort mode’ that omits all camera movement for the small percentage of the population that is extra sensitive,” said Pruett.

For Robot Invader, putting a huge emphasis on detail, like creating tiny inanimate objects that you wont even interact with, is paramount when making a horror VR game. When players are transported to worlds via VR, it’s easier to spot things that might not work or fit in, like a room that might be too tiny to effectively explore.

“Creating a believable environment for the player to inhabit is extremely valuable,” says Pruett. “We put a lot of time into building a world that is convincing and internally consistent. For example, every room in Dead Secret has its own sound design, complete with unique ambient background noise. We wanted the player to remember particular rooms not just by the way they look, but also by the way that they sound.

Robot Invader had to treat and create Dead Secret’s setting as it were a real house.

“We put particular attention into scale: the house is built off of real architectural plans, and we were sticklers about making everything you encounter the proper size,” said Pruett. “This kind of detail is necessary to sell the player on the idea that they are in a real place, and I think it was necessary to make Dead Secret work in VR.”

VR headsets are just releasing this year, and it’ll take time for this particular form of gaming to find its footing. But having full-fledged horror experiences like Dead Secret will help. With an intriguing and spooky story, slow pacing, and memorable settings, Dead Secret is a fine blueprint for developers that shows how to nail psychological horror in VR.

Dead Secret is currently available for Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift. The price on Gear VR is $9.99 with the price on all other platforms set at $14.99.

Robot Invader's got a whole bunch of characters in 'Dead Secret'.
The characters of 'Dead Secret' may not all be dead, or have secrets.

Photos via Robot Invader

Alex Gilyadov is a freelance writer for IGN, GameSpot, UploadVR, Engadget, and CGMagazine. He lives in New York City, loves pizza, and thinks The Sopranos is slightly overrated.