Real talk – my PlayStation VR has been sitting in a box, untouched, for longer than I care to admit. It’s not that it’s a bad device, it’s fantastic, it’s just that setting it up in the small space that I have is a process that I’m only willing to go through for a game that I absolutely must play. After seeing Stifled recently at PAX Australia (you can check out our interview with Justin NG from Gattai Games here) my immediate thought was, “I need to unpack my PSVR right now”.
Stifled is best described as a thriller-slash-walking-simulator, the kind of narrative experience told through subtle environmental cues and thorough exploration that’ll ring familiar to fans of games like Gone Home and Dear Esther. The difference here though, is that things get real weird, real fast. As soon as the game begins and my character wakes in his home to the sound of his alarm, it’s clear than something is not quite right. Looking around the room, my field of vision is heavily obscured, with anything more than a foot or so away seemingly enveloped in a thick fog. The game explains that making some noise will help, and so with a tap of the right trigger on the controller I let out a cough and suddenly my field of view spreads out a little further. With nothing else to go on but that, I begin to explore the house and try to piece together the situation. Fast forward a little and the game cuts to the scene of a car crash, with nowhere to go but the entrance to a creepy-as-hell looking sewer system. It’s at this moment that the game shows its true colours, and the thrills begin.
The only sensible thing to do when somebody complains about doors being left open
Immediately upon entering the sewer system, things go completely, totally dark. Being ‘blind’ in a VR game seems like a counterintuitive concept, but it’s immediately apparent how effective it is at invoking a feeling that I can only describe as ‘deeply tense’. Harking back to the brief tutorial in the first scene, I start to make some noise, and I’m met with a burst of stark, white lines that spread and outline the environment immediately around me. Using this pseudo-echolocation technique, I venture forth in search of some answers, and hopefully some daylight. As I get deeper into the tunnels, I notice a second pulse of sound in the distance, this time outlining the environment in red. My immediate thought is, “yeah nah fuck this”, as I freeze up completely – too afraid to make any more noise and alert… whatever it is. I finally pluck up the courage to keep moving, inching slowly towards a doorway that I can see thanks to the dripping sound of a leaking pipe just beside it, and stopping dead in my tracks whenever the red sound waves of the mysterious thing’s footsteps get too close for comfort. Finally, I make it far enough away from danger that I feel confident to make a beeline for the door, and then it happens. As I step forward, my feet land in a small puddle, making a huge amount of noise. My mistake does not go unnoticed, as the other presence in the sewer reveals itself, its ominous red sound waves following it as it sprints towards me. I shriek in horror, which the microphone attached to my headset picks up in turn, lighting up the tunnel like Christmas at the very moment that I die.
This situation is looking a little dicey… I mean cagey. Ugh, I ruined it
These moments are the highlight of Stifled, and make up maybe two-thirds of the handful of hours needed to complete the game. Outside of these sequences, the game plays more like a traditional walking simulator, asking you to explore simple environments and puzzle out the overarching storyline through careful observation. While less exciting than the creepy blind bits, the opportunity to breathe a little and soak in the atmosphere without fear of death is much appreciated. The only disappointment here is the slightly rougher presentation of the ‘real-world’ elements. Though pared-back visuals are to be expected in most VR experiences, the overall design of these environments can come off as a little too amateur-ish, and the dialogue (both spoken and written) is awkward at best. Interestingly, the entire game can also be played without VR, and while it’s still effectively creepy and affecting as a non-VR game, it’s here that the presentational issues are the most glaring. Still, none of this gets in the way of Stifled’s disturbing atmosphere and overall engaging story. Invested players are rewarded with a particularly cool ending that neatly ties up the experience and cements the game as one of the most intelligent uses of VR yet.
Stifled is one of the most disturbing and intense experiences I’ve had in – or out – of VR. That it does this so successfully with just a few stark white lines and some brilliant use of audio is truly impressive for an indie effort. As the game and the story progress, the mystery surrounding the main character and the ways in which the stealth-horror sequences prey on the psyche of both protagonist and player help to elevate the game past the awkward dialogue and sometimes rough visuals. Stifled is the kind of game that will make its players scream and then use those screams against them. Brilliant.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro