Resident Evil in VR is going to make people sick

Virtual reality gaming is still in its very early stages, and though at E3 2016 there seemed to be a VR headset around every corner, developers are still figuring out how, exactly, basic elements of VR games are supposed to work. And when things aren't working quite right in a VR game, it doesn't just make for an un-fun experience, but one that can actually make you feel ill.

Resident Evil VII: Biohazard will be coming to PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 early in 2017, and will be playable with a controller in a traditional fashion. You can try out a free demo right now if you're a PlayStaton Plus member, in fact. Presented in this "classic" way the game looks to be a typical creepy Resident Evil experience )though it's hard to say much based on an hour of demo content that won't actually be in the final game). 

But the game will also support PlayStation VR, and unless there are some big changes put into place regarding how the control scheme works for the VR experience, it's likely playing the game this way will nauseate a lot of people. 

The problem with traditional controls in VR

At this point I've played a lot of different VR games on a variety of platforms, including the Gear VR, Vive, Oculus, and PlayStation VR. And while the headsets and games have their differences, one very clear, very common thread is that controls that move the player's avatar or view independent of real-world head movement are likely to induce motion sickness. 

I can play Job Simulator for hours with no trouble, because moving around feels just like moving in real life. Same deal with Space Pirate Trainer. And seated experiences are fine too, as long as they're things like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes or ChronosI don't get motion sickness at all in any of those experiences. But as soon as you give me control over my movement or viewpoint with an analog stick, I'll instantly start feeling unwell. It happened in Time Machine VR, it happened in Farpoint, and it happened in Resident Evil VII

This is a known problem for VR games, but rather than finding a way to address it (and because teleporation functions are unsatisfying in some types of games, and probably wouldn't work in Resident Evil VII) too many games are just going ahead anyway, making VR games with non-VR control schemes. 

This is a bad idea, and most likely a dead end for game development. In ten years we'll probably look back at a strange two years in gaming in which people struggled to enjoy games that made a whole lot of folks sick. 

Why Resident Evil is worse than most

The Resident Evil VII demo is a great experience, and if you're a PlayStation Plus member and a fan of horror games you should certainly give it a try, at home, played in the traditional non-VR fashion. The scares and atmosphere won't be as effective as you'd get from a VR headset and a good pair of headphones, but the overall experience will probably be much better. Because there are very good odds that the VR version of the game will make you feel ill. 

Let's consider for a moment what we have in the Resident Evil VII VR experience:

1. A virtual reality game with a flawed control scheme that moves the player's avatar and view via joysticks in addition to natural head motion.

2. A game which is designed to make you feel frightened and uneasy, and which will ocassionally startle you. Tension is not known to decrease feelings of nausea.

3. A game likely full of depictions of gore, disease, and rot (the demo certainly is), which are largely in the game because they induce feelings of disgust

4. A game that is likely to make you sweat out of fear, which combined with a tight-fitting VR headset and a good pair of headphones will make for an experience VR experts (or maybe just me) call "sweaty head." If you've ever experienced bad nausea you can probably guess that having a hot and sweaty face and head will make you feel a whole lot worse.

Down with the sickness

So...yeah. I played the demo to an ending (found the bolt cutters, played the tape, discovered the secret door, got the key, left out the back door). It took about twenty minutes, but it was a rough twenty minutes. And I wasn't alone in my struggle. Not by a long shot. The guy in front of me in line had to take the demo attendant up on his offer to "raise your hand and close your eyes, and I'll take the headset off and you can have a break." He tried again after the break, but wasn't able to get much further in the demo due to nausea -- and this is after spending a long time waiting in line. I saw another guy give up after a brief ten minutes, praising the game but unable to continue. The woman behind me in line suffered the same fate. That's a pretty rough track record, and that's just what I witnessed with my own eyes. 

The Sony employees supervising the line and the demo said people had been feeling sick all day. They contrasted it to Arkham VR in the adjacent booth, which uses natural head movement and the Move controllers, and said that Arkham hadn't really been bothering anyone. And these aren't general public VR neophytes either. These are game developers, journalists, and others in the game industry. If this group struggled so much with the game, clearly there's an issue. 

I'm a Resident Evil fan and a huge fan of VR, and I'm confident we'll get some amazing VR games from the franchise down the road. Horror is a perfect fit for VR but, probably more than games in other genres, horror games need to do everything they can to eliminate unpleasant motion sickness issues, so you can concentrate on the fun feelings of unease these games are supposed to provide. 

There's still time between now and the January 24, 2017 release date of Resident Evil VII to fix the VR control issue, though the question of how the controls should work instead isn't an easy one. It's something a lot of VR games are currently struggling with, but sooner or later someone will crack the code, everyone else will copy that, and in five years we'll have a better understanding of what works and doesn't in virtual reality games. 

Till then, it's probably for the best that you can play Resident Evil VII outside of VR. It seems like it could be a great horror game.