Stifled by Gattai Games isn’t a VR-exclusive, but it’s definitely a title that benefits greatly from its use of VR. Played the way it was intended, it’s a fresh new take on the horror genre.
As novel and innovative as Stifled’s core concept is, it also instantly reminded me of this year’s Perception. In Stifled, as well as in Perception, sound plays a crucial role in what you see – making use of sound to get an idea of what your environment looks like. A softer sound reveals only what’s directly in front of you, a louder sound can light up a room. Stifled and Perception are also both horror/suspense/survival titles that use this mechanic to stir up a sensation of dread and fear.
So what makes Stifled any different and still innovative, just a few months after the release of Perception? It’s the way it utilizes two different technologies to achieve its goal: microphones and virtual reality. Using a microphone, your source of noise isn’t just a tap on a gamepad button (although that option is available), it’s the sounds that you make as a player while playing. Of course, this starts with a few sarcastic “hello? hellooooooooooooo?!?” moments, but as you progress and start getting the sense that something is stalking you in the dark, it becomes a real and integral part of the game.
This sensation is heightened by the use of virtual reality, as the game supports Playstation VR. As with the microphone, the use of VR is optional – but here too I can’t recommend it enough. Being inside the dark with only the sound of your own voice to guide you is haunting and picking up other sounds is extremely creepy as well. Experience the same by watching it on a TV screen and a lot of the experience is lost.
The visuals in Stifled have a decidedly stronger “indie flavor” to them than Perception did – often just making use of wire frames to convey your surroundings. Rather than delivering a visually stunning game, it seems like Gattai focused on making the experience functional and effective. In this sense, it succeeds, because subtle uses of color signify danger and a monster getting close to you is genuinely scary. Part of that is not being able to see much, but an even bigger part is that fact that your own sound, which is your dynamic to see, is also what’s attracting him to begin with.
Besides your voice, you can also throw objects (stones) to create sound ripples and visualize your environment. This is a safer option as it sends bad guys to a location you’re not currently in, but even with this (inventory-limited) alternative it still feels like there’s too much trial and error involved in getting through the game at certain points. With so little to see, it’s hard to plan ahead and know what you’re doing wrong when you get caught – which can lead to some mild frustration if it happens more often than you’d like. When your actions and the plot click and fall into place, it’s great – but that’s not going to always happen.
The game’s narrative unfortunately isn’t nearly as good as its core gameplay dynamic, leaving you with quite a few stereotypical horror/suspense elements – the end result being that the VR/voice dynamic is stronger than the game itself. Still, the game manages to be groundbreaking with its use of technology and deserves to be commended for that. I can’t wait for a game like this that incorporates speech recognition (like Star Trek: Bridge Crew has) for a truly immersive horror experience. Add a more polished audiovisual and narrative experience into the mix and you’ve got a game that VR was made for. As it stands, Stifled feels like a successful experiment and an example of how well technology can be used to craft new game experiences. If you have access to VR you have a built-in mic as well, and this is a great experience. If you don’t, then Perception might be your game of choice.