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Engines of Horror: How Video Games Are Confronting Our Darkest Subconscious

A rising tide of video games and virtual reality simulators is rethinking how to communicate the primal, psychic experience of being human.

My first experience with the Oculus Rift borders the onset of a bad trip on psychedelic drugs, a prelude to a panic attack. I'm not sure if this anxiety is just first time jitters, or if it's being caused by SoundSelf, a virtual reality game that uses biofeedback to transport users into an altered states of mind and body.

But I'm anxious nonetheless. I feel like I'm approaching some psychic edge, as if I'm right on the brink of the bottomless, roiling maw of my subconscious. And that's sort of the point.

Inside a darkened tent, I'm insulated from the lights and sounds of the freewheeling gaudiness of the PAX Prime showroom floor. I've been handed a Rift virtual reality headset, a pair of headphones, and a touch microphone is clamped on my neck. I'm ready to play. I lie down, joining a handful of others either already immersed in SoundSelf (which is still in development stages), or drinking the tea on offer, as they prepare to take the plunge.

Then the anxiety starts creeping in. The next few minutes produce enough inner turmoil that I consider ripping the Rift off my face. Am I starting to freak out?

A woman seated in the center of the tent, with a tray of teapots in front of her, is very much SoundSelf's trip sitter. She instructs me to vocalize as I breathe out, to let myself "fall in." Presumably, the idea here is to come to terms with, and thus overcome the psychic unshackling of a bad trip not by retreating, but by staring it right in the face. By hearing it, by immersing yourself in its awful embrace, SoundSelf is unlike any game experience I've ever had.

Inside the SoundSelf tent. Photo: Jagger Gravning

Like Project Syria, a new virtual reality tool that brings the daily traumas of the Syrian war to life, SoundSelf is part and parcel of a rising tide of games and VR simulators that are rethinking how to communicate some of the human condition's more intense and occasionally unsettling psychic threads through everybody's favorite interactive digital medium.

In terms of total money expenditure, its probably not unfair to posit that video games writ large have focused most of their creative resources on exquisitely fine-tuning the experience of shooting other gamers in the face. But more than ever, developers are confronting topics that remain taboos across almost all of the gaming landscape today, ones that scratch at, or lay bare, in full immersion, the raw matter of both extreme mind expansion and bodily trauma, from the feeling of letting your mind simply wander, to giving in to intrusive thoughts of self harm.

Take Robin Arnott, SoundSelf's creator. He's an enthusiastic, gesticulating man from Austin with a shock of pink hair, who tells me the initial idea for the game came after he created Deep Sea, an audio-only installation game in which players are blinded by specially designed gas masks strapped to their faces. Deep Sea proved incredibly effective, even causing one person at South By Southwest to faint, Arnott said.

But Arnott admitted that even he doesn't understand precisely how that game had worked so well. "I sort of stumbled on a way to short-circuit people's intelligence and get right to the lizard brain," he told me.

SoundSelf footage, courtesy Robin Arnott.

So Arnott spent time trying to retrace his steps, attempting to deconstruct the engine of terror he had created to understand exactly why Deep Sea was so effective.

"At the same time, I was starting to develop meditation practice, developing a disciplined relationship with the universe, with the cosmos, with the self," Arnott explained. In the end, he came out with a piece of technology that he said is just one available tool that helps him understand that which is otherwise impossible to understand, and comprehend "the impossible depths."

"How you take perception and convert that into a reality that feels so fully fleshed and corporeal," he said. " SoundSelf for me is a research vessel to understand this space, to understand what the brain is doing when it's creating a reality."

I stumbled on a way to short-circuit people's intelligence and get right to the lizard brain.

Back in the tent, SoundSelf is picking up. The churning light show inside my Rift is akin, I imagine, to looking through a melting kaleidoscope.

At first, shapes clearly expand and contract with my breathing and chanting. But after a while, as the lights and patterns formed new and increasingly asymmetrical shapes, it became unclear exactly how my voice and breath were interacting both with what I was seeing and the hypnotic music and noise pouring into my head.

The technology isn't flawless. Distractions were all around: A speck of dust on the Rift's glass, my eyelashes batting its screen, the bars of resolution. But these were fairly easy to ignore, to the point that I so deeply lost track of the time that I only came to when the trip sitter rubbed my wrist.

As I took off my headset, she said she worried I'd started another cycle of the demo on accident, following what should have been a concluding white screen. I don't think I had, but regardless the demo crashed, reverting to a computer's desktop as we chatted. It was time to stop.

I sit down on the floor, and take a sip of tea. The trip sitter introduces herself as Heather Ray, saying she designed the meditative tent space for Arnott both for SoundSelf's PAX demo and at this year's Burning Man festival. Ray is frank, and tells me about an incident of a bona fide bad trip on SoundSelf: A player had jettisoned herself from the psychedelic trek, clawing the Rift off with tears sliding down her face, saying, "I shouldn't do drugs!"

"I told her all I gave her was tea," Ray said. But the lady ran away from the tent anyway.

Leaving the tent, I have the sensation that I've just woken up, even though I definitely had not fallen asleep. My walking is peculiarly self-conscious, like I have been asked to formally demonstrate my normal gait in front of an audience. But it's only a short walk to the booth for Neverending Nightmares, another game I've been meaning to check out, so I duck in.

It's an unsubtle title that smokescreens the real-life mental health issues underlying its construction. Neverending Nightmares exists in the same sphere as a VR-assisted experience like SoundSelf or Project Syria by sheer virtue of the fact that calling it any variation of "intense" is an understatement. Yet it's a more "classic" (not VR-powered) sort of video game, and a whole lot darker.

Matt Gilgenbach, who designed Neverending Nightmare, tells me he first spent years of his life (as well as his life savings) creating a video game called Retro/Grade, a chirpy, rhythmic space-shooter game that got early critical praise, but failed terribly on the market upon release, never recouping the money invested in it.

The titanic failure of this dream aggravated Gilgenbach's preexisting obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. This meltdown is the very basis for Neverending Nightmares, which Gilgenbach's described to me as a "psychological horror game inspired by my struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression." The game is slated for a fall 2014 release.

Images that I don't want to think about just keep popping into my head.

Gilgenbach explained how after the failure of Retro/Grade, "all these feelings I thought I had dealt with came flooding back." The game is meant to be a re-creation of the "bleak oppressive space" one faces while dealing with a mental illness.

"It's been great for me to open up my mind and let some things out," he said. "A lot of the disturbing images you see in the trailer, these horrible scenes of arm mutilation, those are actually intrusive thoughts that have haunted me as part of my OCD. Images that I don't want to think about... just keep popping into my head."

Neverending trailer. Video: Matt Gilgenbach.

According to Gilgenbach, it's been "great" for him to take that stuff and show it on the screen, even if, for better or worse, "the images lose some of their power once they're out and tangible."

As I'm waiting in line to play the demo, the game's background artist, Adam Grabowski, tells me that while the art style is influenced by the discomfiting drawings of the late Edward Gorey, Grabowski and his brother Joe, who animated Neverending Nightmare, referenced actual human anatomy and injuries to create the disturbing images of body mutilation in the game.

Just look at the game's trailer, which is on a loop as I wait my turn. I'll admit that the weightless, non-connective, ragdoll violence shown in most games has never bothered me, but I have to avoid looking at the screen near my head, as it cycles back through a scene of self-inflicted arm cutting.

"We kind of didn't think about the fact that kids would be walking by at PAX," Adam tells me, a little sheepishly.

Sitting down to play the game in a darkened tent, Gilgenbach explains the controls: "This is the run button. But it doesn't really work because your character has asthma."

I give up. All of my blood geysers out of my body in long, burgundy streams.

The animation and sound design are very, well, cool—if "cool" can be used in reference to a game that uses the semiotics of the horror genre to symbolize depression and compulsive self-harm.

What we're seeing with Neverending Nightmare, then, is an experiment in game design paralleling the literary avant-garde of the first half of the 20th century: think Proust's In Search of Lost Time, the works of Gertrude Stein, Joyce's Ulysses. And in its voyage to the unconscious, SoundSelf, for its part, definitely shares some DNA with Finnegan's Wake. Together, this far-flung school of games stands as an early, critical development in forging new avenues to communicate the primal, psychic experience of being human.

But for as much as the concepts feel a departure, and exploration of a new avenue within games, I'm also reminded of just how different games are from other artistic media: Namely, you need to be able to play them.

In the end, I'm left frustrated with Neverending Nightmare. I'm physically lost inside a haunted house, inside the game. Finally, I give up. A giant with a baby's head repeatedly catches me, bear hugging me until all of my blood geysers out of my body in long, burgundy streams.