VR is a wonderful medium for horror games, allowing for petrifying levels of immersion in whatever disturbing world you strap yourself into. A Wake Inn, from indie developer VR Bros, capitalises on the medium’s capacity for creepiness; you explore the halls of an unsettling hotel – think ’The Shining’ – infested with creepy, life-size dolls, brought to life by a mysterious energy source called Pneuma.
It gets creepier still; you are also one of these terrifying human-size dolls, and – accompanied by a mysterious voice via shortwave transmitter – you’re tasked with exploring the hotel to discover the nature of the possessed puppets who lurk in the darkness, and so determine your own fate.
As fans of horror games will know, nailing that unsettling atmosphere by crafting a finely tuned environment is paramount – and while VR is ideal for creating the most immersive experience possible (and scaring the pants off you), the environment needs to be flawless in order to trick your mind into believing the danger is real. To that end, VR Bros has employed Unreal Engine’s development tools to achieve this goal – we spoke to creative lead Paweł Sikora about how the team approached development of A Wake Inn using UE4.
The team had prior experience using the Unreal Development Kit, so Unreal 4 was, naturally, VR Bros’ first choice for making A Wake Inn. “We decided to use Unreal Engine because of its wonderful rendering capabilities and also its workflow optimisation tools” Sikora says. “As a very small team, we wanted our game to look beautiful.”
To achieve this level of polish, the team made frequent use of Unreal Engine’s VR editor tool to ensure each eerie hallway of A Wake Inn was perfectly optimised. “VR Editor helped us a lot in checking every corner of our hotel to evaluate if things sit perfectly in the game’s world from the player’s perspective. It was both a time-saver and a life-saver,” Sikora tells us. “I reckon we saved ourselves a good amount of years – and hair – thanks to that plug-in!”
Unreal Engine’s Blueprint system, Sikora explains, helped the team get their ideas off the ground quickly. “Coming from a non-programming environment, we were able to quickly jump into the blueprint visual scripting language and achieve things that would be much more problematic if we [were to] code it in a traditional way. It made it easier and faster for us to create what we had in our heads.”
Depending on your preferred playstyle, you either fight or sneak around your ball-jointed brethren as you make your way through the creepy art deco hotel. These dolls that you encounter throughout the game – long-limbed creatures that shamble toward you, flailing around as if possessed – owe their unnerving behaviour to Unreal Engine’s Physics Asset Tool. “The opponents you face in our game are purely driven by physical impulses, which sometimes gives their movement some unpredictable quirks. This unpredictability when applied to our enemy dolls made them feel just that little bit creepier.”
Notably, A Wake Inn eschews the teleportation movement system used by most VR games. Instead, you play sitting down, steering yourself around the creepy, abandoned Tiny Ferry Hotel in an electric wheelchair.
“Teleportation… [is] not the most immersive solution – especially for a medium that helps you get lost in a different reality or body,” Sikora says. “Immersion was our main goal. So we started to implement features like full-body IK [inverse kinematics], so the player can feel and see their new body.” Though there’s a limit to your natural reach sitting down, your doll body can conveniently adapt to this limitation, allowing you to manipulate more distant objects with a mechanical claw device.
The emphasis on immersive gameplay goes further still, completely stripping away the usual reminders that you’re in a videogame. “We got rid of HUD and UI, so everything is part of the game world, like the menu we designed – it’s a part of your inventory,” Sikora says. It’s an ingenious setup; the cigar case on your lap serves as both menu and inventory, buttons on the inner lid allow you to save and load, your current objective is pasted on note paper above it, and you store any useful things you find inside it – if you can physically fit them in, that is.
Horror aficionados will appreciate VR Bros’ nod to Stephen King’s The Shining in the game’s very own possessed hotel, but as “huge fans of classic horror movies”, the devs have incorporated “a lot more inspirations inside the game’s world”. So if you’re a fan of being frightened – and think you can handle the dizzy heights of VR horror – A Wake Inn will release on Steam next year.
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and VR Bros.