The words survival-horror alone can automatically bring some of the best memories from movies and games for many. Trying to survive with what you have while the horror seems to be closing in on what may be your last breath. It can be fun to watch on your favorite screen or even when playing your favorite character in a game. But the moment you step into the genre in VR, the fun can easily be twisted to take you on the ride. So when I heard that developer, White Door Games was adding to the survival-horror genre with Cosmodread, I had to learn more. So I reached out and the owner, Sergio Hidalgo, was happy to give us a deeper look into the game as well as talk about Virtual Reality.
Interview with the owner of White Door Games, Sergio Hidalgo
Welcome to THE VR DIMENSION. Would you please introduce yourself and what you do at White Door Games?
“Hi, thanks for having me. I’m Sergio Hidalgo, and I’m the owner and main developer at White Door Games (which is a single-person company, although I do hire freelancers to collaborate in the games I make). I’m the designer and programmer of Cosmodread, and previously Dreadhalls.”
What was the one VR experience that you knew you had to work with Virtual Reality?
“I think it started with one of the very first tech demos for the Oculus Rift DK1: Tuscany, where you could explore a little villa in Italy. It was the first time I tried a VR headset since the 90s, and immediately it clicked with me, in the way it felt more like I had put my head through a portal into another world, rather than wearing a screen. After that, I must have tried pretty much every single experience and tech demo that were available in those early days: from exploring medieval towns to piloting futuristic crafts and everything in between, and each one hinting at entire possibilities to explore.”
For those that may not be aware, White Door Games created Dreadhalls which has a record of terrorizing players. When creating the game, was it always the intent to make sure that you could scare as many people as possible?
“Dreadhalls wasn’t always meant to be a horror game, funnily enough. When I first started working on the first prototype it was meant to be more of a traditional dungeon crawler, based on a 2D game idea I had been working on the weekends. But the first time I entered the dungeon in VR and added a 3D monster model, it became quite clear that the game would work much better as a horror experience. Turns out: badly lit dungeons filled with monsters are kind of scary! And after that, I started focusing on mechanics that could enhance that aspect of the game as much as possible.”
Your newest game Cosmodread just released on Steam and the Oculus Store. What can you tell us about the game and how has the feedback been like?
“Cosmodread is a survival horror game with a roguelike structure. You are trapped in a derelict ship infested with alien creatures and you must survive and find a way to escape. You’ve got weapons, but not much ammo, and so you must explore and look for useful equipment, collect resources, and craft new items all while trying to survive what the game throws at you. And yeah, the feedback so far has been great, both from reviewers as well as from the general public. After spending so long working on a game that only a few got to see and play, releasing it to the greater public and seeing people interact with the game and react to it feels amazing.”
So you really do get to craft weapons and interact with the environment?
“Yeah, crafting is meant to be a reward you get by playing, as the longer you play the more crafting blueprints you will unlock, and those blueprints allow you to get more control over your situation by being able to create weapons and equipment that fit your plans the best. And as for the environment, I wanted the player to be able to grab and interact with every possible item, and to be able to open lockers and cabinets and rummage through their content. I think those low-level interactions are a great way of building immersion and making the virtual environment feel more real and physical. And the opposite is also true, when a VR game shows me a locker I can’t open, I always feel a bit let down.”
Would you say that Cosmodread is in some way a successor to Dreadhalls in a way or is separate altogether?
“I consider them as separate games. That said, Cosmodread’s design was very influenced by what I learned making Dreadhalls, what I wished I’d done differently, and the feedback it got from players. They also share the same core concept of exploring a procedural environment and finding an escape, but where Dreadhalls was more focused on straight horror, this new game tries to bring more gameplay mechanics to the table and also be more accessible to a wider range of players.”
What can you tell us about the enemies and hazards the player can expect to come across?
“I don’t want to tell you much, because discovering these things is part of the experience! But you’ll have to face both the creatures that are infestating the ship (with the infestation itself slowly spreading and covering the place in creep) as well as the ship’s own security systems that will shoot on everything that moves (and if you’re clever, you might be able to save bullets by having the security systems take on the aliens for you!). Added to that you must keep exploring for air canisters to not suffocate, and avoid the traps of the damaged environment, with broken pipes or electrical leaks.:
Was there anything sound-wise for Comsmodread that was the hardest to perfect?
“I don’t consider it to be “perfect”, but possibly finding the proper repetition frequencies and volumes for all the different sounds effects and background ambience that compose the soundscape. It’s hard to find the balance that makes the ship feel immersive and “alive”, and there’s always the risk of either falling short and having the game become too static, or overdoing it and throwing too much at the player.”
Horror and VR do work and sometimes too well. When developing a game that has horror elements, what are your top three items that have to be checked off to make sure the game has what it takes to produce the scares?
“My personal view is that you need immersion, danger, and uncertainty. Immersion in the environment and the game’s world, because first of all, you need to forget that you’re playing a game. Danger or at least the perception of danger is also key to experience horror in games, where the player has agency. It puts pressure on the player to make high stake decisions: do I open the door and risk encountering a monster? Or do I hide instead? And lastly uncertainty. By limiting the information the player gets (say, by making the game dark and seen through the limited field of view of a flashlight), they get put on edge because while they are aware there’s danger nearby, they don’t know just where or what it is.”
What is the one thing about VR that surprises you?
“How effective and fun simple interactions with your hands can be. It’s something we sort of take for granted in real life, but just having the ability to manipulate virtual items and do simple stuff like throwing an object or reloading a gun with your own hands can offer a sense of immersion and depth that goes surprisingly far. It’s also a good way to build games that reward real mastery. It’s not your character leveling up a stat, it’s you yourself learning to make more effective movements!”
In your opinion, what is the one thing that is challenging to make work in VR?
“Locomotion is a big one. There are intrinsic problems with moving the player around a virtual world when their real body tells them they are standing still. It’s one of the things that can put a barrier between your game and your players, and in many cases, it’s not easily solvable. Because different players have different comfort levels, in Cosmodread I tried to offer as many customizable options as I could (and even so, they might not be enough!). But that creates another challenge: making the game work for all those different locomotion setups when one player is teleporting around while the other is using a more traditional movement scheme.”
Do you plan to bring Cosmodread to other platforms like PlayStation VR or Viveport?
“Cosmodread is already on Viveport! And as for PSVR, I’m exploring that option but it’s too early to tell for sure.”
If you found a door that led into a dimension into VR and stepped inside only to realize the dimension you entered was a horror one. What type of horror would it be and do you think you could survive it?
“My personal nightmare is body horror (and I tried to bring a little of that into Cosmodread), so yeah, it wouldn’t be a pretty dimension I’m afraid! And as for surviving, that depends… Do I get a shotgun? (Probably not, though)”
What’s next for you and White Door Games?
“I haven’t sat down yet to meditate about the future. At the moment I’m still working on the game, fixing bugs and making improvements. And after that is done (or at least the major issues are fixed, since you can always keep improving it), then I guess I’ll take a short break and see where we are, in terms of how successful the game is and all that, and decide based on that.”
With the horror genre of VR continuing to grow and scare, what would you say to someone as to why they should experience Cosmodread?
“Because if VR is about taking you somewhere else, then why not take yourself into a derelict spaceship filled with horrors, just to see how you overcome and survive it? I always think that in horror games the real enemy is yourself, your own fear. And there’s a special kind of feeling when you overcome that enemy, when you take that step forward and open the door to the next room, ready to take on whatever awaits. And that becomes even more intense when in VR.”
I really want to thank Sergio for taking time out of his day to give us a closer look into Cosmodread and also talking about Virtual Reality.
In case you missed the trailer, please enjoy.