There’s a moment in the stream of the PSVR 2 horror game The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR where everything you think you know about VR games is pushed out the nearest window and the game actually starts to change depending on where you’re looking and if it blinks. Yes, simple flashes in this game it can affect the world and, well… it shows a whole new way to experience games.
Switchback VR is one of the best games for PSVR 2 and it’s not even out yet (this game comes out on March 16th). They are already my personal favorite games on Sony’s new headset. The blinking mechanic was devised after game director Alejandro Arque Galladro first saw the PSVR 2 specs and decided that eye-tracking would be critical. He wasn’t wrong.
Read mine PSVR 2 review for a general overview of how the headset works.
The pitch for Switchback VR is simple: after a train accident you’re stuck between life and death and must ride a roller coaster from hell to escape a demon that really wants you to stay. This simple setup takes you to locations made famous in The Dark Pictures Anthology games for PS4 and PS5, so I find myself rolling in the bowels of a ghost ship, ancient temples, a misty forest and an abandoned hotel that is not quiet and so empty , which is where the “blink” catches my eye.
Switchback VR and PSVR 2 – a match made in hell
The flash mechanic comes a few stages into the game, so right now I’m acclimated to Switchback VR’s combination of jump scares, rollercoaster twists and turns, and the need to catch everything in sight (this is a PSVR 2 update of the classic shooter with light gun like House Of The Dead). Entering the abandoned hotel scene, the roller coaster’s trolley slows and stops, coming to rest uneasily in a room with some mannequins.
“Oh, I think,” no problem, “I’ve been shooting creepy dummies in games for decades.” My occasional confidence is shaken when I dare to blink and someone moves with an eerie crack. I blink again and two more appear. creaking and banging more and more mannequins begin to surround me. It’s scary and made me feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. Basically, it made me touch something. Switchback VR is virtual reality at its immersive best.
The eye tracking technology in PSVR 2 is so advanced Alejandro Arque Galladro says the game will track and react to things in your peripheral vision. He explains how “we can [monitor] the movement of enemies in the corner of your eye [and] not only the enemies, but also the environment.”
Galladro mentions how a scene I played earlier (I’m playing a pre-release version of the game at developer Supermassive Games’ UK studio) could have been a lot worse. There is the moment when my roller coaster crawls slowly through a corridor of mirrors and past mechanical mannequins dripping in rotting flesh, staring at their own reflections in large dusty mirrors. These enemies will multiply and attack if I blink, but just as impressive is how the environment will change too, with the tone of the lighting changing and the whole atmosphere changing depending on how I react.
During the prototype stage for the use of eye-tracking. The team created a room full of bodies hanging from the walls and every time a player blinked more bodies spawned. Galandro says they doubted whether it would work, “that fear you have when you start embracing something new,” and recalls how “our minds exploded every month” as the idea was pushed further. “[We] I’ve never seen it before,” he says excitedly.
Switchback VR has a message, try not to blink
Switchback VR also uses eye-tracking in more subtle ways than you might think. Of course there’s the Dr Who Weeping Angel shock from the mannequin scene, but eye-tracking is everywhere in this game, including an encounter where enemies come to life if you look at them, or stand still if you look back into their dead eyes – this creates a tense and even tactical moment late in my playthrough where I juggle enemies by staring them down in an attempt to administer a dose of maniacal surgeons.
“We do a lot of these things to make you feel like it’s your trip,” Galladro explains. This is where PSVR 2 can really make a difference in new approaches to game design, tailoring a game’s experience to the way a person behaves and providing a new level of immersion.
This idea of immersion isn’t new to VR, but Switchback VR and its use of eye-tracking, along with Supermassive’s implementation, suggests a future where horror games and VR really are a perfect match, made in hell , if you want.
Playing Switchback VR, I encounter many moments that another player might not discover, just from where I look and if I blink. This can involve simple changes to the paths – receiving a signal takes my cart down left or right, on fast rollercoaster sections. you have to physically dive to avoid hazards or even puzzle rooms that can only be solved by exploring the environment with the beam of a UV light.
Galandro tells me, “We try to always give you something to explore and nothing is ever the same.” On reflection, custom horror experiences in VR can offer something that few other genres manage – pacing. Jump scares are based on timing and this means motion sickness, which can plague many VR games (read my PSVR 2 motion sickness article) is absent in Switchback VR. I played Switchback VR for 40 minutes straight and felt fine.
Switchback VR feels like it was made for gaming. There is a balance to the pace that surprises but also allows for moments of calm. A fast roller coaster section that sends you shuddering through a dark tunnel and up, up and out, then slows down to a crawl before embracing shooting or puzzles. This is a game that both shocks and balances the senses, and horror is an ideal canvas.
Switchback VR on PSVR 2 shows how the new hardware can inspire inventive game design. After playing the game, I came away obsessed with the new eye-tracking technology and how the team at Supermassive Games is approaching design for VR with this use front and center.
After a few tense first moments I began to lean into my new freedom, looking around this world of horror and finding my own personal experiences. Of course I started looking with a torch beam down the dark corridors, exploring their dark corners for fun surprises.
There’s a moment in the abandoned hotel scene where I walk past a common zombie. On stage a petrified couple dance under the spotlight, but all eyes are on me. Every face in the room turns slowly with a broken, audible “crack” to stare at me. This is the kind of unsettling feeling that only VR horror can deliver. Supermassive Games could be here.
Supermassive Games’ The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR launches on March 16 for PSVR 2. You’ll also need a PlayStation 5 to play it, and frankly, I can’t think of a better reason to get Sony’s new console and headset.