It’s apt that Stifled is coming out on Halloween. The spookiest day of the year is a perfect fit for the spookiest game of the year. Every element of Stifled is designed to trigger a fear response. The more you fight it, the more you’re going to play right in developer Gattai Games’ hand.
Stifled places you in a dark and foreign world. There is very little light so, in order to ‘see,’ you need to use echolocation. By making sound, either by pressing a button or actually speaking, the world appears in front of you. But only for a few seconds at a time. Holding down the button and then releasing it makes a louder noise and allows you to see further. The same goes for making louder noises with your mouth. Aside from making the world visible, sounds are what attracts Stifled’s enemies.
With that mechanic, Gattai Games has truly created a deliciously wicked, double-edged sword. Stay quiet and you can’t see a metre in front of your face. Make sound and you’ll be able to see, but every creature of the night will know your location. Stifled is an anxiety-inducing simulator like no other.
Played in first-person and using PSVR, Stifled is one of the most effective uses of the tech thus far. Speaking to Justin Ng Guo Xiong, Managing Director of Gattai Games it’s easy to understand why.
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“We were the first developers on the [Project] Morpheus when it first came out and then we had the relationship going. Gattai met with one of the second party guys [from Sony], they were like “Yeah, this fits the platform, it’s innovative, it’s different, we really want this to be here for our consumers and players.”
Gattai Games has been supported by Sony and PlayStation from day-one. When they saw what Gattai were doing with Stifled, they snapped it up and it’s now a console exclusive for PS4. There have been a few horror games released for PSVR, but none have the quite the level of intensity as Stifled.
While I played a preview build during PAX Aus, very little actually happened. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t terrifying. Humans are afraid of the dark because we don’t know what could be hiding in it. In Stifled, we know there are nasty things hiding in the dark and that the only way to see them is to make noise. It’s a claustrophobic, panic-inducing nightmare.
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As I explored the world in Stifled, I made my way through a forest and into a sewer system. Once inside a piercing screech from something inhuman hit me full force. I froze on the spot. Not wanting to move for fear of drawing the creature near. A voice in the back of my head asked, “What if it’s coming right now? What if you never see it coming?”
I tentatively pressed R2 and a feeble, “Hello..?” issued forth from my character. The tunnel was clear, but the fear still clung to me. Sweating bullets, I had to remind myself on more than one occasion that it was all just a game.
Slowly, I made my way through the tunnels as the screeching kept up. Louder and louder now. Closer. I stayed silent, knowing that any sound would mean certain death. Pushing forward, I could finally see the exit. I rushed toward it and then BANG! The floor gave way underneath me. I screamed out loud and could hear Ng laughing at me while he watched.
The preview ended here and I was glad to take the PSVR off and get back to reality. Though part of me was desperate to jump back in, push on and uncover all of Stifled’s secrets. I asked Ng what the inspiration for Stifled was and his explanation was surprising.
“Three years ago we were in school and we saw this animation of a blind woman who’s finding her way around the world using sound. She was tapping her cane and based on her mood, the visuals that she was seeing were different. It was very cool.”
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From there, Ng and his team had a kernel of an idea and decided to explore it using VR tech. The microphone and real-world sound elements were added during development. It wasn’t until later in the piece that Ng and his team realised they were making a horror game.
“We tried to keep it really simple, so we did black and white. When the sounds faded away, or when there’s no sound being made, it just fades away into the darkness and you don’t see anything. And the sounds only brighten things for a moment. Bryan [Teo, Audio Director at Gattai Games] said “Hey this makes a lot of sense for horror because if you don’t see anything it’s just terrifying” right? It clicked for us and I was like “Yeah let’s go do horror.”
From there, Gattai Games made it so the enemies could hear sounds. I told Ng that the entire concept seemed evil to me and he laughed. He told me that people often look at him as if he is strange when he explains “When people scream, it just makes me feel really happy because it means we did our job right.”
Ng also told me that he loves to see the sense of realisation come over people as they play. “Once you realise that the microphones are picking it up and it’s like “Oh shit, I need to lower the sound” and you can see that reaction, and the brain just clicking into the mode and they understand it now, and that’s the best thing.”
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In the preview, there was little in the way of narrative hooks or story elements present. I asked Ng if there was a narrative and he told me there was. “We are exploring the relationship between two characters. You will play as the protagonist. As you play through the game, you kinda figure out what happened to you and to your other character.”
Ng went on to explain that the story is diegetic. The player will find details in the world which will help to create an idea of what’s happened. “You kinda figure out why everything looks like this, what the horrors are that you’re actually experiencing and what they mean.”
Players won’t have to wait long to dive into Ng’s terrifying world in Stifled as it releases for PSVR on the PlayStation Store tomorrow, October 31, 2017. I’ll certainly be playing it, even if I have to take a rest every 3-5 minutes to stop myself from screaming the house down.