There's a moment in Edge of Nowhere, an hour or so in, when you've escaped a series of caves filled with Lovecraftian horrors, and fumble into the open air. These are usually moments for you to stop and catch your breath, ease the nerves, and prepare for what's next. Soon, though, you hear a dull stompstompstomp—and then a roar. Overhead, a building-sized behemoth lurches towards some unknown destination. You, a human-sized insect, are of no consequence to this creature from the beyond, and you can only watch it pass through in awe.
Set in the frigid arctic, Edge of Nowhere was released last June. But as an Oculus exclusive, I didn't have a way to play the game until recently. It's my understanding that Edge of Nowhere wouldn't exist without Oculus directly funding it, but it's unfortunate more people won't have a chance to experience Insomniac Games' dip into psychological horror; it's surprisingly effective.
Unlike a great many other VR experiences, especially horror ones, Edge of Nowhere takes place from a third-person perspective, not first-person. The camera is locked into place, but you can look around with the headset, and aiming—guns and rocks, mostly—is handled by pointing your head in the right direction. But that camera doesn't linger in the rafters, it's pulled in distressingly tight to the player character, with just enough buffer to see what's behind him. Since you spend much of the game sneaking around nightmares that want to eat your flesh, this leads to deeply uncomfortable moments, where the character is inching forward, while your head twists and turns into near-painful positions, hoping to track the various horrors.
Lovecraft proves such a rich choice for VR, too, even if Insomniac doesn't take advantage of it nearly often enough. An early sequence in a dark cave, for example, has the player catching only glimpses of unseemly terrors, sightings that last long enough to register they happened but not long enough to understand what it was. I'm pretty sure I saw an eyeball thing, but I couldn't tell for sure. (I kept looking for them the rest of the game.) Since the sightings are dynamic, not scripted—or cleverly scripted as to appear dynamic—you're soon tilting your head about in an increasingly frantic, stressed fashion. (Or, after realizing maybe you don't want to see what's hiding in the dark, simply staring forward.) It's one of those moments where applying camera movement to VR, rather than an analog stick, provokes a stronger reaction.
If Edge of Nowhere wasn't in VR, it would be fine but largely unremarkable. Its effective use of VR's strengths, like projecting scale, make it interesting. For the half dozen times I cursed the fixed camera for making it hard to stealth around an enemy, it was worth it for Insomniac's ability to frame scenes in favor of dramatic tension. It allows the game to convey how small and insignificant you are in the presence of The Great One and its followers, aided by the intimacy provided by strapping a headset on your face. The only means of escape is closing your eyes.
Edge of Nowhere is also careful about deploying the most effective trick for VR horror: the jump scare. I don't dispute their effectiveness, but they're effective because they're typically cheap and unearned. It's undeniably easy to scare someone by shocking them with a scary image and loud noises out of nowhere—what's more impressive is getting people to anticipate a jump scare and never delivering it. Then, when they least expect it, you spring the trap. Edge of Nowhere smartly picks its battles, to the point that I started shutting my eyes at moments poised for a scare…only for the game to give me a break. Again, that's the exact right use of a jump scare: you've invaded the imagination and players do the work of scaring themselves.
(Or, in the case of a game like Five Nights at Freddy's, jump scares become punishment for not playing correctly. When you start performing poorly, you know it's coming. That's clever!)
It only takes a few hours to finish Edge of Nowhere, but it still feels bloated. The most effective parts of the game are when you're exploring the world and coming to understand why it was such a bad idea to visit this place, not fighting the same set of enemies for the millionth time, only this time with less ammo and more enemies, or scaling yet another set ice walls. Edge of Nowhere is at its best—and at times, it's very good—when it's mining VR's immersiveness.
Can I use this space to complain about something else, too? It baffles me that games continue to ignore Lovecraft, a rich vein of horror that doesn't involve yet another zombie. And don't get me started on the alternate universe where Warner Bros. actually signed off on a James Cameron-produced, Guillermo del Toro-directed, Tom Cruise-starring, big budget adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness. On the plus side, Edge of Nowhere is influenced by that one.
What I'm saying is that I want more games with fucked up Cthulhu creatures, okay? That's not a lot to ask, 2017.