If ‘Kitchen’ Is the Future of Virtual Reality, People Will Literally Lose Their Shit
I experienced Capcom's new tech demo, and sort of wished I hadn't.
I stared into the face of fear and felt its breath on my brow, tasted its scent on my tongue. My left leg pulsed, my veins surged, my arse tightened. A blade danced before me and I locked its wielder with the steeliest gaze I had, not feeling the wound in my thigh from where it'd just recently been protruding. I would not be moved. I couldn't if I wanted to. The horror vanished, an apparition banished, chased away by bullish resistance. And yet it could not be exorcised – a scraping, all around me, sang of malevolence. Dark, clawed hands reached over my skull, not quite stroking the very ends of my eyelashes. A flash to black. Dead silence.
At this year's E3 video games conference, which we covered pretty damn comprehensively over here, a palpable proportion of buzz was reserved for something that wasn't even a game at all. The three-minutes-or-so-long tech demo Kitchen, made by Capcom for Sony's Project Morpheus virtual reality headset for PlayStation 4, was pitched by its maker as a "tense scenario that draws players into a hyper-realistic virtual world like never before". Saying that you play Kitchen is misleading, though – once the tech is wrapped around your eyes, detaching you from the real world, headphones enveloping you further, you're this experience's victim. There's no other way to describe it. You don't "play" Kitchen – it renders you helpless, unable to intervene in the nightmare scene unfolding in front of you, behind you, all around you.
VICE Gaming contributor Julia Hardy clenched her nerves to test Kitchen at E3. "The most intimidating and engaging horror experience I have ever had," was her verdict. Google a little and you'll find reaction videos of people seeing Kitchen for the first time and very nearly literally losing their shit. Here's one. Here's another. One more. Here's man mountain Simon Miller of Videogamer.com trying to act tough and failing, miserably. But what you won't find is any "gameplay" footage of the demo, anywhere. Capcom aren't releasing it, and nor are Sony – not yet, at least. The same is true of screens, hence the complete absence of them here. The only way you're going to see what's making grown adults squirm in their chairs like there are snakes in their guts, and the snakes are trying to bite their way to fresh air, and the snakes are winning, is by actually doing it. So I went and did it.
There are two other people in the room with me – one from Capcom, making sure that I don't completely freak out and utterly ruin her office, the other handling the Morpheus kit, sitting it snugly on my head and ultimately ensuring that, if I really did have a violent reaction, this expensive tech could be whipped clear of my sweat-soaked skull before I forcibly introduced it to some drywall. I'm asked for a safety word – not typical protocol when previewing anyone's new video game. When I played through pre-release builds of The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation, both in the dark for maximum scare potential, nobody warned me that I might have to be physically rescued from the session. "Lollipops," I offer, and it's noted. Lollipops can't hurt anyone, I figure. Unless you choked on one, of course, or the stick got stuck up your nose and you tripped on a stray cat on the way back home to sort yourself out and fell forward onto your stupid face and the tiny tube of white plastic was delivered at speed to your brain and... Oh, shit.
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As its title suggests, Kitchen is set in a kitchen. (D'uh.) You are you, basically. You look left and there's that side of your body, rendered pretty bloody well, shoulder and elbow and leg, everything where it should be. Everything's correct on the other side, too. You hold a DualShock 4 pad in the real world, its movements mirrored by "your" in-experience hands, which are as tightly tied together as "you" are to this virtual chair. You look around. It's a bit dilapidated. Could do with a dozen spring-cleans. Nothing the Changing Rooms team couldn't handle with a little assistance from Kim and Aggie. I've seen student digs that aren't much rougher. Those hellhole households very rarely had unconscious bodies on the kitchen floor, though, at least six nights out of seven. This one does. Until it begins to move.
This guy's alright, though. He wants to help you. He frees himself and stumbles towards you. Man, this looks good. It's as close to being photo-real as your already twitchy nerves can take. He sets about finding something to cut your hands loose. His aren't steady, though, and his first attempt is woeful. And it's now that you're very aware that it's not just the two of you in here. There's a figure, directly behind him and oh fuuuck what the fuck was that fucking thing. Lolli...
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Hold it together, man. And I do, just, but I can understand why others have, reportedly, torn out of their time with Kitchen screaming and sobbing, or had to be held down for fear that they'd do themselves actual injury in trying to back away from the demonic woman who disposes of your all-too-brief potential salvation and slowly makes her way back for you. She stabs a knife down, hard, into "your" thigh and the instinct is to groan in agony, but the pain never comes. You swing your leg. It's still there. It's just a game, just a game. I'm telling myself that, but if this were a game I'd have broken out of this chair by now and turned whatever weapon I could find on this witch. She's right in my face, so close that my pores begin to shiver. And then she slinks away from view. I strain my neck right – there's a dresser, solid-looking pans on its shelves. A committed blow from one of those ought to do it. She doesn't look like much, this oil-eyed harpy, a sliver of a human. Assuming she is one. Wait, where'd she go, anyway?
Dark, clawed hands reached over my skull, not quite stroking the very ends of my eyelashes. A flash to black. Dead silence. The demo is over and I'm released into the warmth and comfort of buzzing electric lights, smiling faces voicelessly saying: "See?" I'm laughing, almost hysterically – it's a defence mechanism. I could explain the technical side of Kitchen, write a little about its frames per second (a silky smooth 120, running at 1080p) and its DTS surround sound (sensationally suffocating), and how its visuals are hitting new highs of engrossing realism, but all you really need to know is that it's genuinely terrifying. Really. Horrible. I don't know what the plan for it is, whether it'll go on the road in some way, or become an attraction in a museum or gallery of some kind, or a dare-you-I-double-dare-you fixture at a gaming bar, but I do know that its warning of "may contain content inappropriate for children" is one hell of an understatement. And if this is just a taste of what horror can be in the realm of virtual reality, as advancing tech enables deeper and richer interactive experiences, you can count me the fuck out for future adventures. I'll be next door, playing Amnesia. I need the calm.
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