Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
Back in May of 2010, my best friend, Andy, and I wanted to make a video game that we thought was going to change virtual reality gaming and the horror genre forever. We were both out of the university, me with a degree in computer programming and him with digital art design. Both of us were avid gamers. I think we played a bit of just about everything: racing, JRPG’s, MMO’s, sports, you name it. We wanted to make a game unlike anything you could get coming from overseas. You could call it an ambitious goal for a couple of aspiring indie gamers, but both of us were ambitious guys.
Andy was a big fan of horror and was actually the first to come up with the idea. We had heard of the four-dimensional theaters that were being introduced in places like Korea and London, where you weren’t just watching a movie, but feeling it and smelling it. If the movie was set in a pine forest, there were triggers that would release the scent of pine to the audience. Likewise, if the characters were standing on the windy deck of a ship, fans would start blowing to mimic the conditions of the movie in the theater. All of it was to create a more realistic, interactive experience for the viewer and we thought it would be awesome to try to implement that with a 4D game.
Obviously, we didn’t have the manpower to make an entire game by ourselves. We were in a lot of debt because of school and wouldn’t have been able to afford the virtual reality hardware in our wildest dreams. That, and we had no idea how to develop the technology needed to create the 4D gaming experience. Throughout the following summer, we networked like crazy, pitching our ideas to different developers, both indie and big-time. There was interest, but the 4D concept was still very much in development and no one was sure they wanted to invest time and resources in it without the assurance that it was going to hit off.
I won’t bore you with the details of how it happened, but we finally hit a breakthrough in September when an independent company called Systelien contacted us after our attempts to pitch the idea to them. They thought it had potential and were interested in on-boarding us as writers and programmers. The company itself would take the rights for the game, of course, and there would be a team that would make the final decisions during all stages of development. It was still more than we could have ever hoped for.
There was a team of 150 people, a third of who were hardware developers. The “controller” was built into a padded, inclined chair, with a minimalist headset that fits around the players’ eyes and ears. The joystick and buttons could be swapped on the arms to accommodate if the player was left-handed or right-handed. Really high-tech, right? Where the money was really sunk was in the environmental simulators and the sensors and nodes that would be attached to the player’s body to monitor their physical status.
Like I said, the game was meant to be a horror game. We settled on the story of an unnamed character going into a haunted mansion to get rid of evil spirits and getting stalked by a demon. The most clichéd plot and setting you could think of, but that was what we were going for. We wanted something that would easily be associated with fear. The idea was that the demon fed off fear and would find you more easily if you were afraid. First, it would scare and drive the character crazy and then it would kill him/her.
The monitors attached to the player analyzed the physical signs that the player was afraid (rapid heartbeat, dilated pupils, harsh breathing, clammy or sweaty skin, etc.) and use that information to determine how aggressively the demon would act. You could think of it as a social experiment; you could see how well a person would stay calm under pressure. Theoretically, a completely calm person could make it through the entire game without much danger, but the scares and the atmosphere wouldn’t let you go through the first level without making you anxious.
The real fun started once the demon came after you. We wanted to keep it subtle. No jump scares. That was cheating the player out of the experience. If you think about it, people with real paranormal experiences never report a demon breaking through a glass window and going for your throat. They report brushes against the skin, whispering in the ears, and a loud sound in the distance. Even tingling or electrical sensations.
Those were the kinds of things we recreated. We programmed the system to deliver these audio and sensory cues when the player reached a certain level of anxiety. The more scared you were, the more scares you received. At the beginning of the game, you might hear heavy breathing or footsteps behind you. You might even feel cold spots as you navigated the mansion. As you progressed and became tenser, you might feel a grip on your arm (from a blood pressure-like cushion on the chair that tightened around the muscle) or a hiss directly in your ear along with the feeling of breath. It was elaborate and it took forever to produce, but when they hooked you in, it was amazing.
I had the privilege of being one to test it as it was being produced. They put me in the chair, turned off all the lights, and would play the game through the headset as well as project the images you were seeing onto a wall so that the team would see it too. The graphics were realistic they got the rooms of the mansion down to the last detail.
About a year and a half after the sensors were developed and implemented into the system, we started looking for beta testers. We started advertising in magazines and message boards for people to come in blind and play the game, giving any criticism or reporting any glitches they experienced. The majority of the feedback we received was positive and, after several revisions, we could safely say that we had a successful project.
Of particular note were the reports from the beta testers in which they claimed to get the feeling that someone was in the room with them or that they were getting tingling or hot/cold sensations in parts of their bodies where the nodes were not attached. The room where the chair and the interface were located was kept clear, aside from the player, as often as possible. The team was separated from the room by a one-way mirror. We would have been able to see if anyone was in the room apart from the player and in nine out of ten cases when this was reported, there was no one (the other 1/10 were when a technician was coming in to check the interface).
There were times when we would disable and re-enable certain audio and sensory simulations to further test which ones gave more stimuli than others. During one playthrough, the player might have the cold spots and then during the next, those would be disabled. We never told the players which ones were activated and which were not. The strangest cases were when someone playing the game for the first time would report a cue when it was clearly disabled.
In one particular case, a middle-aged woman reported her hair being tugged gently. I can tell you right now: that had not been programmed into the game at that point in time. It was an odd occurrence, but one that could have easily been chalked up to the imagination. Actually, we assumed that most of the cases like this were due to the power of suggestion. We just cautioned the rest of the beta testers not to talk about what they went through so that the people coming in could get as authentic an experience as possible.
As tends to happen in these situations, people started spreading rumors. Some of my favorite rumors were the ones that made the Systelien staff out to be cultists who were secretly sacrificing the beta testers to the demon portrayed in the game. I have no idea how that one held up as long as it did, since there were absolutely no reports of injuries on- or off-site and every single one of the testers came out of the building alive. The internet and gossip do strange things to people, I guess. However, rumors like that were starting to give Systelien a bad reputation. We decided it was time to bring in the media to defeat some of these rumors. We hadn’t wanted to have reporters before for fear that other gaming companies would try to copy our methods, but now seemed like as good a time as any.
We got several offers and wound up taking one from a popular gaming magazine. The reporting team came in and interviewed us about the games and the 4D techniques used. We used the opportunity to show them around the building and debunk the rumors about animal and human sacrifice. It was actually pretty funny; after the interview, the reporting team wanted to try out the game for themselves. They all had good things to say about it and when the article was published, donations and other requests for interviews began streaming in. Andy and I said we should have let the media come in sooner for all the benefits we were getting.
The more we searched Systelien’s message boards, the more we started noticing threads crop up about people who claimed they were experiencing the things in the game after they had left Systelien and gone home. They were going through the same supernatural phenomena in their everyday lives as they had in the game. In every claim, they said that they would feel as though someone was getting very, very close to them, looking over their shoulders, and breathing down their necks. I guess that was one thing about the demon in the game that we had neglected to mention. It had no sense of personal space. The reports eventually involved both minor and violent poltergeist activity. And people would be going through this for days afterward. The reports helped to spread the word even more, but it didn’t help the persisting rumors that the testers were being possessed.
The most popular thread where the reports were being archived affectionately called the demon causing these incidences the Systelien Demon or the Systelien Specter. I liked the Systelien Specter better.
Then came the day when a young man, only 17-years-old (we’ll call him John), claimed that he wanted to file a lawsuit against us as he had been scratched during his time playing the game. As I remember it, John had been doing fine up until he had reached the basement of the mansion and then had screamed for us to let him out. The only evidence of the scratches was a set of pictures taken after he had exited the building. The scratches shown on the pictures were deep and red, clearly not something that had been dealt by a human. Maybe by a machine, but an inspection of the chair revealed no sharp parts sticking out. The lawsuit was eventually dropped since there was no way to prove he hadn’t scratched himself prior to coming in. It’s not like we do a full body examination before sitting our testers down into the chair.
It was at this point we decided to stop bringing in random beta testers and test the game ourselves for the last stages of development. I was one of the first to be strapped in. They had added so much stuff to the gameplay and so many more cues that I barely recognized it from the first time I had played. I remember going down the foyer staircase after exploring a series of darkened hallways lit by old Victorian-era lamps, feeling my palms sweat and the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. The wind outside the mansion had been howling for the last half hour and it sounded like someone was whistling a funeral march.
I paused on the stairs to look at the windows, searching for any weird textures needing to be fixed, when I felt a tingling along my spine on my upper back, like someone was pressing his or her chest against my back. It wasn’t just in the game; I could feel the press in reality. I reached up and felt only the chair. The thing that really set me off, though, was the voice that spoke my name in my ear. It was whispered and very clear, no mistaking it for the wind. I spun the camera around, though I knew there would be nothing to see. The demon had always been invisible. Now I knew why some of our testers had joked about feeling violated while playing.
I just assumed Andy had played a joke on me, but he swore up and down that he didn’t put any coding in the game for the demon to say the player’s name. That would have been my department, not his. He just designed skins. Still, I remained convinced that someone was just having fun with me. There wasn’t even a place to input your name! Someone must have pre-recorded it.
I played through the rest of the area and then headed home to file my report. It was another late night; I had been pulling the late shift for a couple of weeks as our deadline was drawing closer. We had been having decent weather until about 2 AM, when the wind picked up and the rain was coming down in buckets. Andy and I had come from the Midwest and were used to bipolar weather. I just worked on and paid it no mind.
Until the power went out, anyway. I grabbed my flashlight, feeling all the anxiety from my time in the game returning. This was a different story, though, and I knew that. My house wasn’t haunted and I had never believed in ghosts for my entire life. My brain said it was ridiculous, but my pounding heart told a different story.
I couldn’t help but feel every draft and hear every creak of the floorboards as I went down to the generator (which, of course, was in the cellar). The wooden steps lead me down into the darkness and I have to admit that, by the time I reached the concrete, I was considering just going back upstairs and burrowing myself into my bed. I forced myself to cross the floor to the generator and turn it on. Immediately, the back-up lights flickered on, casting a red hue over the dusty shelves and rusty tools on the workbench. So, now I got to be in hell, too.
The way back wasn’t nearly as bad as the way down and I reminded myself that everything I had experienced in the game had been just that, in the game. There was nothing to worry about. The demon – the Systelien Specter, or whatever – was an enemy made out of ones and zeroes. It couldn’t do anything to me.
I was halfway up the stairs (about at the same point I had been in the game when I had heard my name, actually) when I distinctly felt someone tightly grab my wrists. As in, squeezing-like-my-wrists-were-being-juiced tight. I screamed and dropped the flashlight, which went off on impact. There was no one there, but I still slapped at where I imagined the hand had come from and clamored up the stairs. I didn’t stop until I was out the front door and in my driveway, getting drenched and not caring. I whipped out my cell phone and punched in Andy’s number.
He said he knew how I felt. During his test play through, he had accidentally backed his character into a fire since he had been so busy keeping an eye on the rest of the room. We had all laughed at the mistake, but he hadn’t mentioned the fact that after we had taken him out of the game, he had felt a burning in his lower calf. Later, when he looked at his leg after getting home, he discovered he had a first-degree burn right where his character had touched the fire. I drove to his house and looked at his leg myself. He had already spread ointment on the area and bandaged it up, but when he pulled it back, I was staring at a red and swollen burn wound.
Out of morbid curiosity, I called the other members of our team who had tested the game that day. It was the same story all around. In the game, Jill had stood in front of a window that had shattered and then cut her hands while picking up the jagged pieces of a ceramic vase had suddenly fallen to the floor. Matthew’s character had been crushed by a falling bookshelf and then, when he had been getting into his car, his door had closed when he wasn’t ready and three fingers had been broken. I looked at my wrists again, where dark, purplish bruises were forming. These couldn’t be coincidences anymore. I didn’t know what was going on, but it wasn’t just a game anymore.
The next day was a holiday, so everyone at Systelien was off. I invited anyone willing to go back to the game room to try and play through the game one more time. Andy and I had gone through the possibilities. The point of the entire game had been for the character to go into the mansion to exorcise the demon. They could do it by collected special candles and then lighting them in a circle in the attic of the mansion. After some other steps were done, the demons would be forced out of the house and everything would go back to normal. It had been a crazy night and at any other time, I thought we would have been crazy for discussing these things. We thought that maybe, by completing the game and, by extension, the ritual, we could stop whatever the hell was going on. After all, no one, to this day, had ever finished the game from beginning to end.
The game was as complete as it was ever going to be. Andy volunteered to play, for which I was grateful. Maybe it was cowardly, but I didn’t want to be the one to go in. The room was frigidly cold as we attached the nodes. We threw a blanket over Andy to make sure he didn’t freeze. The rest of us (five, in total, not including Matthew, who had gone to the hospital to treat his hand) gathered behind the one-way glass to watch.
It was eerie, watching his progress through the game. I knew all of those corridors so well, having labored over their game files for months. Yet, now, everything looked new, now that I was sure that I knew what the game was capable of. I watched Andy’s heart rate rise and fall on my monitor. His skin-temperature-analyzers went haywire as he rounded every corner. As was supposed to happen, he felt the demon close in when his fear spiked. But this time around, its interactions were low-key, almost subdued. I fought against my suspicion that it was just biding its time. The demon was made of ones and zeroes. Numbers can’t hurt anyone. I thought this even as I rubbed my bruised wrists.
It took four hours for Andy to make it all the way through. He didn’t even take a bathroom break. He just wanted to get this done as much as we did. He crept through the halls, doing his best to keep calm despite the advances of the demon. He collected the six candles needed for the ritual and made his way up to the attic.
Then, things started happening that were definitely not in the programming. The paintings and potted plants in the game began shaking and flying off the walls, clearly aimed for his character. In the safety of the monitoring room, two filing cabinets overturned before sliding across the floor and knocking down two staff members. Wires attached to the wall disconnected and sprayed sparks around the room. Grabbing a fire extinguisher, I prepared to extinguish any flames that cropped up.
Andy had placed the candles on the floor of the attic and was using an old lighter to light them. He was able to get the fourth candle lit before he suddenly bucked in his chair, screaming for us to stop the game. When we rushed in, I saw his hands flailing, as though he was trying to tear off the nodes and sensors glued to his body. Maybe that was part of it, but when I got a closer look, I realized he was fighting with something invisible that was holding him down on the chair. His shirt and face had been slashed and blood dribbled from the wounds. I was afraid I was going to break his arm since I was pulling so hard to get him off the chair. Finally, we got him free and out of the room, slamming the door behind us. Andy’s character had already died and the ‘Game Over’ screen mocked us as we scrambled to call an ambulance.
I didn’t sleep for the rest of the day and the following night as I waited in the hospital. Andy’s wounds were worse than we thought. There was a massive amount of internal bleeding that we hadn’t known about. The doctors tried to stem the blood loss with transfusions, but their efforts were for nothing. Andy passed away early in the morning.
A week later, I saw a news special about the death and its connection to the game and Systelien. I couldn’t blame whoever had blabbed. The police blamed Andy’s death on the system malfunctioning, as though that could explain the scratches and the internal trauma. Our supervisors didn’t care. They ordered the project to be shut down and I was grateful. I never wanted to see that game again. The only way I was ever going back to the Systelien building was if that room was demolished and the chair dismantled. Though, to be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if anyone who tried to take it apart was attacked as well.
I left the company when the announcement was made that the game would be discontinued. People on the forums expressed everything from disappointment to relief. The game was over.
For weeks, I couldn’t stop glancing over my shoulder. I moved away from the town and the memories I had of Andy. My co-workers held a farewell party for me, despite the fact that they probably had the right to blame me for everything. They said that I had helped make a game that would never be forgotten by anyone who played it.
That was all well and good, but I was desperate to forget and spent the rest of my life trying to do so. I was always keeping two eyes on the shadows and jumping at every little creak. There was this little fear that I would hear my name whispered in my ear again, which would mean that whatever I had created had followed me, and I never wanted to think about that possibility.
The only thing I could do was try to sleep and ignore the times when I felt an invisible, clammy hand stroke my face.
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