I’m hunched over in a protective stance, arms raised and heart pounding. Something just sneaked up behind me and tried to whack my head off. I was caught off guard so completely that I moved to protect myself without thinking; I just reacted. This physical response to a virtual threat may seem surprising, maybe even cowardly — but it’s an honest one. The beating of my heart says so.
I’m playing through the opening chapters of Lies Beneath, a new survival horror game coming to Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform from developer Drifter. Set in the fictional town of Slumber, Alaska, Lies Beneath takes the inky styling of pulp comics and mashes it together with the supernatural terror of Japanese horror movies. The result is a new kind of graphic novel that invites you to step through its pages and become part of the narrative in a new, decidedly physical way. In the case of Lies Beneath, this means surviving a wilderness of bloodthirsty monsters and arcane mysteries.
My time with the game — before I found myself flinching in terror — started like any other comic book, with the turning of a single page:
It Awaits. It Lurks. It LIES BENEATH: Lurid Lore to Alarm and Harm!
A giant comic book hovers a few feet in front of me. I reach for the top-right corner and peel back the cover. The page that follows is a living homage to yesteryear’s pulp sensibilities; panels and narrative float on separate layers and respond to my every move. Each page draws me deeper into a conversation between Mae (the protagonist of the story) and her father while the pair drive down a snowy Alaskan road. Then a shadowy figure appears in the middle of the street, and the car swerves down an embankment as the game fades to black.
I open my eyes to a fiery wreck sitting just in front of me. Panels of text float near the car, and I walk through them to follow a path of bright red blood in the snow. That’s when I noticed my gloved hands — they’re covered in blood. I follow a darkened path to the right and continue walking through panels of comic book exposition until I reach the back of the car. Dad is nowhere to be seen, but I spot the figure who appeared in front of our vehicle, standing on a nearby cliff. It slinks back into the shadows as I spot a new trail of blood leading from the car into a nearby cave.
I take out my lighter — a family heirloom — and flick it on by repeatedly pressing the trigger on my Touch controller. Each attempt produces sparks and colorful onomatopoeia, making an otherwise tedious action both neat and gratifying. I continue deeper into the cave and stop dead in my tracks when I hear muffled cries in the distance. I press forward, lighter in hand, until I reach the back of the cave and stumble upon an unexpected sight: a decrepit hospital room with strange medical equipment. After a spooky scene involving burning dolls and wraith-like apparitions, I find myself back in the cave when my lighter unexpectedly fails. I immediately spark it back to life (I literally cannot see in the darkness) to reveal a red-eyed phantom standing nose-to-nose with me; not OK, not OK at all.
It vanishes, and I’m back in the cave, alone. I take a deep breath and realize I’d been holding it for a while. I make my way out and find myself in a wooded area. The sound of birds overhead and frogs croaking in the distance calms my nerves. That’s when I notice the blood on the ground. Readying myself, I follow it into the woods. I find a kerosene lamp hanging off a nearby tree and light it — this is how Lies Beneath saves your progress, just in case you meet an untimely end and need to load your game. And that’s when I spot two red eyes staring at me from across the way.
The peepers belong to some batlike ghoul that flies past me when I approach. I’m more than a little surprised it didn’t try to eat me, which is good, considering my only defense right now is an old lighter. I keep moving until I find a tattered camping tent and a missing person’s flyer hammered into a nearby tree. I decide to burn the page, more out of curiosity than any grand purpose, and it transforms the faces into ghastly husks — spooky. I press onward and step into an old campground. Instead of finding vacationing families and barbecues, I happen upon something far more sinister. The floor is littered with huge slabs of meat, impaled on wooden spikes. A pair of elk hang suspended above me, sectioned and quartered like some macabre art installation.
The situation is getting pretty grim, but I keep going. I pass the gory scene and come across something worse on a nearby hill: a manlike brute (I honestly can’t tell what it is) growling in a language I can’t discern and chopping away at a strange cadaver. I start to worry. My concerns are justified moments later when the thing sees me and decides to rush me. I whirl around and book it toward some fences in the opposite direction. Real danger or no, I’m running for my virtual life through a maze of wooden spikes determined to get away from whatever this thing is. I run through an opening right as it’s about to catch me, and a wooden gate slams into the ground in between the two of us. The thing angrily saunters off, and I’m once again left alone.
I didn’t physically run anywhere, of course, but the tension I feel is undeniable and greater than if I’d only watched the scene play out. There’s a pervasive sense of dread to every moment in Lies Beneath that cannot be understated. Eventually, I find a menagerie of monsters, each of whom wants to string me up like the poor elk I found earlier. Thankfully, I also find an old-fashioned six-shooter, an ax, and several pointy sticks to use in my defense. Several chapters into the experience, I transform from doe-eyed explorer to supernatural investigator, working to solve the game’s mysteries and blasting monsters like an Old West gunslinger.
What unfolds in the later chapters of Lies Beneath blends mystery, horror, and action in a way that few VR experiences have thus far — something that should interest a wide swath of genre fans.
Lies Beneath debuts March 31 on Oculus Quest and April 14 on the Rift Platform.