Fear Sphere takes one of those flashlight levels in a horror game and brings it to life. It’s a co-op game: One person crawls inside an inflatable dome and prepares to find their way out of a virtual maze, and the other is outside with a map to guide them. Hnry is a three-person studio from New York that created this experience. It was one of the IndieCade Festival 2017’s nominees, and it won the Alt.Ctrl.GDC award earlier this year, which recognizes alternative controllers.
When I ducked inside Fear Sphere at IndieCade, the only equipment I got was a pair of headphones and a flashlight. The flashlight was a heavy-duty affair, and it doubled as a projector to beam the virtual world onto the inside of the dome. It was standard horror game fare:a building that looks like an abandoned school-turned-labyrinth, with desks and furniture stacked in my way as I wandered the halls.
Henry Lam, one-third of the studio, said that he was inspired to create Fear Sphere when he was working on another project that involved mobile projection mapping.
“We were shooting imagery from a projector out of a moving vehicle. It happened that there was a shot, a piece of footage where it was panning from left to right, and we were also driving, and the image happened to match the speed we were moving at,” said Lam in an interview with GamesBeat. “Suddenly it looked as if we were kind of unveiling a reality that was through the building, behind the building. So I thought, what if you took a gyroscope and didn’t just put it in front of a screen, in front of your face, but extended it to a projector and pointed the projector where you wanted to?”
My partner on the outside of the Sphere, his voice tinny in the headphones, asked me to describe my surroundings and directed me up a flight of stairs. As I swung the flashlight-slash-projector around, different parts of my surroundings were revealed, and I used a joystick on the top to walk around. It really replicated the tension of atmosphere of being trapped and helpless. It was at times disorienting, and at other times claustrophobic.
My partner and I made it pretty far before I started hearing noises. He yelled at me to run, but it was too late — an invisible monster sprung up behind me. We got the “game over” screen. While I didn’t find it scary, it was a fun, unique experience. The Hnry team said that they actually got a few screams out of some of the people who tried it.
“One kid went in, and I didn’t even notice, but he crawled back out even before the game started,” said Lam. “He came back out. He was like, ‘I didn’t know what was going on!’ and came right back out.”
Lam says that the idea of putting the game inside of an inflatable balloon wasn’t just for the immersion; it was also born out of necessity.
“You don’t always have a darkened room you can project in,” said Lam. “And then of course it provides immersion. We have a darkened space you’re trying to explore with a flashlight. It makes sense that you’re completely enveloped in a dark space.”
Fear Sphere requires a lot of physical setup, and so there are constraints that Hnry has to consider.
“We have to design everything so it packs in within three people’s worth of checked luggage,” said Jaeseong Yi, one of Fear Sphere’s designers. “Everything has to be airline transportable. We’re very aware of any of those requirements for these projects.”
It’s not the first game that Hnry has made that combines the physical and digital worlds. At last year’s Game Developers Conference, they showcased Crank Tank, where players had to use a physical crank device to control virtual tanks and do battle. Yi says that all three of them are interested in how they can combine experimental hardware with software to create unique experiences. Both Crank Tank and Fear Sphere also rely heavily on communication.
“A lot of our games so far have an emphasis on communication and teamwork,” said Lam. “There’s a reason for that. We’re trying to promote communication, teamwork, cooperation. We value that as a game mechanic.”
“For me, at least, it adds another layer of challenges that’s very satisfying to overcome,” said Yi. “When you’re able to achieve this shared goal with a stranger you’re playing with, I think the satisfaction that comes from that is far greater than just clearing a campaign by yourself.”
The last member of Hnry, Andrew Genualdi, couldn’t make it out to IndieCade. In fact, the three of them all have day jobs in addition to creating side projects like Fear Sphere. Genualdi is a Unity developer; Lam creates screen-based interactive installations, and Yi is a designer at an agricultural technology company. Though they’re not sure if they’ll start creating games full-time; they’re still planning to continue working on their passion projects.
“GDC’s submission deadline is coming up at the beginning of December,” said Lam. “We’ll need to be building something before that point. That’ll probably be our next step.”