The Twilight Zone began as a sci-fi anthology series where writers used elaborate and fantastical worlds to critique the one they actually lived in. Though its episodes often dealt with things like nazis, the Red Scare, and the threat of nuclear war, it would shade these topics in aliens, robots, and plots of early space travel. The black-and-white series was more than a timestamp of the post-World War II landscape it was born into, however. It remains a classic today, thanks to its timeless angles on topics such as xenophobia, beauty standards, and human loneliness, just to name a few.
The far-reaching series has often been duplicated but never replicated in the 60 years since it went off the air. It’s even been rebooted no fewer than three times, including a short-lived 2019 revival featuring Jordan Peele as its host and narrator. Its most recent iteration comes not on television, but in virtual reality. The Twilight Zone VR is a three-episode anthology launching on July 14 for Meta Quest 2 headsets. It’s also coming to PlayStation VR 2 at a later date. GameSpot caught up with the team behind the game to discuss what it’s like stepping into Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s shoes, why the show has remained relevant decades later, and how to not tip your hand to the audience when they’ve become the protagonist in their own twisted allegory.
“We have a big responsibility,” Fun Train CEO Douglas Nabors told GameSpot. “We’re a smaller company trying to make our way in VR, which is not the easiest place to survive. And we have big shoes to fill. There’s this history of expectation of games based on successful television or feature films–they’ve not always been great.”
Nabors said the team sought to subvert that negative expectation. “Every single decision that we made in this, going back for the past two years, has always been prefaced by the question, ‘How does this serve the brand?’ We didn’t want to repeat old Twilight Zone episodes, right? Because when you see them, you know them, you know how they turn out.”
A big part of converting the name brand to VR is understanding that in this unique instance, players are the ones living through the fateful stories. They aren’t merely watching someone get their comeuppance or reshape their entire worldview through some earth-shattering twist. In VR, it’s the player’s story.
As the game is played in first-person, with elements of the adventure, shooter, and puzzle genres all mixed in, there are opportunities for players to go off the golden path and explore sometimes, so the team has had to strike a balance between keeping reveals under wraps and teasing a plot point, similar to when the TV episode “Third From The Sun” was shot at unorthodox angles to hint at there being something off about the world. While Easter eggs referencing classic episodes and even some teases of things to come within the game itself can be found if players explore each story, the team had to show restraint and avoid letting players put all the pieces in place before the precise intended moment.
In play tests, savvy players have tried piecing it all together, but most came up short of figuring the story out ahead of schedule. Some players “tried to write their own endings and would get it horribly wrong,” said Skyler Reep, manager of production at Fun Train. “That’s always a great feeling.”
Post-apocalyptic worlds are a common setting in The Twilight Zone, and players will explore a new one in VR.
In one example from Episode 2, “Terror Firma,” an in-game news feed would feature up-to-the-minute real-world news. Players were impressed with the recency of these headlines, which included the death of actress Betty White–breaking news during the time of these play tests. As it turns out, these headlines were being fed by an RSS feed, but that didn’t stop one player from devising a theory around the player character being a rugby player in a coma based on one news item, simply because they took it as a clue rather than realizing it was genuinely ripped from the headlines.
Layers like this can be seen throughout the game, including a clever message that first greets players when they open the app, and the devilish usage of the player’s own voice in the first episode, “Character Building.” Sometimes these are fun Easter eggs, like a Talky Tina doll stashed under a staircase or a hidden black-and-white mode, but the biggest, most protected twists come later in the game, and for those, the team knew it had to shield the truth in order to stick the landing.
“Where’s the gut-punch ending?” Frankie Cavanagh, head of Pocket Money Games, said, quoting something Nabors would ask him when the team was workshopping episode ideas. “The one thing about The Twilight Zone is, if you’re in the Twilight Zone, you’ve done something bad […] It’s easy to write the bad guy. But when it’s you, it’s quite a hard thing in VR.”
Cavanagh said the stories were written with this in mind, knowing players might not want to be the villain, which meant finding a way to leave them an out on the basis of moral complexity, something the original series did often. Sometimes that comes in the form of dynamic characters who may be doing the wrong things for the right reasons, but in the game’s best case, it involves a secret ending to one of the stories.
The Twilight Zone rarely dealt in plainly good and evil characters. More often, it swam in the gray in-between space, telling stories of a reformed villain, a hero’s costly error, or a group’s regrettable descent into chaos. People are complicated, and though Serling didn’t leave room for interpretation regarding his opinion on things like McCarthyism, the stories always kept the complexity of humanity at the center–understanding the wickedness without apologizing for it. In The Twilight Zone VR, that added layer of discomfort goes a long way to sticking the landing because now it’s the player who is left justifying their fateful mistake or trying to rationalize the harm they’ve caused. This is most true of all in the game’s stunning final scene of Episode 3, “Deadline Earth,” in which a writer seeks to escape imprisonment by alien invaders.
Cavanagh called the game’s third episode the weird one. It was also our favorite of the trio.
While today the game is three episodes, each taking about an hour to finish, Nabors added that, should sales and interest indicate a demand, there are plans to expand on it. Those plans include the possibility of guest studios coming in to create new stories, just like Serling had a stable of prolific writers often lending their voices to the series. “With success, we’re gonna try something really bold and experimental. We can risk a bit more,” Nabors said.
The Twilight Zone VR is coming to Meta Quest 2 on July 14. A PSVR 2 version will be released at a later date.