Context is important. What happens in the lead-up to events provides insight into how and why they unfold as they do. But what if the context doesn’t come ‘til later? And what if there was zero warning for the traumatic event you were about to experience in a game? Questions like these, the line between artistic intent and players’ psychological wellbeing, have been at the center of a debate over Stress Level Zero’s latest VR game, Bonelab, which has a pretty unsettling campaign introduction. So unsettling, in fact, that some fans are now suggesting the sequence should have been skippable entirely.
A sequel to the first-person virtual reality shooter Boneworks, Bonelab is a sandbox action-adventure romp that dropped on September 29 for the Meta Quest 2 and PCVR. It’s one of the most hyped VR games in recent memory, with tons of press touting its impressive visual fidelity, gameplay-affecting avatars, and “unrelenting intensity.” It doesn’t have much narrative; instead, sequences kinda funnel you from one point to the next. The first-person, highly physical gameplay, coupled with extensive mod support, have Bonelab poised to be a successor to the super-popular physics sandbox Garry’s Mod. So far the game’s garnered a “mostly positive” rating on Steam, with most players saying it’s hella fun with hella replayability. However, not everyone is as enamored with the long-awaited shooter.
Though Bonelab is a sandbox many will probably play for its mod tools, it does feature a campaign, and it’s the story’s introduction that has ignited debate among players. You start the game by selecting your avatar via a randomizer. Once you’re satisfied with your appearance, you press a big red button that transports you to a black room. It’s dark, but you’re not alone: A rope, tied like a noose, hangs in front of you.
With no further instruction or warning, the only possible action you can take to progress is to place the noose around your neck, which then teleports you to a medieval setting. You’re surrounded by metal pikes. Zealots of some sort, lined up in front of you clad in black robes, await the executioner, who drops the platform below you. You’re left hanging...for a while. You can try grabbing the rope above you, but to little avail. Finally, for some inexplicable reason, a glowing knife materializes, enabling you to cut yourself down.
You can view the sequence in question in the longplay video embedded below; it starts at the 1:24 mark, and is preceded by content warning messages inserted by the video’s creator.
It isn’t the second half of the sequence that has perturbed players. Most understand the narrative worldbuilding once in the medieval setting. It’s that the game forces the player to physically enact the ritual of hanging themselves, with no warning whatsoever, that has left some feeling like it’s an unnecessary and problematic inclusion. Bonelab’s story is largely perceived to be incoherent, with setpieces stitched together by combat sequences, so one moment doesn’t exactly connect to the next. This storytelling method, some players argued in a now-locked post on the Oculus Quest subreddit, is justification enough for the introduction to at least be skippable.
“Well that seems quite impossible to address (mental health of anyone could be affected/triggered by anything, so it’s a battle you can’t win),” one Redditor commented in response to someone saying developers “shouldn’t care” about a gamer’s mental health. “That being said suicide is such an obvious one and affects so many people with horrible consequences that it makes me think this has been made by very, very out of touch game designers.”
“Anyone who calls it out seems to get downvoted (same thing happened with Superhot),” wrote another, referencing disturbing self-harm sequences in Superhot Team’s first-person VR shooter that the developer eventually made skippable after facing backlash. “[It] didn’t really bother me but it felt unnecessary and the [Bonelab] devs should have at least given players the option to skip it.”
Of course, there were numerous comments dismissing these concerns too, with varying levels of empathy.
Several prominent VR YouTubers found Bonelab’s intro off-putting as well. In a measured September 29 video review, virtual reality content creator Gamertag VR explained how his friend had recently committed suicide due to mental health issues. “For some reason, putting a noose around my neck instantly reminded me of my friend killing themself,” he said, before reflecting on how many younger players will be playing this game, and speculating how parents might react to seeing their children virtually hang themselves. “It’s kind of like harrowing. When you think about it, you’re like, ‘Geez that is extreme.’”
(The ESRB rated Bonelab “M” for mature, due to blood and violence.)
In his negative review of the game, VR critic Doc Neale of the enthusiast site 6DOF Reviews was unequivocal in his criticism. “One of the very first things you do in Bonelab is walk up to a rope noose and physically put it around your neck. No trigger warning, no option to skip,” he said. “You don’t have to be a qualified psychologist to ascertain that this might be a pretty irresponsible thing to put in a first-person VR game, particularly with no establishing narrative context. I am a qualified psychologist, and I can say with some authority that it’s a dick move.”
Update 10/05/2022 1:37 p.m. ET: When reached for comment, 6DOF Reviews replied, “Yes, Bonelab should absolutely include a trigger warning. Gamers should know and be warned that it does include a hanging sequence in which players are required to place a noose around their own necks.”
Even self-proclaimed “VR evangelist” Mike Cussell of Virtual Reality Oasis, who has over 600k subscribers, called the intro “grim” in his largely positive video review, saying that though it doesn’t bother him, folks should be aware because it can be triggering.
And that’s the gist of the criticism. The problem isn’t the noose or what happens after it’s around your neck, though of course waiting for your execution isn’t a great introduction to a game, either. Rather, it’s the lack of warning and the forced nature of the sequence that’s bothering so many. You can’t progress the narrative without putting the noose around your neck, and VR, even more so than typical flatscreen video games, is a uniquely immersive medium that can just hit different. The noose sequence might be the introduction to Bonelab’s campaign, but for gamers who struggle with mental health issues—myself included—it could be the push someone needs to end their story. A warning is necessary.
Kotaku has reached out to Stress Level Zero for comment.