An interactive taster for The Burning Room was produced in January, with stand-up Jack Carroll voicing Jesse, the story's protagonist. The game's creators are now seeking further investment for the full-length version.
Alternating between the present and Britain's industrial past, the VR mystery is the brainchild of producer Jon Aird, who won a Bafta for the Psychoville Experience, an online, companion story for the dark BBC Two comedy. He is also currently producing the Dave sitcom pilot Holier Than Thou.
Dyson, who co-created the acclaimed West End play Ghost Stories with Andy Nyman, which the pair subsequently turned into a 2017 film, was brought on board to pen the feature-length version of The Burning Room, reimagining and adding comedic elements, after an original short went viral in 2014.
That initial Flash version attracted more than 40 million views online, thanks to influential YouTubers such as PewDiePie sharing video of themselves playing it.
"Jon showed me his original Burning Room piece and I found it genuinely creepy and intriguing" Dyson told BCG. "Having already played in the sandbox of immersive horror with Ghost Stories in the theatre I became excited at the possibilities here.
"I really wanted to explore a more overtly comic realm - drawing on some of the 80s things I cherished. I'd always been very fond of Dan O'Bannon's Return Of The Living Dead - which is a really unique mix of proper horror and proper comedy. I thought that this Burning Room 2.0 might be a place to do that."
Players control Jesse, a hapless young man who's just moved into a luxury apartment in a 19th century building that's been restored and renovated. The rent is suspiciously cheap and on the first night, you are awoken by disturbing sounds coming from the wet room. From there, you must go on a journey through the night that the creators call "terrifying and hilarious", to find out the truth about your new home, and face an unholy opponent lurking deep within its walls...
Dyson drew inspiration from "the local history around me in West Yorkshire, which was totally formed by the Industrial Revolution". Although he adds, "in recent years I've become increasingly aware, as I think many of us have, of the negative aspects of that history."
More specifically for the story's setting, he recalled the experience of friends who had "moved into a new housing development that was actually a huge former mental hospital.
"The developers had run out of money during the 2008 crash and so the whole place was frozen mid-transition. You could step from the fancy townhouses right into the derelict blocks full of padded cells straight out of [2001 horror film] Session Nine. It felt like the perfect setting for a contemporary story, chock full of metaphors in a very unsubtle way!"
An accomplished Galaxian and Asteroids player in his youth, now belatedly reconnecting with gaming through his youngest daughter, Dyson has "been very interested in VR since I was a kid, when I encountered a surprisingly prophetic story in a children's science fiction anthology that fused VR headsets with nanobots flying on top of bumblebees - like a cross between Avatar and Honey I Shrunk The Kids. Sadly, I can't remember what the story was called or who the author was."
The Burning Room's unreleased taster serves as a prologue to the game, which focuses on Jesse's search for the key to unlock his new apartment.
Former Trollied and Britain's Got Talent star Carroll "has a great deadpan delivery which contrasts perfectly with the supernatural events of the story" Aird enthuses. "For the full-length game we will film the actors, capturing their performances and turning them into CGI characters."
Following his work on Psychoville, Aird reunited with the League's Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton for an interactive episode of their anthology series Inside No. 9. He has also produced spin-off stories and content for Shooting Stars, The Wrong Mans and Come Fly With Me.
He cites VR games based on The Exorcist, Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity as evidence of horror's excellent fit with the new technology. Yet he emphasises that "The Burning Room has a script by Jeremy Dyson so it is uniquely British, and not only scary but really funny at the same time.
"Comedy and horror go well together because they rely on pacing and timing, the element of surprise, and the build up and release of tension" he maintains. "Crucially for VR, in which you experience everything as if you are really there, comedy and horror work by evoking immediate physical responses - fear, laughter, shock, relief ... Stories rely on characters and dialogue, but in VR you want to be active, so the challenge is to give the audience both things. As Jesse, you get to meet and talk to other characters, and you also get to explore locations, handle objects, and even break down walls."
Despite having established a professional relationship with Shearsmith and Pemberton, Aird hadn't previously worked with Dyson, "so it was very exciting to develop the story for The Burning Room together.
"Jeremy is fascinated by horror and the supernatural, and is a master comedy writer. His work across film, TV and theatre, particularly Ghost Stories, uses similar techniques in terms of immersing the audience into unsettling environments."
Developed by Aird's Boydey Productions and software developers BetaJester, The Burning Room has attracted money from XR Stories, an arts investment fund incorporating Screen Yorkshire, the BFI, York University and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and will be available to play on a portable Meta Quest headset, PlayStation VR or similar headsets in the next two years. Although it could be released in episodic instalments before then.
"We would love to make a non-VR version or console game in the same space so that everyone gets to experience the world" Aird explains. "But ultimately VR will be the first home of The Burning Room and the best place to experience it."
As the technology becomes more familiar and affordable, VR could open up new horizons for comedy writers, for example making historical settings more viable and delivering multiple storylines.
Aird points out that "when making TV comedies, I am used to finding and dressing real locations.
"This was the first time I've had the luxury of having an entire set created in CGI - which means you can shift the furniture around, add props and set dressing, change colours, and even move walls or ceilings at the click of a button. Working with actors is essentially the same - a matter of trying things out in terms of delivery and making sure you capture good takes.
"What's different is you might require more alternate dialogue so you can have different responses in the game - at points we will let you choose what Jesse says to the other characters. The rest of the process is a bit like shooting and editing at the same time - as the game is built I can put on the headset and play through it, then work with the creative team to develop the atmosphere - adding music, using sound design to ramp up the tension, and adjusting the pace of the action to deliver an exciting and exhilarating experience."
"When one of the characters in Psychoville passed away in a rest home, on the website there was a virtual tour of her room, where you discovered her ghost still lingering. For the Halloween Special, we allowed you to explore evil Nurse Kenchington's office where you could find an immersive audio experience in which she performed experiments on you. I created an interactive episode for Inside No. 9 in which viewers could explore an apartment owned by two brothers who were seemingly stuck in a time loop.
"Because of the advancements in technology during this period, I am now able to build on this previous work and return to The Burning Room to create a world in which you get to explore a whole series of different locations, and meet a host of memorable characters as you get closer to the truth at the heart of the story."
He is now in contact with other comedy and drama writers. And he hopes "this will be the first of many projects I produce using this technology. Interactive films are exciting for anyone who has sat in a cinema and imagined themselves living the lives of the characters on screen. Experiences like these are the future, not just for comedy and horror, but for any genre.
"I want to give people an amazing thrill ride by putting them in the driving seat of a comedy-horror adventure."