I don’t know why I played ABE VR, the fact that it is free notwithstanding. The description included words including “horrifying”, “intense” and “victim”, and the screenshots show scalpels, bonesaws and people tied to hospital beds. It was pretty clear where all this was going. And it did.
I call it a “game”, but in many respects it’s a short film, rendered in real-time 3D. I was drawn to it, God help me, because I wanted to know if the clarity and detail of the screenshots could possibly be recreated in VR’s fuzzy-jaggy world, and also because titular “misguided” torturebot ABE looks like the unsettling offspring of a Doctor Who Cyberman and Brian The Robot from those unbearable insurance adverts.
Impressively, ABE does look like the screenshots: this is high-fidelity VR. There’s even a basic graphics options menu, still a rare thing at the moment, and it makes the edges all lovely and sharp. By VR standards, not by desktop standards, that is; I might have willingly sacrificed myself to a psychobot, but I’m not mad. It’s slow and without much movement, so I guess that makes its life easier, but even so, it’s good to have more proof that Valve aren’t the only ones who’ve worked out how to make highish-end scenes appear within a facebox.
But yeah, you don’t really get to do anything. Which is basically the point. When you move your head, your character’s torso wiggles a bit in the relevant direction, this being because said character is strapped to a gurney. Around which ABE himself wanders and preens, dispensing chilling anecdotes about the relationship between robots and humans in calm, lilting voice. While playing with bonesaws and scalpels.
It could have been worse, is all I’ll say. The denouement is… not unexpected, but it is also not as horrific I had been growing EXTREMELY ANXIOUS it might be. Because ABE’s killer trick is not violence, but helplessness. The inability to do anything except wiggle in terror. The inability to do anything about my situation as Evil C-3PO flicked its hardened thumb over sharpened blades. I almost forgot that I could take the headset off to escape, and when I remember that I could, I had to fight the urge to flee. I saw it out and, for various reasons, the conclusion was a bit silly, but still: well done. A successful conjuring of the terror of being trapped and at the mercy of a monster.
I doubt that this either the first or the last such concept we’ll see in VR. Indeed, Capcom’s Kitchen, elements of which bled into Resident Evil 7’s recent demo, plays with the horror of helplessness in a similar fashion. Current VR is a technology which, for the time being, is positively defined by being able to look around a believable place but not necessarily do a whole lot else. It is very, very good at making our senses believe that the unreal is real, and ABE VR takes merciless advantage of that.
ABE VR is free, available for Vive and Rift, lasts ten minutes and it’s distressing, and what the hell is wrong with me for playing it? Oh, and I should mention that it’s based on a short film about the same bot, which apparently won a bunch of awards. Here it is and, be warned, it is A Bit Horrible: