I Played A VR Game About Being Tortured By A Robot, Because I’m An Idiot

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:

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  1. Freud says:

    I wouldn’t want a robot to do my torturing. There has to be some passion involved for it to be done properly.

    • jontaro says:

      I would prefer being tortured by a robot, with robot it’s cold and emotionless, but with some sadistic perv i would just feel used.

      Sure, it’s a good thing to enjoy your work, but there is such a thing as enjoying it too much.

      – Selling cars and feeling like a boss, good thing.
      – Selling cars and sporting wood, not a good thing.

  2. Blowfeld81 says:

    It was a good short movie. But I believe I do not experience such stuff in VR…

    • MajorLag says:

      It was alright, but frankly ABE feels like just a screwed up human. Being tortured by a psychopath is not great, I’m sure, but I think it completely fails to make ABE’s artificial nature meaningful to the work.

      Now, if Colossus (see: Colossus: The Forbin Project) was doing the torturing, that’d feel right I think. It was one of the few AIs in movies that I think really nailed the dispassionate rationality that is the core of our unease with AI.

  3. frightlever says:

    There’s a 3D Audio demo, set in a barbershop (it’s all just sound), that was sufficient to freak me the fuck out, a few years ago. I can’t even imagine this.

    (You really need headphones for this:)

    • Neonin says:

      That’s what’s known as binaural audio, and it’s been around for a long time. As you noted, it only works well when used with headphones as the recording technique involves mimicking the way our ears hear everything.

      I’ve been waiting for years to see whether it would make a return to games, and with the new advent of VR and more people using headphones while playing such games the possibilities are… interesting. It may make experiences like this so lifelike I wonder who’s going to get sued when the first heart attack happens.

      • laotze says:

        Is this what Overwatch uses in Dolby Headphone mode to produce that three-dimensional soundscape letting you pinpoint aural direction and distance?

        • Neonin says:

          I’ve never played Overwatch and wasn’t aware of Dolby Atmos (which is the tech you’re referring to) but while it creates a similar (arguably better) result it isn’t done in the same way. Dolby Atmos knows exactly where a sound source is in a given 3D field as the computer knows where it is, so it can apply various effects and technological wizardry (delay, reverb, EQ, etc) to the sound to make it appear to originate from exactly where it’s supposed to. It’s actually very sophisticated compared to tradition binaural recordings, but then it would have to be.

      • gunny1993 says:

        This is just headphone surround sound baked into the original stereo rather than left to the audio codec Bern around for ages

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    Ah, but how many lights are there?

  5. Simbosan says:

    They tortured you for being an idiot? They gonna be busy round here!

  6. ScubaMonster says:

    I wonder, as VR advances and becomes more realistic if it would be possible to develop PTSD-like symptoms. Sure there’s the disconnect of knowing it’s not real, but it could be nightmare inducing at the very least.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      I thought of the movie Brainstorm (1983) where they have this device that lets you experience and truly feel what another person is doing. Something the military in that movie (and in reality) would want to use as an interrogation weapon. Really great movie.

    • MrFinnishDude says:

      Maybe in the future, it could be a great setback to the VR industry is strict regulations will be placed on this stuff.
      You know, just like how could we have free reign on 3d printing if we could make guns with it? The tech and its avaibility would eventually be intentionally gimped, which sucks if you’d only want to use it for innocent means.

    • SlimShanks says:

      Well, we know that people can be traumatized by any form of media really. How many kids are troubled by seeing a violent movie or something when they are too young? And we know that there are some videogames that are extremely violent or sadistic. So, I think that some current games, ported to VR, could surely cause enough stress to induce PTSD.
      Personally, I’m thinking of Red Orchestra 2, and what it would be like in VR. I don’t think I could stomach it for long, and I doubt I would be the only one.

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      yhancik says:

      That’s already the case, actually ;) I’ve seen it used in a tv report to simulate a situation where they encounter something related to their trauma, with the aim so slowly help them live a normal life again
      (the graphics were horrendous, something between Sims 1 and 2 in first person)

      • Jetsetlemming says:

        There’s also an abortion advocacy organization that has a VR experience for the crowds full of assholes outside every clinic that patients have to walk through, as an empathy teacher.

  7. DanMan says:

    Pffftt.. how can she scream when her mouth is taped shut? Plebs.

    Time to watch a REAL movie. *puts on Transformers*

  8. SlimShanks says:

    This reminds me of my childhood.

  9. FerretWithASpork says:

    This article needs some proofreading. “The description included words including…” *facepalm*

    • BathroomCitizen says:

      Mistakes were made because Alec isn’t a robot (not even a torturer robot)!

  10. snowgim says:

    Hmm, on the Oculus store the experience is rated as Comfortable… I’m not sure that’s an accurate description.

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    Ben King says:

    I’ll see your ABE and raise you a BLINKY. There is no BLINKY video game though:-/