The Audio Visual Behavior Augmentation System

January 15th, 2019

A postmortem for A.V.B.A.S

So what is AVBAS? I’ve never worked on a project that’s been harder to explain than AVBAS. AVBAS was inspired by my love for bizarre community produced creepy pasta stories like the r/nosleep subreddit or the SCP boards. I loved the idea of having stories that people knew are fake but interacted with as though they were authentic. I wanted to make something like that but I wanted to go one step further. I wanted to make a short series of stories about some evil VR software, but then I wanted to actually make the software as well. So that’s what I did.

AVBAS at it’s core isn’t a game, it’s a new way of telling a story and I think that’s what made it so confusing to people. If you come at it from the standpoint of trying to experience a narrative through an interactive medium I think you’ll enjoy it. If you come at it expecting a traditional horror game I don’t think you’ll like it very much.

The Story

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of hypnosis. I used to watch episode after episode of Darren Brown when I was younger, and on a few occasions I’ve tried to hypnotize myself with minimal success. I think it’s crazy that there’s a thing that can supposedly tap into people’s subconscious to change their behavior and we don’t have a strong scientific consensus on exactly what hypnosis is. I think the fact that it’s uncertain makes it more interesting. I feel like it’s that uncertainty that facilitates the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

I think in that way it really builds on the ideas of SCP and nosleep. In those forums everyone has to reply and post in character so blur the line about what’s real and what isn’t. I mean there’s a common shared understanding what is and isn’t, but the more we can blur the line the easier the willing suspension of disbelief is and the more exciting the story is. It works much in the same way that The Blair Witch Project used found footage and the rumor that it was all real, to heighten excitement within the film.

It was my hope that in choosing an already uncertain topic like hypnosis I could blur the line a little more and give the story a little plausibility. I’d blur the line further by posting it to nosleep in character with an account I had created specifically for this purpose, and then blur it even further by creating the software from the stories. It’s all about making it just plausible that a little part of you suspends your disbelief and you find yourself engrossed… Well that was the idea at least.

You can read all three parts of the story here:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
I recommend that if you haven’t already read them that you read those before continuing, they aren’t very long and I think they are pretty good, but then again that might be my own personal bias talking. Anyway here’s a “too long; didn’t read” super condensed outline for those of you who don’t want to read them.

Super Simple Plot Outline

  • Post #1
    • Poster describes his job; explains that he’s working as an intern on a cool new VR cure all, a piece of software that will hypnotize people into quitting smoking, losing weight or whatever else people need.
    • All seems to be going well except for a few test subjects that appear to be having adverse reactions called “The Owl People”.
    • Poster realizes that all of the people with the adverse effects are getting a custom build of the software that the rest of the test subjects are not getting.
    • The poster asks the rest of the forum for advice.
  • Post #2
    • The poster is notably more shaken up in his writing style than the first post.
    • Poster explains that he’s been fired from his job, that he’s stolen a copy of the software and that he’s tried the software out on himself.
    • He says he didn’t notice anything strange in his version of the software.
    • He later hangs out with his friend Marcus, one of the owl people from the first act, and Marcus explains to him that the owl people version of the software changes each time you use it.
    • The poster tries AVBAS again only to black out and then wake up realizing he’s finished an entire session.
    • He starts to describe a character from the software invading his day to day life, a character he refers to as “the Narrator”.
  • Post #3
    • The poster is now fully under the control of the AVBAS software.
    • He’s says he has made friends with the owl people and the narrator.
    • He explains that AVBAS has made him kill one of the Owl People but everything is OK now.
    • The poster explains that it’s now his goal to share the AVBAS software with the world.

The Software

The software is a series of six experiences. By closing the game and starting it back up the player is presented with the next experience. The best way to play it is to put on the headset, plug in your earphones (This one is important) and relax in a comfortable chair. You don’t need the controller or anything. Just relax and try to do what the narrator says. Most of the experiences follow a similar formula, the player finds themselves in a room with a narrator reading a script.

The scripts

I actually studied pretty hard to get the scripts as authentic as possible. They start with a hypnosis induction technique and then transition into a deepener and then usually finish with the narrator waking you back up. I didn’t want the horror elements to come from the script itself. I wanted that part to sound as genuine as possible.

The audio

The audio was extremely important to me for this project. I wanted a lot of the subconscious cues fed to the listener through the audio. I actually got a friend of mine, David Waltenbaugh who is really into spatial audio, to do a lot of the music. I think he absolutely knocked it out of the park. One thing you might not notice in playing the game is that the music exists in 3 dimensions. That is to say that each note has a physical location in space and as you move around the room you’ll notice that certain notes are louder in different parts of the room.

On top of the spatial notes there’s a couple of other important tricks at play. The entire time you are in an experience you are getting hit with something called binarual beat. There are two constant sine waves playing in your ears, one about 5 Hz lower than the other. The effect creates a beat in your brain that your ears aren’t actually hearing. It’s a technique used for meditation that I think really adds to the experience.

Tonal keys are also at play here. I wanted the relaxing parts to be really relaxing in order to offset the darker parts. So I made sure all the audio you hear in the good parts is in a major key, and I mean all the audio you hear. The Narrator’s voice is processed so that even the minor harmonics are stripped out of the audio file, which I think really shines through when the game gets dark and suddenly everything goes either minor or atonal.

If you listen closely you’ll notice that we even made use of a thing called a Shepard tone in the floating experience. The Sheppard tone is an optical illusion for your ears. It’s a note that always sounds like it’s going up in pitch. In an experience where you are supposed to feel like you are floating I found that it really made a strong subconscious play on your brain.

The experiences

I wanted each experience to be similar but different enough that the player wasn’t sure what to expect the next time. The first experience is simple. Nothing happens in it. The narrator just reads a script and then the user is returned to a screen the says to remove the headset. This experience is designed to lower the player’s guard and their expectations.

The second experience I called “The Watch”. It’s is designed to look very similar to the first except this time the narrator has a pocket watch. This experience first brings movement into the world. As he talks the world slowly morphs into a giant tunnel that the player is spiraling through. The effect is disorienting in a way that plays well into the hypnosis.

The third experience is supposed to be a message from the makers of AVBAS themselves. It starts with the player alone in a dark vast empty map. An orb circles around the sky and as it gets closer you can tell that it;s playing music. It continues and as it does more and more of the world becomes visible. Once the music stops the narrator kicks back in, except his voice is glitchy and he begins too question you on how to acquired the software and warns you not to use it.

The fourth experience I call “Weightless”. This one starts the player in a vast room filled with tall pillars. White orbs spiral around the play space and slowly float upward. Once the hypnotic induction finishes the player finds themselves floating up into the sky.

The fifth experience I called “The Grove”. It starts out a lot like the first experience except there are more trees. As the narrator reads his script the trees slowly begin to grow. they begin to wrap around the narrator’s body and neck. Once the induction script has finished the colors of the world begin to change and everything becomes a massive red spiral.

The sixth experience is the “Number Room”. I allude to the number room heavily in the stories. It’s the room that subconsciously delivers messages to the player. I based the idea off of old soviet numbers stations. A narrator reads you a series of numbers in a room that slowly transitions to be covered in numbers.

What worked

Well the first thing that worked is that I finished. Which is more than I can say about a lot of my projects. This was the first long term (non-game jam) game I’ve ever finished. So I have to be a little proud of the fact that it’s done.

I feel like the story posts came out pretty good. Stephen king quality they are not, but I feel like as a developer’s first foray into writing they came out great. They taught me that I actually really like writing too. While I don’t think I’ll do another long form text/game project like this again anytime soon, the idea of just writing no sleep posts for fun does really appeal to me.

All the little subconscious hypnosis cues in the game particularly the audio worked really well. You definitely feel different coming out of it than you did going in, which I’ll take as a success. Play-testers have commented about how relaxing and soothing the game is… which I guess is good, but it’s a strange reaction to something that at it’s core is supposed to be a horror game.

What didn’t work

The biggest thing that didn’t work is that I was unable to include a link to my software from the nosleep posts. It was my original intention to include a link to the software in the final nosleep post. Unfortunately the mods determined that they couldn’t let me post a link in my post because… there might be a bug in my software… Yeah that’s the actual reason they gave me. And no I’m not claiming my game is bug free by any stretch of the imagination I’m just saying it seems like an oddly arbitrary reason to not allow something that in no way violates their rules, but anyway…

Without the link to the software in the post I think that once people finished the story they just ended there. I tried posting links to the story and the game on a bunch of other boards, but I feel like most people on other boards don’t want to dedicate enough time to read through a series of posts and then play a VR game, and if people just jump straight to the game it doesn’t make any sense.

The other big thing that didn’t work is that there isn’t really any horror in the VR portion of the project. It adds to the creepy story but as a standalone the software just doesn’t work. I tried to keep jump scares and things like that out of AVBAS because it felt cheap to me. I wanted to play on a sense brooding and I wanted the user to feel like maybe they were being hypnotized by this thing they just found on the internet. Unfortunately people like jump scares and classic horror elements. In hindsight I should have made the VR portion of AVBAS strong enough to stand on it’s own.

I think the choice to make “exiting the game and re-opening it” the method to get to the next experience was really confusing to people. I wanted it to be cryptic. Something that people figured out on their own and got a sense of reward for being clever, but I feel like that might be over valuing people’s opinion of my software. Unless they were really impressed the first time they played it’s unlikely they are going to do it again. If I were to do it again I’d probably just kick the player out to the lobby and give them the option to try another experience.

Reception and promotion

From the start I knew this wouldn’t be a project that most people would enjoy. I didn’t want to make something that a lot of people would kinda like, but rather something that a hand full of people would really enjoy.

My first nosleep post received a decent reception by my standards, especially for a first post from an unknown author. It was fun interacting the commenters in character. Subsequent posts received less attention though, probably because they were parts 2 and three of a story that most people hadn’t read part 1 of.

Some people attached to it from the first post though. I was messaged early on by RamblingRamm on youtube, that they wanted to read my stories on their channel. I was flattered and you can find parts 1-3 of their narration here, here, and here.

My game was also got the let’s play treatment by JoyJoy Moto Games in a style in line with the stories which I thought came out really cool.

But even with all that as of 1/10/2019, seven months after I first put the software out there, I’m sitting in the lower half of double digit download numbers, which isn’t great for a free game. That number for sure isn’t helped by the fact that the software is aimed at VR, a platform with a limited install base, but even still it’s lower than I’d like.

This game has given me great opportunity to try my hand at self promotion within the game development space. Once I realized that no one might ever play this thing I had to come up with ideas on how to promote it. My first idea was to make a trailer. I got a friend of mine, Nick Crowley to help me stitch together a game-play trailer. It came together pretty well, but also suffered from low viewer numbers.

My next attempt was to see if I could get any press attention. I used Vlambeers presskit() software to whip together a little presskit site and I sent it out to a bunch of bloggers, press and youtube personalities. What surprised me wasn’t who I didn’t hear back from, which by the way was all of the VR bloggers, press and youtube personalities, but who I did hear back from. The local arts and culture magazine decided to do a small piece it. While them being willing to write about my game was really cool, it unfortunately still didn’t drive a lot of traffic my way either.

Final Thoughts

I wouldn’t call AVBAS a success and I wouldn’t call it a failure either. While not many people got out of it the experience that I was hoping they’d get, I had more fun planning and working on this game than I have on any other project. I don’t regret it and I’m glad I finished it. Most people won’t understand it and I’m fine with that. I feel like it’s a real piece of my imagination that made it out of my head and I’m happy it exists.

If you want to play AVBAS it’s available for free on itch.

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