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The horror of being hunted by chattering, gentrified robots

Referred to as a "tweedpunk robo-horror" game by developers Big Robot, Sir, You Are Being Hunted abandons players on an island where they are being hunted by tea-swilling, bloodlusting mustachioed robots, for sport.

Despite the inherent humor of being pitted against aristocratic robots clad in tweed, within a few minutes of playing it struck me how creepy it was to be hunted by "sentient" robots within the game's sullen environment. Big Robot founder Jim Rossignol tells Polygon that with these ingredients, the goal was to make the game kitschy but with a genuine underlying threat. The combined result is unnerving — even for a robot-obsessed person like myself.

"We wanted to make it like the vein of 1960s and 1970s TV in the U.K., that's kind of like wacky and kitsch but was also really dark," Rossignol said. "A lot of the early Dr Who's and stuff, although it was like a guy in a rubber suit, always had like really dark undertones, like genuine threat and we kind of wanted to do that.

"There's a really strong comedy element but its quite dark at the same time, there is this sense of threat all the time and it's one of those things that I think British TV and British science fiction does quite well," he said. "We're happy to roll with it and put stupid jokes in there and still make it a horror game, because it is still a horror game, you are still being brutally murdered by robots."

Players find themselves on a chain of islands without a clue, supplies or weapons. In order to escape the islands, they must collect mysterious rune stones, while outwitting the tweed-clad droids. The robots are also hunting for the stones and will set up sentries when they find one. They will also set up sentries if they find kickass weapons in the environment to make life difficult for the player.

The goal was to make the game kitschy but with a genuine underlying threat.

The developers of Sir, You are Being Hunted Kickstarted the project earlier this year raising more than double its goal. Currently in closed alpha with the 900 who backed an early access tier, Sir, You Are Being Hunted is tentatively scheduled to see a release in late August 2013 on Windows PC, Mac and Linux. At the moment the alpha holds two fully integrated robots. The only AI implemented in the alpha build we played was the top hat-wearing, pipe-smoking robot hunters, but more will be integrated. At the beginning of the game, the robots are hunting for the player but without much enthusiasm.

"They are quite lazy at that point, they will travel to a point and they'll stop and they'll have a cup of tea and have a chat with each other," Rossignol explained. "And at that stage, at their audio detection range, their visual detection range are quite low and the player is quite safe at that point. As things go on and as things start to heat up, they become much more aggressive, they spend much more time patrolling, their ability to detect you increases as they get agitated."

What struck me as soon as I started playing was how much more of a cold-sweat thrill it was to be hunted by "sentient" robots, rather than say the usual run-of-the-mill zombies or generic monster found in every other game.

It was unnerving to be in the bleak environment populated by killer robots, even in the early stages of the game where the robots were a little more relaxed and jocular. Hearing their mechanical audio or seeing them off in the distance put my hairs on end. Even worse was when they were right behind me. Chasing. Bleeping.

It turns out that's not unusual. There is some science behind why that's the case.

Vanessa Evers from the University of Twente, the Netherlands, whose research focuses on human robot interaction, a field studying the way people interact with robots and how robots should behave around people, explained that being creeped out by mechanoids is a known phenomenon.

"From a theory on how people experience robots the uncanny valley could be an explanation," Evers said. "Traditionally the uncanny valley — Masahiro Mori developed this theory, it is a theory and not a proven effect — describes that when something, such as an agent, robot, etc is like a human, it is more familiar and we can predict well enough what it will do. But at some point it is so much like a human, but not quite, that it creeps us out: uncanny.

"I personally feel that we are trained through evolution to see what is 'normal' and when an agent looks very much like a human but something is off and 'not quite right' — eyes, gait, mouth etc," she said. "We notice and feel unsafe, threatened just like you would spotting a drunk person coming down the road."

They were right behind me. Chasing. Bleeping.

Plenty of other games feature players coming under threat from other generic monsters, such as zombies, but these games don't illicit the same response as experienced with Sir. Rossignol said the difference between a zombie apocalypse game and Sir, is that the zombie game places the gamer into a messy apocalypse with zombies everywhere and the player becomes the accidental causality. Whereas in Sir, the player is the focus of being hunted and is the whole point of the game. Rossignol also believes the skew is due to the robots' AI and behaviour.

"Well, I guess there is like a malicious intelligence to our robots, we can put a lot of work into how the AI would actually works, to how the robots to feel," he explained. "We did want it to be a malicious intelligence and that is reflected in the way that they actually work and not in the way that the shambling zombie or charging zombie.

"Like, I watched a few players run round a wall and just expect them to have lost the robots," Rossignol said. "They don't. They will hunt you down. They will follow you to the last place they saw you and search the area they lost sight of you and they are constantly hunting. And if they hear each other getting into trouble, they will help each other out."

Evers points out that robots may seem more threatening because of the media's reporting of drones and their role in wars, which may have a feedback effect onto the player.

"Media has fed us the notion of drones hunting for people, perhaps being controlled at a distance or programmed to find and shoot," Evers said. "This lingering thought may become 'reality' when playing the game. Making the threat as perceived through the news more tangible."

She went on to say that the British countryside may add to the feeling experienced.

"It could also be that the nature-like as opposed to urban environment is unsettling." Evers said. "Dusk in a forest-like setting is for urban people not the most comfy of environments and could add to the instinct of being hunted."

With the gray skies, fog, dark thickets and drizzle, wandering the in-game environment almost tricked my mind into making my real-world clothes feel damp. The cold environment certainly contributed to the game's creepiness and my general unease.

Before settling with the British moors environment, the team and main programmer, Tom Betts, worked on a sci-fi prototype procedural generator, which they called a "sci-fi cover art generator" due to the "1970s weird desert landscape with an astronaut walking across it" environments it created.

"That really made us laugh," Rossignol said. "And at the same time it wasn't what we wanted to do, and when we came up with the Sir idea, the question was ‘Can we make that that fit to do we want? To make it sort of British?'"

Betts spent several months working on the procedural tech to generate height maps and scenery to mimic the British countryside. As Rossignol explained, there is nothing planned about the British countryside, it consists of centuries of accumulated random roads crossing over each other, resulting in a "messiness works really well with the procedural generation."

"So people are playing it now and saying ‘wow it actually looks like it is actually meant to be like that,'" Rossignol said. "Once we have seen that could work, there was a case of ‘Could we make it a lot more threatening?' I think when you do go out in the countryside in the winter, with the big trees and crows flying over head and it is raining; it can be a pretty dark.


The Scares

With its roving bands of bots and procedurally generated English landscape, Sir, You Are Being Hunted offers players an environment to experience a potentially unfathomable amount of hair-raising anecdotes:

  • Being spotted out in the open with nowhere to hide.
  • Getting trapped against a door and taking a few shotgun-blasts pointblank.
  • Running through the dark woods to blunder headfirst into a robot.
  • Cowering defenseless in the long grass waiting for the hunters to pass only meters away.

"And we just wanted to capture all of that," he said. "We had a vision to take what was kind of bleak and frightening about the British landscape and put it into a game, and I don't think that anyone has done that, not in this sort of countryside way, you see London and stuff in games, but I don't think that you have seen Dorset or Somerset or kind of those farmy farmlands. "

The game's environmental noises also contributed immensely to the general feeling of ill ease, and audio cues play an important role in the game and are a key tool to staying alive. More often than not I was saved from walking dead on into a posse of robots because I heard them before I saw them.

There are also wildlife cues that allow the player to read where enemies are in the world, such as birds different types of birds can betray or help a player. Smaller birds being scared into flight from the brush, by either robot or human, serve as "sign posts" and won't be investigated by robots. However, larger birds that roost on the ground will be investigated by robots if they are disturbed.

"We have done quite a lot of work on that," Rossignol said. "I think functionally it works really well at the moment so we can read the sort of the audio landscape really well and get a lot from it."

The developer believes audio is currently the most undeveloped area of the game. But with the help of audio engineer Alistair Lindsay — who has worked on audio for various indies in the U.K. — it aims to do a complete overhaul of Sir's audio to make it more pronounced by adding more ambient environmental noises and redoing the robots' sound effects.

"We live out in the British countryside anyway, so we see this kind of pipe-smoking, right-winger stuff going on day-to-day."

"At the moment you get that bleep when they have seen you and you can just about make out that they are having discussions and so on," Rossignol said. "What we actually want to do is change the register and tone of their robotic kind of chatter so that you can tell when they are in the hunt mode versus when they are joking and having a cup of tea. That stuff is already in some way. I don't think what we have done with the audio is really subtle, we have just find what works and just hammer it in. But it does its job at the moment."

Rossignol believes that audio is one aspect in games that gets ignored because they are so graphic orientated that "they tend only really need a minimum amount of audio to sell it it."

"It is one of those differences that people won't really notice explicitly while they are playing but they will get a lot back from it," he said. "When audio is really well produced it can change the experience enormously."

The gentrified robots dressed in tweed add to the "Uncanny Valley" effect. Was the gentrified robots tweedpunk an intentional ingredient to the game's creepiness?

"The tweedpunk idea was us. We live out in the British countryside anyway, so we see this kind of pipe-smoking, right-winger stuff going on day-to-day and there was kind of write what you know kind of thing where, ‘Why not make it about the British countryside?'" Rossignol explained. "And I think as soon as we stuck on the basic idea of basically mocking the rich people who strut about in tweed pretending it is the 18th century, that just works really well for us, that just makes us laugh. It just seemed like the right thing to do as soon as we started working on it.

Rossignol said that as soon as they struck on the British countryside idea, the whole vision of the game was all in place within an hour and they knew exactly what was going to happen.

"We knew the other robots were then going to end up sitting in like the satire of the British class systems," he said. "So we have a poacher, who is like working class criminal. We have the squire, who is vaguely based on a British character called John Bull, who is like this big fat with big mutton chops who is supposed to represent the middle class."

The squire robot only gets involved when he sees the player looting, he doesn't hunt "because he's quite fat and happy" and only gets pissed off if shenanigans take place in his territory. According to Rossignol, the fox hunters will be the most terrifying level of robots.


Rossignol wanted Sir's world to have its own dynamics going on, not just a be a shooting gallery for the player, saying he likes it when it's not clear if the player is the centre of the world and that the NPCs are doing their own thing at the same time.

"I really like the fact that our robots stop and have a cup of tea with each other and show their collection of human skulls and stuff like that, but we are going to have the capacity to have different families of robots to fall out with each other," he explained. "So they might be kind of getting along and saying hello to each other, but then they'll say something that will start off an argument and then ‘BOOM! BOOM!' and suddenly they'll have a fight. I really like that kind of stuff in games where you see the AI interacting with each other."

Introducing different entities and systems that can "emerge and cascade," creating random events, is the difference between a linear game that tells a story and one where the gamer can tell a story because of experiences they had.

"The story of ‘I saw some robots and they were fighting each other' is kind of rubbish in itself," Rossignol said. "But when you know it is something that has come from the systems and it is something random and unique to your experience, and it somehow affected your playthrough, that becomes an anecdote. I think game design systems that allow you to say ‘Holy shit! This happened and this happened' are the ones that really stay with gamers and that is the stuff that we want to make."

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