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loneliness and sadism

  • catmitts
  • 05/25/2010 01:24 AM
contains spoilers etc

I should say right off the bat that I don't think there's anything particularly interesting or subversive about depicting violence, rape or torture. There's a pretty big industry based around doing just that, selling fantasies of power and control to people who have neither under some thin guise of moral outrage or blunt realism or some vague artistic statement, everywhere from movie theaters (Saw, stupid slasher movies) to TV screens (the likes of 24, say) to comic and videogame stores (too many to mention). When people can openly advocate torture as a matter of national policy without being seen as cartoon supervillains then it is really hard to see anything really subversive in art which attampts to break taboos. To quote the excellent 'Not Bored' article on Paul Virilio (here)

"Modern art is no longer the only field in which the deliberate breaking of taboos is the central motivation. It now appears in fields as disparate (and socially important) as commercial advertising; sports, pornography, music and other activities that privilege "performance" and increasingly rely upon specialized pharmaceuticals (Viagra, Human Growth Hormones, steroids, amphetamines and so forth); scientific research, but especially in the fields of "bio-technology," genetic modifications, mutations, and cloning; and the strategic planning and execution of military campaigns. Each one of these fields is, in its way, an "extreme" art that seeks to "shock and awe." Taken together, these various fields constitute a kind of official art, indeed, the official, State-sponsored art of the twenty-first century. "

Which is kind of why things like the Hostel movies and notorious indie game Edmund grate on me. I actually don't think any subject should necessarily be off-limits in art, and I even think it's debateable whether art should be moral at all. What grates at me in these things is exactly this sense of false importance, a condescending attitude off just being Too Edgy 4 You when really there is absolutely zero skill or imagination required and no boundaries being pushed in selling the idea of human beings as faceless THINGS to be broken down and stabbed and prodded like they were toys.

But that's just a digression. The thing is, "Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer" isn't Edmund. It's smarter than that, and although it's not perfect by any means, there are points where it comes close to pulling off the ultimate coup for something that deals with such a sensitive issue: it almost makes it seem normal, or if not normal then at least something in fitting with the characters and the world. At best it uses its subject matter as a kind of distorting lens to give a distinct perspective of people and the world, through mood and atmosphere but more interestingly through characterisation and even gameplay mechanics. At worst it's a weirdly artificial mixture of TV-ugliness and awkward design.

The protagonist of the game is Verge, a member of the Dungeoneers: sadists in the classical sense who believe that torture and brutality are the only true means of knowing someone. What's interesting is that from the very beginning the game takes pains to show Verge not as a darkly romantic mastermind type but as, well, kind of pathetic. The first time we see him he's making a dramatic rooftop declaration of his love for fellow dungeoneer Daily, before we find out that not only are his feelings for her unrequited but that he's played out such a speech many times before. From there we learn that he's a mediocre talent, that he lives alone in a room he hates killing time on the computer, obsessing over the low scores given to his videos. This is a recurring theme throughout the opening section: pretty much all the characters you meet, from Lorry the torture-implement-supplier to the fairly hapless would-be victims on Grafton Street, are shown as desperately seeking some kind of outside validation and understanding. Mixed with a good use of graphics and sound this draws you into a world- distorted, but still recognisible- of people so alienated and lonely that the idea of people violently torturing others just to make some kind of connection seems horrifyingly plausible.

What's also of note here is the conversation ("seduction") system, where you go through dialogue trees to persuade people to come home with you. Whenever you talk to someone for the first time, you see a blurb giving a brief overview of their personality, tastes, etc., and your goal is to answer a series of questions based on appealing to them. This kind of utilitarian approach to conversation naturally requires the characters be painted with broad strokes, but this is exactly what makes it work in the game. The characters you see are so open and obvious about themselves that they seem incredibly vulnerable; their responsiveness to the short answers you give highlights their neediness perfectly. They're exaggerated, but this makes them fit in further with the game world. I have no idea whether this is deliberate or not but it's an excellent example of using the restrictions of a gameplay mechanic as a way to get across a particular mood or idea.

After seducing a victim, the torture minigame starts, and this is where things start to break down. I'm not talking about morality here particularly: the formalised nature of the tile-setting and gauge-watching that constitutes the minigame, combined with the graphical limitations of both the RM2k3 engine, made it hard to connect with what was going on at all. Maybe this was intentional, but this brings me to the biggest problem I had with them. Throughout the game there's the idea of torture and pain as a way of forming a connection, of really understanding people: it's this idea that drives the whole plot, and which gives significance to the plot-specific torture scenes. But it's entirely absent from the torture itself. As Verge, you set the traps and leave the room. Then the victim walks down the set path and activates the traps one by one. There's no connection, no personality beyond the occasional screams and things like their health levels and arbitrary-seeming "weak points". It might be an intentional comment on the dehumanising nature of torture or youtube culture or whatever, but it feels very out of place with the rest of the game.
There are problems with the minigame itself, and although I didn't really care and put most of them down as either due to time constraints or engine restrictions I'll go into them briefly. The most glaring is that as far as I could tell there was no way of telling anything about a characters strength or weak points or anything until you actually start the torture session: if you want to do it well you have to start over, which generally requires going through another conversation tree. The actual rules for the torture sessions could do with being explained more too. Also since the gameplay basically consists of randomly assigning health- and will-damages and hoping for the best I didn't find it particularly fun or satisfying, but I don't really care about that stuff so much either.
On a more personal note, I also had reservations about the graphic nature of the tortures. For the most part I was too detached from what was happening to really think about them as anything other than minor cosmetic aspects to the gameplay, but I was still vaguely repulsed by things like the screams, the blood, the rapes just because I didn't know what they were there for. Presumably the intention was to drive home the horror of the situation but they felt like awkward and tasteless attempts at titillation, almost, like the gory finishing moves in Mortal Combat. It felt like pandering, frankly; ineffective pandering but still repulsive. Maybe I'm being unfair, though.

The rest of the game alternates between those two options. There's also an ongoing story: it's nicely presented through e-mails, but didn't hold my attention. Firstly I found Verge more interesting when he was mainly a cipher for other people to project themselves onto, and when the game starts to go into the rather sordid details of his past and feelings I lost interest. Maybe it's me, but they rang very false: artificial, overly-melodramatic TV ugliness. They seemed like something picked up more from other media than from any knowledge or ideas about the world. The story aspect was also hurt by the detachment of the torture sections: they should be the emotional lynchpins of what's going on, but it feels more like replaying the same irrelevent minigame over with a change of sprites. There's a twist that failed for me because I didn't have enough emotional identification with the characters: not only because they were torturers but also because I just hadn't spent enough time with them.
At the end of the game you confront Daily, who reveals she was practicing an elaborate kind of new emotional torture on you all along: Verge sneers at this, and the game finishes with you violently, bloodily torturing Daily in the "real" way. I wasn't sure what to make of it: Daily's emotional manipulation felt close enough to real-world behavior that Verge's more direct torture methods seemed extremely cartoonish and ridiculous in comparison. It seemed like rather than try to build something even remotely close to normal human interaction, the game turned around and just focused once more on blood and guts and screaming. It was oddly hollow for me.

So yes, I have problems with a lot of areas in this game: some of them are purely to do with implementation and can be written off as part of the contest limitations, others had to do with the actual viewpoint and ideas being addressed throughout the game. I found the latter more troublesome, and I still hold reservations about some of them; but ultimately as a game which expresses any ideas or distinctive viewpoint at all, let alone a fairly polished and intermittently compelling one developed in only two weeks, I have to give it credit.

I'm not giving it a numerical rating because this didn't touch on things like graphics music gameplay etc and because ratings are pretty arbitrary anyway but I would have given it about a three out of five. you think im dead but i sailed away on a wave of mutilation~~~


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I am Moana of Motunui. You killed my father. Prepare to die!
This monkey's gone to heaven

This is a great review. catmitts, you should write more.
I am Moana of Motunui. You killed my father. Prepare to die!
*double post!*
puking up frothing vitriolic sarcastic spittle
And I was hoping I would be the only one who actually delved into the psychological aspects behind this game.


But Kentona is right, this is a really good review. You should write more. I also think you wrote enough about the gameplay mechanics to assign a score, but that's your choice.
I appreciate this review very much, catmitts.

I think I can respond to many of the issues you raises by saying that I thought of the gameplay mechanics BEFORE I thought of the story. My initial idea brainstorming led me to the concept of making a "victim escapes sadist" game using a system similar to kentona's BQ4D minigame (which I really liked). That was my starting point. But I would never ever make a "cool-let's-torture-people" game, at which point I decided to add more focus to the story and setting. I somewhat understand that you feel the torture minigame is dettached from the rest of the game, but I really wouldn't know how to do it differently. I could have tried making something similar to hostel scenes where the victim is bound to a chair and the torturer is right beside her doing stuff, but... no.

About the cosmetic nature of torture... I didn't really try making it too repulsive, I just wanted it to look like what it was supposed to look like. I wouldn't make an animation of something that "suggested" rape but didn't look like it, because it would be stupid and unfitting with the rest of the game. But I wasn't really aiming for shocking. I don't know if I should have. My take on it was pretty straightforward.

You're also right about the personality of the victims in the dialogs being "exaggerated", if that's what you call it. I wouldn't know how else to make a 2 minute conversation leading a random person to follow Verge home, and I couldn't afford to have this "dating sim" aspect being too long. My take on the dungeoneer characters was the same. I know both Verge's and Daily's actions and reactions may seem too forced and over-the-top, but that's how it should fit such a short game. But it's ok if you liked the victim dialogs more. Maybe it is, like you said, a matter of relating-to.
Max McGee
My name is Legion: for we are many.

this review is a a few tiers intellectually above most reviews on RMN, and is a bit closer to a critique which I dig. I wish that the spoiler warning was a bit larger and less cummings-cased considering the size of the spoiler itself.
Forewarned on the first sentence :/
You the practice of self-promotion
Forewarned on the first sentence :/

Yes, he was. Either I warn them at the beginning of a review and usually in CAPS, or I try to be somewhat vague about the details of the story, which is hard but not impossible. I prefer the second option. The reader can easily get some details most of the time from the gamepage itself.
Max McGee
My name is Legion: for we are many.
I missed it because it was tiny.
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
This is really an amazing read.
what the fuck is wrong with you

You spelled Mortal Kombat with a C.
Self-proclaimed Puzzle Snob
Whenever I forget what a well-written review looks like, I just return here. No headings or fancy formatting required, even though those things are great, but just pure great content that is both informative and interesting to read the whole way through. I wish I had this same level of conciseness in my writing and thoughts.
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