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Thanks to an article by regular MSNBC game columnist Winda Benedetti about it today, Torture Game 2 has been popping up on blogs and in my inbox. In the game (which is really more of a toy, if that's a fair word for it), the player can inflict a variety of bloody punishments on a rag doll physics-driven character dangling from a rope. Torture methods include spikes, gunfire, razor, ropes, and chainsaw, among others.
In the article, Benedetti waxes discrepant, first admitting her disappointment upon learning that the game's 19 year-old creator had seemingly little in mind when he created it, but then wondering if simulated torture might reduce urges to real torture. Meanwhile, GamePolitics focused on the mind-numbingly old-hat observation that the game might fuel new calls for game legislation.
I'm more interested in asking why the game fails to explore the logic of torture in a meaningful way. And it does fail, utterly.
Torture is not the same as random violence. Torture is physical or mental suffering conducted for punishment or compliance. The process of being tortured is traumatic precisely because death or madness is not immediately desired, but the fear and sensation of those conditions arises almost immediately. This game doesn't attempt to address the experience of the tortured, so we'll leave that interesting question aside for the moment.
The fascinating thing about torture from the torturer's perspective is the attitude and resolve required to carry out the act itself. The gruesomeness of The Torture Game pales in comparison to the history and present of real torture. Consider some examples.
The choke pear is a wood or iron device used to lock a victim's mouth open. The heretic's fork is a bi-pronged sharpened fork placed between the chin and sternum used to prevent a victim from moving his head. The thumbscrew is a vice used to slowly crush thumbs and fingers, sometimes with pressure alone and sometimes with sharpened spikes. The Judas chair is a sharpened wooden point used to stretch the orifices of a victim suspended above it. There are so many more. Waterboarding is the most recently reviled, a method meant to induce the feeling of drowning.
There are lots of places to see such torture devices in action. You can search YouTube for examples of waterboarding. Heck, you can see the very worst medieval torture devices for $2 dungeon admission at the Medieval Times dinner theater, an experience far more powerful than Torture Game 2.
But what is it like actually to enact torture? That's a topic a videogame offers a unique position to understand. What is the sensation of clamping down the head crusher one more turn as your victim screams in agony as his teeth first crack, then his eyes squeeze from their sockets, and finally, if desired, his very neck shatters. What is it like to pour buckets of water over a thrashing but silenced victim whose brain is tricked into the panic of suffocation. What is it like to hear but not heed the desperate cries for mercy in pursuit of information or confession. Or, on the other side of things, what is it like on the way to market to pass a man every day slowly dying of the gangrene infection wrought by the chair of torture, set there as an example.
But the doll in Torture Game 2 does not cry, or wince, or respond in any way save for the physics of its inverse kinematics and the careful spatter of its blood. We are not forced to feel the tender burst of flesh as razor enters thigh, or the buttery passage of chainsaw through forearm. No social context motivates us or makes us pause with confusion, misgiving, or regret. Torture Game 2 is a voodoo doll, not a torture simulator. It allows us to imagine we are inflicting suffering without taking on the agency or consequence of the act itself.
The irony is, there are videogames that come closer to an earnest simulation of torture. The best is Manhunt. While it is not a game about torture as such, it is nevertheless a far closer and more successful example. which tells the story of a sociopath denied his own death (itself a kind of torture) in exchange for slavery as a mercenary butcher. The acts themselves are heinous, yet the game succeeds in making the player feel motivated to conduct them. One feels the dissonant reverberations of that pleasure long after playing.
Manhunt 2 was released last year, to a firestorm of controversy thanks to the Wii version's addition of gestural interfaces to the game's demented acts: now you could "actually" saw off a limb, garrote a neck, or grip and tear at a victim's testicles. The context this time is pure psychosis, but the effects now become physical as well as visual. The player feels the same disgust and intrigue as in the original game, but now he must also reconcile a physiological response: the burn of muscle from virtual sawing; the racing heartbeat of exertion.
Much of the controversy surrounding Manhunt 2 was directed precisely at the gestural controls of the Wii edition. Actually embodying these sadistic acts, many argued, edged too close to a murder simulator. But these critics get it precisely backwards. A murder simulator is supposed to revile us, the more the better. If anything, trivializing death and torture through abstraction is far more troublesome than attenuating it through ghastly representation. Torture Game 2 fails not because it makes us feel pleasure, but because it makes us feel nothing, or not enough anyway, about the acts it allows us to perform. We need to revise Benedetti's sentiment: we should simulate torture not to take the place of real acts, but to renew our disgust for them.