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This Game Is Torture

Susan Arendt | 10 Jul 2008 21:00
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Hands up, everyone who is surprised that a game called The Torture Game 2 finds itself at the center of yet another "games make kids numb to violence" debate. The name alone was guaranteed to raise the hackles of the Videogames Will Bring About the Apocalypse lobby. The chainsaw, spikes and blood didn't help matters much, either. The game has been called "sick," "disgusting" and "unspeakable" by its critics. Its creator, 19-year-old Carl Havemann, describes it as "something simple and pointless meant only for entertainment." Which camp is right - or if both are - depends entirely on you.

Despite the name, The Torture Game 2 really isn't much of a game at all, just a particularly grisly physics sim. You're not given any instruction or objectives, but the basic concept is fairly obvious. You're presented with a variety of tools and weapons with which you may inflict your choice of harm on a male body that's strung up by his wrists. He's not particularly realistic looking, more like an animated artist's maquette than a person, and he doesn't complain as you slice him open or fill him with lead, merely sways to and fro, spraying blood on a plain black background. There is no way any reasonable person could confuse The Torture Game 2 with real life, and yet I felt undeniably ill at ease as I played it.

At first, I couldn't figure out why I was so disturbed. I've killed thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of virtual creatures, both man and beast, over the course of my game-playing career. I've delivered bricks to the head, crushed evil with my butt, shoved bad guys through windows and fired enough ammunition to punch a hole in the moon. I'm long since past the point that on-screen death and dismemberment faze me, so I found my reaction to The Torture Game somewhat puzzling. It wasn't as though my victim was pleading for mercy, or even so much as uttering a discrete cough to suggest I was being a bit impolite by shoving a metal bar through his ribcage. He just hung there, utterly blasé and indifferent to my wicked ministrations, blandly dangling and swaying. So what was the problem?

My discomfort, I finally realized, stemmed from the fact that there wasn't anything to The Torture Game. No motivation, no plot, no character, no story, nothing. Other games offer up explanations or justification for your actions: You're saving the universe, waging war against the forces of evil, or simply scoring points. The Torture Game has no such structure, just tools and the body to use them on. Anything the player experiences, be it revulsion, excitement, or even boredom, relies almost entirely on what he brings to the experience himself.

I had, without realizing it, given the game a subtext that simply wasn't there. I could have given the figure any number of personalities or backstories that would have better justified rendering him to a bloody pulp - he could've been a psycho killer, or a zombie, or a robot dictator from Planet 10 - but instead I immediately cast him in the role of innocent victim and myself as the cruel abuser. I'm not a particularly mean person by nature - I can't even eat a crunchy chick in Fable without feeling a pang of guilt - so my unconscious decision to respond to helplessness with violence naturally made my skin crawl. As for why that decision was made in the first place, I really can't say.

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