I finally got around to playing some of Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer today. “Finally” because it’s one of those games I’ve felt like I ought to have played, since it’s an RPG-like thing about sadists and torture. Unconventional subject matter, and a relatively serious approach to it to boot.
So I jumped into the world of sadism and learned about the basic tenets of how you should torture someone “just enough” so that they feel really, really awful (in both body and mind!) but then escape. I think. I’m not entirely 100% on the sadist’s code just yet.
A lot of the game is rather well done, particularly the selection of your victim. You go to a busy street and then talk creepily to people about their lives, trying to befriend them enough that they’ll come back to your place so you can drug and then torture them on film. That process of trying to gain important information about a person (the better to torture them with – fear of water? Water torture!) and trying to be their friend… that’s a kind of disturbing experience. Ordinarily conversation systems in games are about getting information for the good of the galaxy, or for reading amusing comments and jokes. Here it’s very unpleasant, it makes you feel like a creep.
But then, once you actually get them home to the torture place, the game loses its edge rather a lot for me. Your dungeon is like a little maze and the idea is that you set various torture “traps” that affect the person as they try to escape. You can strip their clothes off (psychologically damaging), cut them with razors (bad for their health), tie them up, and so on. There are also action-based things where, for instance, you trap them in a water tank and then frantically press “1” and “2” in alternation in order to drown them more and more. A sadist’s Track and Field, in other words. But you have to make sure you don’t drown them too much or too little or they’ll die or escape and have you arrested. So it’s largely about laying out your torture arsenal in ways that lead to the “best” torture session.
At which point I found myself struggling to properly distinguish between Dungeoneer and my current love, Game Dev Story. Basically, you find yourself in a game of maximising particular properties, whether it’s someone’s anguish and torment or your virtual game in development’s “Fun” and “Creativity” ratings. You start to do things to influence the numbers and can all too easily lose sight of what it is you’re theoretically “really doing”. Torture and game development turn out to be rather similar, and both mystifyingly difficult.
This reminds me of one of the great ludological arguments back in the day that the aesthetic layers of games were in some sense irrelevant – the game was underneath that and it didn’t matter what it looked like. A game is a set of rules and changing values and so on, not a picture of Lara Croft running down a hallway. In general I, like most I assume, find that argument laughable – but it doesn’t seem quite as laughable in the context of Dungeoneer. There’s a very real sense (and it’s increased by the game having been made in a “game making” tool called RPG Maker) in which you could “reskin” Dungeoneer in all sorts of ways while completely retaining the entire underlying mechanics. A lion taming game, say, or a game about the revolution in Egypt.
But of course these moments where a game’s mechanics become so unmoored from their aesthetics that we forget what the hell we’re actually doing are a bit problematic. Games in which we tend to be “just” manipulating numbers are perhaps more problematic than most – although FPS games are largely the same thing with different pictures and stories, it’s still true that “shooting” is an evocative mechanic with many affective applications. Tweaking numbers has less of that, so when we’re trying to make an evocative game about torture (which I think Dungeoneer makes some very impressive moves toward), it may be that number crunching is simply too emotionless a platform from which to work.
Still, I’ll head back down to the dungeon and work on my technique, still haven’t managed to break anyone’s body and spirit in quite the right “beautiful” way yet…