Considering the Politics of Sociopathy in Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer

Reposted from PopMatters Moving Pixels.

Note: This game deals with abduction, torture, mutilation and rape. Read with caution.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Saw franchise– that is, I love reading about it, but cannot for the life of me watch it. This is a bit of a persistent problem for me. I’m a creepypasta addict as well, but when it comes to actual horror movies (or games) I find I don’t have particularly good tolerance for them.

So it is anyone’s guess why I downloaded Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, a recently released independent title made by Nicolau Chaud using RPG Maker 2003. The premise casts you roughly in the role of a would-be JigSaw, luring hapless victims back to your house so that you may stuff them in your basement dungeon. All sexual overtones you might expect ensue. The specific goal of the game is to design your dungeon with a series of traps just torturous enough that your prisoner will escape within an inch of their life, so brutally maimed and traumatized that they’ll inevitably kill themselves– a “beautiful escape,” comparable to a kind of sadomasochistic orgasm. Allowing them to survive with adequate health to call the cops results in a Game Over. Killing them in the course of the torture, on the other hand, is permissible, but it docks points from your score.

Which, presumably, is where this game intends to become some sort of biting satire, as your torture sessions are recorded and uploaded to an in-game website. Fellow basement torture enthusiasts (dungeoneers) review and rate your performance. I believe the intent is to make some remark about the callously cutthroat nature of amateur enthusiast communities, not the least being the independent game community itself, but it’s a little too on the nose to be called clever. In fact, the same could be said about the game as a whole: just sophomorically intelligent enough to be visible above the fray, but not enough to elevate itself above high school pretension. Like many other games I could list, its controversial subject matter is its main advertisement; without it, it becomes yet another ho-hum villain RPG with dating sim elements.

That being said, if there is one truly unsettling part to Beautiful Escape, it isn’t the dungeon torture sequences, but those aforementioned dating sim parts. Your protagonist, Verge, himself admits to holding some unconventional tastes; of the blur of pedestrians you encounter, only a few are actionable into conversation, being ones he’s stalked for some time and has a whole dossier prepared in advance. Studying the potential victim’s biography is crucial, as is paying careful attention to your responses in the conversation prompts. This is where you really start to feel Verge’s sociopathy and yourself as a participant in it. You know exactly why you’re buttering these people up. After all, you just came from the store where you asked your supply guy for another chainsaw and a blowtorch.

The unnerving part isn’t so much that this process goes on in this game, but rather that it is the process of games. Anyone who has ever played out an interactive conversation has done this to one extent or another– either the player attempts to roleplay as the character, or he selects his choices based on the maximum (perceived or actual) benefit. It just so happens that in Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, either method objectifies the character into a target, one you know you’re out to hurt.

There are many more games which practice it, however. For instance, if one thing truly frustrated me about Heavy Rain, it was the stubbornness with which my player’s instincts resisted making empathetic decisions. This drew into sharp focus during the Shark trial with Ethan, in which I was faced with the decision to have Ethan shoot a drug dealer in his daughters’ bedroom or spare his life. In that moment, my thought process was not what my character would do or I would do in his place, but what was necessary for the gameplay to advance.

This correlates with what I wrote about last week, in which I described the dilemma of game mastery often being in opposition to story immersion (“The Neo Conundrum and the Cost of a Perfect Game Ending”, PopMatters, November 16, 2010). Here in Beautiful Escape, however, you are directly confronted with your ludic choices as being akin to your character’s sociopathy. You baldfacedly need to separate empathy from your gameplay choices in order to make the right ones, just as Verge has already done to advance in his craft. But while for the most part the torture sections may as well be vanilla (I’ve done more gruesome things in a God of War game, and that wasn’t with 16-bit sprites), the thought and interactive processes leading up to them are the most truly jarring parts. Why? Because they’re much more familiar.

Final note: This game includes vicious acts of violence, sexual assault and copyright infringement. Please exercise discretion before deciding to click the site link above.

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