Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Stuff: I know all there is to know about The Torture Game.

Actually, I was completely ignorant of the topic until very recently.

Yesterday I received an email from fellow LOTT-D member Absinthe of Gloomy Sunday fame. It contained a link to a thoughtful piece by the whimsically named Winda Benedetti, the "Citizen Gamer" columnist for MSNBC. In the column, Ms. Benedetti takes a look at The Torture Game and its more popular and grisly sequel, The Torture Game 2.

The article links to game, should you wish to try your hand at abusing the nameless victim pictured above. I do believe, though I have not tried it myself, that you can customize the face; this is a boon to those finicky gamers who derive no pleasure from torturing strictly anonymous and generic victims. Ms. Benedetti describes this fairly simple game thusly:

Here, a pale, androgynous human hangs from ropes on the computer screen before you. Among the devices at your disposal — a chainsaw, a razor blade, spikes, a pistol … and a paintbrush (take that!)

There’s little in the way of instructions and no points to be earned. Instead, this dangling ragdoll offers you a canvas to do with what you will — stab him with spikes, flay the skin from his body with a razor, pull his limbs off with your bare hands, paint him every color of the rainbow. No matter what you do to him, he never screams and his expression never changes. He only utters a vague “uuungh” when you’ve inflicted enough damage to kill him.

And that’s pretty much it.

I would only add to this that the victim is not exactly androgynous. He is clearly a he. Even Benedetti uses the masculine pronoun for the victim throughout the article. The awkward use of the term androgynous reflects the fact that, like a Ken doll, he possesses a smooth patch of blank flesh where his sexual organs should be. This underscores an odd detail regarding media torture that I completely overlooked in my series of post on so-called torture porn films: torture porn, in films and games, are remarkably sexless.

Sadly, sexual abuse and rape are a fact of torture. The photos out of Abu Ghraib, themselves a sort of "game" in that they seem to have been staged by the soldiers for the purposes of entertainment and were not a record of standard interrogation procedure, are a brutal reminder of this. Soldiers at the prison made their charges simulate and perform sexual acts on one another. They photographed them in various stages of nudity. In what is perhaps one of the most infamous photographs, PVT Lynndie Rana England, cigarette dangling from her lips, uses both hands to point at the penis of a naked prisoner who is being forced to masturbate for the camera.

By contrast, few examples of torture porn, either in film or in video games, incorporate this. This may sound odd considering Hostel's affection for the nubile flesh of Eastern European co-ed's, but one of the most obvious consequences of the extreme imbalance of power that exists in a torture situation – rape and sexual abuse – rarely figures in. None of the Saw films feature sexual violation or humiliation as a component of Jigsaw's traps. In fact, when sex does appear in the Saw films, Jigsaw's violence is usually presented as a scourge meant to punish the perverse or purify the sexually corrupt (among his victims we find a prostitute, an adulterer, and a producer of violent kiddie porn). In the Hostel franchise, the second film features the threat of a rape that is not, ultimately, carried out and ends in the castration of the would-be rapist, as if he was being punished for taking the act of torture into a still somehow taboo realm of sexual violation. Captivity, perhaps the most nakedly sexualized of the torture porn flicks, is still weirdly virginal. The victims are pretty women, but their trials are strictly non-sexual and, curiously, meant to de-sexualize them: good-looking women get their faces melted off, for example.

Why are our fantasies of torture so sexless? I'm not sure I have a good answer.

The limitations are not technical. Graphic sexuality, though never as popular with gamers as graphic violence, would be nothing new to the world of film or video games. In fact, there's a steady, if mostly non-mainstream, history of sexual violence in video games stretching back to the 2600s bizarre Custer's Revenge - in which you dodged arrows in order to rape a Native American woman (at least, we're told that's what was happening – it was the 2600 and every looked pretty vague) – and running all the way up to the modern GTA franchise – in which players are rewarded for killing prostitutes. If sex organs are missing from The Torture Game 2 it is only because the game's programmer didn't want them to appear.

Perhaps the barrier is strictly social. Sexual violence remains beyond the pale in a way non-sexualized violence does not. As a culture, we have shown a remarkable capacity for rationalizing and defending real and imagined violence: it must exist in the real world for security, as a bulwark to social order, to maintain the law, as reflection of our immutable animal nature; it must exist in the fictional world for catharsis, to reflect the facts of the real world, to give vent to primal urges suppressed for the sake of society. But add a sexual element to that violence and we sense that the field shifts. We're dealing with a different sort of taboo. We either play dumb or reject it. In the former case, we call it camp, stress its unimportance, or otherwise reject the notion that it carries with it the weight of representation. Could anybody enjoy Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS if they could not dismiss the idea that the film was a sincere and genuine sexualized exploitation of the Holocaust? Has any positive reviewer of that film ever just come out and said, "What really gives Ilsa its kick is that, in the back of the viewers' minds, we cannot dismiss the knowledge that we're desecrating the mass graves of 6 million Jews"? Ironically, our enjoyment of "exploitation" cinema might rest on the mental judo trick that we simply disbelieve that it is really exploitation in any fundamental way. In the latter case, we morally rebel. It is hard to imagine, for example, anybody arguing that, unfortunate as the sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib was, it was essential for national security. (In fact, right-wing defenders of the administration attempted both lines of reasoning: claiming that the abuse was the product of a few morally reprehensible bad apples and dismissing it as part of a meaningless "frat-like prank.") However, that same excuse is regularly offered for all manner of excessive violence – from civilian casualties to support of violence regimes to brutal interrogation techniques – provide it doesn't carry the added taint of sex.

Then again, it may have to do with the real appeal of torture porn being something almost pre-sexual. Benedetti writes:

Unlike most video games that come with a healthy dose of hack-and-slash, “The Torture Game 2” offers no story to give context to your actions. Your victim … he’s simply hanging there, waiting for you. Meanwhile, the game’s ragdoll physics lend a sickeningly hypnotic charm to the whole affair. With every touch of your cruel hand, every cut of the chainsaw, your victim sways, bounces and dances like some fleshy marionette.

This description reminded me of Freud's story of the fort/da game. There's something strangely comforting, regressive, and almost innocent about the fantasy of complete power. The Torture Game 2 speaks to this fantasy by what it leaves out. The victim can't talk. If he could plead and beg, it would be clear that his entire existence isn't simply predicated on your will. The victim is also sexless. This allows players to avoid that most taboo and anxiety-ridden area - an area that brings with it the danger of an implicit recognition of the fundamental and irreducible otherness of people.

These are, of course, just random thoughts. I'd be curious to hear y'all's take on this.


OCKerouac said...

IMO, you hit the nail on the head by seeing that the marriage of violence and sexuality is a line we're still loathe to cross. Certainly, throughout the horror genre the two have existed together on more than the rare occasion, but in such a way that violence is the 'punishment' for inappropriate sex, rather than violent-sex being used as a punishment in and of itself. It just goes to show that fictional horror, for all it's grisly, over the top, unimaginable death sequences in many ways still pales in comparison to the real horrors that the human race subjects itself to...

Another factor may also be simply getting the material released to a viewing audience... You can make a film where a female breast is both fondled, and hacked into in the same film, so long as it's not the same character doing both... I'm guessing that would make it a lot harder to get distribution...

Great, insightful post as usual...

spacejack said...

I had a look at the game. It's not all that remarkable really. There are other, more creepily realistic rag doll sims out there on the web. This one feels like a bunch of blocks strung together. I think you'd have to "squint" to imagine it's a human, even if you can upload a face.

Anyone developing games or especially physics-based games or sims is probably going to create something like a "Torture Game" inadvertently in the process of development. This feels like it used the "path of least resistance" method of game design.

The two or three other flash-based sims I've seen could be used with in a way that seems like torture, but the sims themselves weren't explicitly graphically treated like this one to say yes, this is a torture toy. And it is more like a toy than a game.

(Speaking of sims, I think the potential for "torture" was explored pretty thoroughly by a lot of players of The Sims, and that was mostly just an unintended consequence of having such open-ended game rules.)

Nevertheless, one thing I've always known, ever since seeing the first real-time 3D models on my home computer, is that eventually the tech will become accessible to people who want to create the most depraved stuff you can imagine. And it will eventually circulate around the web.

On the other hand, maybe computer simulations will always appear crude to the contemporary eye. Even if in the future realtime 3D rendering in Flash is equivalent to present-day cinema quality CGI, it will still seem completely fake to its future audience.

CRwM said...


Good points about the classical "punishment" paradigm of sex and violence in horror. I think of that mostly as a slasher/80s thing, but I wonder how far back you can trace it.

You point about mainstream distribution is an important one too. There's probably plenty of sexually brutal stuff we could point too, but little of it probably makes it to the mainstream viewer. Though, in this case, the Torture Game 2 is distributed free through sites with no real content editorial policies. Fear of censorship wasn't a factor here. He could have done it if he wanted.

CRwM said...

Screamin' spacey,

I suspect you are correct regarding the "path of least resistance" theory. The Citizen Gamer column states that the programmer is a fairly young, self-taught dude who cooked up the thing all by himself. Although, as I mentioned, he's hardly the first guy to come up with it. I couldn't draw up full history (I'm not much of a gamer), but I can think of a handful of games that explicitly incorporate torture into gameplay. Most in pretty cartoonish ways, but still.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about your post and trying to think of movies that do feature rape/sexual abuse in them. I came up with two - The Stendhal Syndrome and I Spit on your Grave. But like CRWM said - these are not mainstream movies. It's an interesting point also because I only watched each of these once and then promptly gave the dvds away. Yet I'll continue to watch other movies just as brutal multiple times. Somehow when you add the rape scenes it makes most hardcore horror fans uncomfortable.