Thursday, October 15, 2009

Movies: I want to play a game, Part 1 – Think like a victim.

There was, for a brief time, a horror blog meme in which people waxed bloggy on the horror films victim that you would save if you could. (Mine's the first victim, the hippy chick, in Jaws, but that's beside the point.) While I never officially participated in this ring o' posts, it did get me thinking about a curious viewing habit of mine: I never really ponder saving a victim in a horror flick. Instead, I find myself wondering if, in their place, I could find a way to escape their fate. For example, I'll imagine that I'm one five kids trapped in the posh country house with Jason lurking outside. What would I do? I think the answer, for the curious, is to split up. Despite the logic of a million horror movies saying otherwise, splitting up is the best strategy. Each person separates and books it in as straight a line as possible in different directions. The different directions thing is key. Splitting up to search an old farmhouse, for example, isn't really splitting up. Splitting up makes distance and time work in your favor. For every victim Jason managed to claim, it becomes increasingly unlikely that he can claim another victim as the distances between potential victims increase and Jason's knowledge of potential victims' locations decreases. Continue running until you reach an Air Force base with access to nuclear weapons.

I first noticed this habit of mine watching Two Thousand Maniacs, Herschell Gordon Lewis's low-fi splat Southern revanchist fantasy. In that flick, one of the victims is nailed into a relatively small wooden barrel. Dozens of long nails are then hammered into the sides of the barrel, making it a sort of economy-class iron maiden. Then the barrel is rolled down a hill. The victim, presumably, bounces around inside, being pulped by repeated impact with the nails. After seeing that flick, I got obsessed with question of whether or not one could survive that death trap. I eventually came to the conclusion that, if you agreed that that painful mutilation was better than death, then you should shove your feet and hands against one side of the barrel and prop your back hard against the other side. This will, unfortunately, cause massive damage to your hands, feet, and back. But, if you could hold that pose for just a minute or two – which, granted, is no small thing – then you could prevent yourself from being bounced around, which is where the real damage of the whole barrel roll thing tips irrevocably into fatality. Sadly, the whole thing's academic as the first thing the ghost rednecks do when the barrel stops is look inside to see their handiwork; but still, you'd have given yourself a few more painful moments of suffering existence and the chance to try to think your way through another deathtrap. For what that's worth.

As it is Halloween, it's time to roll out yet another installment of the critically reviled, yet perennially popular long-running Saw franchise. This got me thinking: If the structure of each kill in the Saw flicks is, essentially, a game in the truest game theory sense of the term. Therefore applying a little bit of game theory logic to the traps of Saw should allow us to generate a few survival strategies for Jigsaw victims. What does game theory tell us about Jigsaw's traps.

Reader beware: I'm no expert on the subject of game theory, so this series is something more along the lines of a thought experiment informed by limited exposure to game theory. We're just thinking aloud here. Still, I think the results are interesting.

First, let's define some terms. We'll keep it simple. Games are discrete events that have a set number of players, a defined number of strategies (in Jigsaw traps, these are always "play along" or "don't play along"), and a set number of outcomes. NB: Not all game theories games meet this criteria, so you can already see were abusing the concept. This is why I've never been awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics.

All this sounds obvious, but it is important. Within the Saw franchise there characters who start off in a trap alone only to realize that they are, in fact, part of a bigger game. For our purposes, we'll say that every time you change any of the three criteria of a game, you're in a new game. If you are wandering through a trap maze and you suddenly find yourself with a group of people all in the same fix, consider yourself in a new game.

The idea that each trap is a discrete event is sometimes very easy to figure out: Often a Jigsaw trap involves a single person making a single yes/no choice. But more complex games confuse the issue. In Saw II and Saw V both featured characters working their way through a trapped filled environments. Is each trap a separate game or is the game over when the players are either all dead or have exited the environment? This is wrapped up, curiously enough, in a later issue: the number of players. We'll discuss it in more detail later, but for now let's agree that in games with one or two player games, each trap is a new game. In games featuring three or more players, the entire time spent in the trapped environment is a single game.

Every game needs players. Players are defined in our little thinkie thought post here as any person within a Jigsaw trap that can affect the results of the game by making a choice of whether or not to play the game according to Jigsaw's rules. Again, this sound obvious, but it is an important distinction. Throughout the franchise, we meet characters trapped in Jigsaw games that are not actually players. In the first film, Amanda (not yet a Jigsaw cultist) must decide whether or not to kill a man for the key trapped inside him. If she does not kill the man, a bear-trap like device on her head will spring into action and rip her head apart. There are two people in this trap, but Amanda is the only player as only she can affect the outcome of the game with her choice.

Number of outcomes is tricky, mostly because some strategies lead to certain outcomes, but others only might lead to specific outcomes. Namely, your dead meat if you don't play along, but playing along does not ensure that you're going to survive. Case in point, the man in the web of razor wire web in the first film (seen in subsequent flashbacks): Though he tries to play Jigsaw's game, his body gives out. Furthermore, living through the trap might not be a given victim's best-case scenario. In actual game theory, this would not be incidental. In some Jigsaw traps, part of the game's logic involves the victim pondering whether or not living mutilated or implicated in a crime or whatever is worth playing the game. For the purposes of making the conceptualizing Jigsaw's traps as games as easy as possible, we'll consider just two outcomes: Players either live or die, and living is always better than dying.

For all the gonzo Rube Goldbergian inventiveness of Jigsaw's traps (and we'll consider traps designed by any member of his cult to be a Jigsaw trap), there are only three variables that actually make any difference to a victim's survival.

1. Trap rigor: Is the trap well made? In his early period, Jigsaw made a few traps that a person might survive simply on the basis of blunder. Such a fuck-up appears in the fourth film. This is an unlikely out, but it is there.
2. Game validity: Is there really an out? Like ideological and religious leaders everywhere, the second Jigsaw starts to fade, his followers start to screw-up his teachings. Specifically, Amanda and Hoffman both construct traps that don't actually have escape routes. If this is the case, you're screwed no matter what.
3. Number of players: How many people can affect the outcome of the game? Remember that we're counting only those people who can alter the course of a game by choosing to play along or not as players.

That's it. At rock-bottom, whether you've got a bear trap on your head or you're on the bottom of a Jacuzzi full of puréed rotting pig corpses, those are the only three variables that matter. (There's a single exception to this – we'll get to that later.) You'll note that, from the perspective of a victim within a Jigsaw trap, you can only be conscious of the last one. If factors 1 and 2 are in play, there's no way you could know it and, therefore, no way you could reasonably factor it into any strategic response. Maybe you'll get lucky and the trap has an unforeseen out that you'll stumble across (this happens twice in the series: in Saw 4 and Saw 5) or maybe you're screwed no matter what you do (this happens at least twice in the series: S3 and S5 - curiously, the death trap in S5 also happens to be the trap that lacks vigor, so it was built to strictly kill, but had an unforeseen out): Either way, you cannot be sure and your better off acting as if you are in a rigorous trap that's a valid game.

This means that you focus on the remaining factor: How many players?

From a perspective of survival strategies, all of Jigsaw's traps can be organized into two categories, each of which demands a separate approach.

1. One and two player games.
2. Three or more player games.

In the next post, we'll discuss how you'd survive one and two player games.


wiec? said...

i actually saw most of my first Saw movie the other day. this is an interesting idea and I'm curious to see where you're gonna take it.

and while i never participated in the meme either i'd have saved the wizard kid in the wheelchair from Dream Warriors.

CRwM said...


The wiz kid is an excellent choice. As a D&D dork, he was the one I was pulling for. I mean, seriously, the screamer boy lives but the wizard kid doesn't? Nerd discrimination is what that is.

Shon Richards said...

As a gamer, I can't wait for the rest of this series.

Saw the RPG would be awesome/awful. Everyone makes a new character and the GameMaster would tell them what horrible situation they wake up to. Fun begins!

In the recent Harper's Island series, I was heartbroken when Pip the English Guy died.

CRwM said...


You're talking my language. Sadly, I could never make the Saw-ish elements work in an RPG context.

How is Harpers Island? I haven't been following, but is it worth it?