Torture sequences in games are old news — many major franchises have included it in some capacity, from the classics like Metal Gear Solid to some more recent big titles like Grand Theft Auto and Splinter Cell. The context is usually the same — torture is explored as a military practice (or a critique of military stuff), performed on people who may or may not 'deserve' it.
And sure, under that context, torture can be explored meaningfully — players may walk away shocked or disgusted, hopefully pensive...but still, the way most games depict torture is not the only way in which it can exist. Torture can be consensual, which makes Consensual Torture Simulator aptly named.
Released yesterday by game developer Merritt Kopas, Consensual Torture Simulator is a Twine game where players have to make their girlfriend cry. There are many means to do this — maybe you use your hands (you can punch and slap for example), or maybe you use a tool/toy, like a cane. It's up to you how you want to go about it but your goal is the same. Basically, you read passages and descriptions of how you and your partner are feeling and you react accordingly. You then choose whatever option seems the most appealing/interesting to you — maybe you want to focus on spanking, or maybe you switch your methods up. Maybe you give your partner lots of breaks. It's a choose-your-own-adventure type deal.
The important thing to note here is that everything you do in the game is negotiated — not just beforehand via, say, agreeing to a certain 'safeword', (as in, a code word that tells your partner that you are about to hit some sort of boundary) but also as you go along, as you gauge how your partner is doing. Being in such a situation, then, requires a lot of trust. To quote one of the game's passages:
There's a special kind of vulnerability involved in asking someone to hurt you until you can't take it anymore, until whatever defenses you're still holding up and might not even know about crumble and you break down in hot, streaming tears. There's a lot of risk involved — and not just for the party on the receiving end.
Kinky, sure, but perhaps unlike what you may see depicted in, say, many porn films. For one, no penetration of any sort occurs in the game. And two, there is an actual humanity to the game that is missing from mainstream porn (and dare I say it, many of those triple-A games that feature torture). As far as the game is concerned, you care about this person. They're not just someone you're screwing/hurting. You'll hug and giggle with them before anything starts. You'll comfort them after the beatings end. You may even soothe your girl mid-game. And the dialogue isn't some weak set-up (Did you order a pizza?). Heck, it's not even all about testing the limits of the other person — the game asks you to consider what you yourself are comfortable with.
"It was really important to me to portray the player character as a human being, not just a pain-dispensing robot," Kopas told me in an interview today. "Hitting someone is hard work, it puts strain on your body. I think a lot of games are really interested in depicting this kind of stylised violence that doesn't really get into the reality of bodies, bodies tire and sweat and need to rest," she continued.
Of course, for anyone that has experienced Kopas' work before, this human element is not surprising: a previous Twine game created by Kopas is a sometimes heartbreaking one about real, sometimes troubling conversations Kopas has had with her mother. It is clear that Kopas' work can feel human if not personal in nature.
But beyond that, it seems that Consensual Torture Simulator is a part of a larger critique of violence in games. No, none of that tired "violence is bad/good" nonsense.
"The idea came out of hearing about the torture scene in Grand Theft Auto," Kopas said. "It seems like AAA video games are invested in providing more and more detailed representations of really horrific violence...so I was thinking, what would a simulator of a scene about consensual violence look like?"
"I won't pretend that the game is perfect in that respect, like, I'm putting some trust in the player not to just keep going as far as they can, because it's not a perfect simulation of course," she continued. "But yeah, beyond the motivation to show more forms of intimacy and negotiated, consensual violence in games, the piece is also motivated by my views on how violence is portrayed in games."
It's a subject she's talked about at length before.
"There are a lot of video games about violence but not nearly enough about consensual forms of violence and non-normative forms of intimacy," Kopas once wrote on Twitter. Here's another quote from a blog post penned by Kopas:
The most dangerous thing about games is not that they provide us ultrarealistic depictions of violence, but that they lie to us about what violence is.
By this, I meant that games encourage us to think about violence as only ever interpersonal and physical — the violence of a gun fired in an FPS or a sword swung in a fantasy RPG. What they conceal are structural violences. And what happens in most discussions of violence in and around games is that this reduction of violence to an immediate physical transaction is reproduced. We fail to see structure — we're instead captivated by the flamboyance of violent physical acts.
She goes on to describe how this framework doesn't educate people on how violence can be a structural thing — think of how racism is bigger than individual racist acts, for example — and, moreover, the morality at play with most explorations of violence can only be a negative or self-defeating act. How many games have you played where the villain turns around and tells you you're no different than they are because you're violent, for example? Or where the side of the oppressed loses moral high ground because they also resort to violence? The reality is always more complicated than either of those situations.
For all the violence — for all the 'intensity,' all the 'visceral' ways we find to maim and shoot each other, it's clear that many games have a very narrow understanding of what violence is or how it can exist.
You can purchase Consensual Torture Simulator on Gumroad for $US2, or read Merritt Kopas' excellent games blog here.