Truth. I softened you up with the sublime Marvel Brothel (now sadly taken down due to legal gubbins) to prepare for Nicolau "Calunio" Chaud's more controversial work. I see you head scratching right now, and it's not because of that nasty dandruff either. More controversial than a lawyer-baiting brothel game based around trademarked superheroes?
Rpgmaker.net ran a contest back in spring, called Game Gale, which called for games to be developed in 2 weeks with the theme of "escape". Chaud entered a game called Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer. It didn't come first, second or even third - possibly because reactions to Beautiful Escape range from astonishment to revulsion: "I'm sorry, but anyone who can play this game and not feel deeply disturbed ... has problems."
It's a game about torture. And love! Titles please.
Take one last look out the rear window. You are now leaving Marvel Brothel country.
THIS IS YOUR WORLD
"The Dungeoneers" is a clandestine society of sociopaths who believe "pain to be the most intimate form of relationship one person can have with another". They carry their mental disease with pride. They inflict it on their victims with impunity. A dungeoneer's finest hour is when he or she tortures a victim to a sweet spot on the verge of madness and death called a "beautiful escape". They also upload videos of these torture sessions for others to review, in an intentional nod to the experience of releasing games online for peers to high-five or tear down.
You are Verge, a dungeoneer of poor reputation with honed self-loathing skills. This is a game without heroes. Verge is not a likeable character.
What triggers my interest is seeing a game tell a story about a hideous character with no concern for a wider social context. This is Verge's twisted tale, not a parable about why people have the capacity to dehumanise.
The characterisation on sale here is special and every individual - victim and dungeoneer - has flesh. Normally I'd be dismissive of a wall of exposition but Verge's analysis of each character, including himself, is the kind of touch that makes this game.
I can't speak highly enough of the freakout whackjob plot and the actual writing, which is committed and unflinching, dunking you whole into Verge's horrifying world and its inhuman values. Like Marvel Brothel, there are a few writing and grammatical glitches but they are far fewer and do not injure the experience.
The reason the game offends is not the nature of the story. It's because the player is co-opted into torturing innocent people.
COME HOME WITH ME
The game element of Beautiful Escape has two parts. The first part is the hunt, a dating sim, where you have to talk your victim into trusting you. Choose your answers carefully... but don't worry too much. There's only one way to reach a premature GAME OVER and it's not during the hunt.
Once you've convinced someone to come home with you, the scene shifts to your dungeon. The victim is chained to a wall while you devise a personalised torture session. The atmosphere here, before the torture begins (and particularly during your first session when you don't know what to expect) is disquieting. It's still JRPGseque graphics but the sound effects are well-chosen and unnervingly crisp.
The torture design is the real meat of the game, a puzzle with rather fuzzy mechanics that requires much trial-and-error to get right. To deliver a beautiful escape, where the victim is allowed to escape but close to both death and madness, requires a lot of experimentation. I'm not going to show a screenshot of the dungeon or explain how it works because I think this is best approached fresh, so you can feel its ghastly hooks get inside your head through simply trying to understand it. It's clever and intricate, like a Japanese puzzle box that looks straightforward on the outside but unleashes Cenobites with every twitch of the mechanism.
My first victim escaped twice, sending me to GAME OVER each time before I killed her by accident. My second victim I plunged into madness. But the "reviews" on the dungeoneer website still called Verge's work mediocre, baying for more suffering, more screams. I never achieved a beautiful escape but I did manage to get three stars out of five for my last victim.
Some will embrace Beautiful Escape as a game-playing experience and shoot for that five-star perfect torture accolade. Others will be so repulsed that they delete the game, format the hard drive with a government-standard wipe, nuke the site from orbit to be sure and then get the internet turned off using the CIA master key to prevent future downloads.
I found it an unsettling experience. Being an accomplice to the torture perpetuated by my avatar seemed like it was saying something about me. Each time I steeled myself, hoping I only had to go through the session once. Unlike the similarly NSFW Edmund, which doesn't offer much genuine interactivity, Beautiful Escape provides you with an entire spectrum of horrifying tools to play with and forces you to think about how to apply them. Insidious is the word I'm looking for, and I've just found it.
When I first saw the Abu Ghraib title screen, I thought it was misleading because the game told me nothing about the corruptibility of ordinary people with power over others. But perhaps I was wrong. Maybe it's talking about me, sitting at my keyboard torturing virtual people through a pixel lens.
Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it throws me "alright, you got yourself a rape credit".
I spent the "credit" on a member of the fire department. Those of you who have played the game will know what this means.
Beautiful Escape isn't perfect. There's a lot of walking around to be done - although Chaud maintains this was deliberate to slow the pace of the game and encourage you to think about what you're doing. Sometimes it's not clear what you have to do next: for example, I went to the fire department several times, but no one was there until a certain story trigger was pulled.
This is a game to explore and fumble through. It's shorter than you think - probably less than two hours play - and it's only possible to fail the game if a victim escapes your dungeon with marbles or flesh relatively intact, which is more likely to happen if you're trying to score a beautiful escape.
But this is some of the best game writing I've endured all year with a rather brilliant ending.
There is no one true opinion for a game like this. Let me know if you thought it was rubbish, horrible or merely interesting. I will put up an interview with Chaud sometime soon, but if you can't wait because you're part of feed-me-now Generation Twitter, check out Jordan Rivas' interview but be warned it contains MEGA GAME-KILLING SPOILERS OF DOOOOOM.
Post-game buzz: Fascinating, intelligent and disturbing. And we're all going to hell for playing this game. I mean it this time.