Saw II: Flesh and Blood
US: 19 Oct 2010
As the Saw franchise delivers its seventh and supposedly final installment, an accompanying video game comes along to flesh out the events between the first and second film. Conceptually the series was always a modernized take of the morality horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, modern in this case being a combination of the rhetoric of Fight Club alongside video game elements. Like all of cinema today, the influence of video game culture can be seen throughout the series. Elaborate traps and tricks that the victim must work their way through or face mortal consequences are the bread and butter of game design, and they’re equally the most consistent element of the Saw films. It’s a bit unfortunate that this concept, once turned back into a video game, falls flat once player agency is added to the mix. Saw 2: Flesh and Blood is more torture to play than fun.
I think the best way to talk about this game is to describe the first five minutes of play. You wake up strapped to a chair and have to fish a key out of your eye socket. This is done via a fairly awkward QTE that is timed. I died twice before I finally managed to trial and error my way through a puzzle about drawing a line on my avatar’s face. The reason that this gave me trouble is that it’s one of those puzzles where the boundaries aren’t really defined. I’d merrily carve away only to suddenly have my avatar jerk and howl from pain because of some invisible line that I’d crossed. I just got lucky on the third try. That pretty much describes the rest of the game.
The set up is like your usual survival horror game. You control an avatar and walk around an elaborate hotel that JigSaw has converted for torturing people into appreciating life. Clues and audiobooks are scattered around the space to help the player unlock doors and keep moving through the maze. The occasional torture victim will swing by and try to kill you, inducing a QTE that lasts varying lengths of time depending on the weapon that you’re carrying. Many of these moments are designed more to scare you by causing these people to jump out at you, which unfortunately means that the game rarely explains what you’re supposed to do. For example, some doors are boobie-trapped. You open the door and a button to press pops up. What the game doesn’t explain is that you have to wait a few seconds for the next button or you’ll get your head blown off. There is no indication to stop mashing the button to get it to acknowledge you. While obviously the solution is to just slow down and focus, it becomes awful because every time that you die it’s back to the loading screen then wherever the last checkpoint was. No feedback on what went wrong means you’ll be experiencing all of these moments several times before you catch on.
The actual puzzles in the game can’t seem to strike a balance between too easy and too incoherent. A floor tile puzzle has a broken TV sitting next to it. The image of what blocks that you can step on flashes on the TV repeatedly, making one wonder why they even bothered with the puzzle. In contrast to something so obvious, a puzzle will have three clocks on a wall set to varying times. There’s a combo lock that the clocks somehow are supposed to explain how to open. I have no doubt that there’s some sort of logical resolution to adding and subtracting the times to figure out what’s going on, but the game doesn’t give any clues beyond to look at the clocks. I ended up just trial and erroring my way through the puzzle. The fact that this approach tends to work for most of the puzzles in the game is a problem in and of itself. Even if the game tries to be challenging, you can just grind through it.
Story-wise the game is a fascinating exercise in the increasingly overused technique of audiobooks and text. Just because a game has more story does not mean that players are automatically going to enjoy it more. On the surface, you play as alternating characters going through JigSaw’s traps in an abandoned hotel. He’ll appear to say something cryptic about life or speak to you through a puppet on a TV intermittently as you go through various rooms. Scattered in these are audiobooks concerning various characters who are hunting JigSaw and their spooky observations. Case files work in a similar manner, detailing grisly details about various murders. The problem is that none of these involve things that directly relate to the player’s situation or any pressing questions that they might have. Unlike Bioshock, where you want an explanation for what’s going on, there are no pressing issues in a Saw game. JigSaw likes to torture people, hearing the details and observations of this process is redundant because we can already see this firsthand. The fact that all of this takes place in a hotel where everything looks exactly the same only compounds the problem. The Saw films have never had particularly interesting stories and that doesn’t change when they’re told in the form of a video game.
So Saw II is a game based on a movie franchise about elaborate torture puzzles filled with bad puzzles. Whether it’s through the awkward QTE sections or the uneven logic puzzles, the game is a slow crawl of trial and error with lots of frustration in between. The most difficult sections of the game for me involved walking across a plank. You have to alternate tapping the triggers while balancing your character with the thumbstick. You will fall off at even the slightest tip in the wrong direction. Portions of the game like this took me dozens of tries, which may be a roundabout compliment to the game. It really does feel like you’re trapped in one of JigSaw’s torture puzzles when you play Saw II