Does This Hurt? A Look at Torture in Games

Saw VI comes out today, the latest movie in the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror. When this sub-genre first began to grow in popularity, many film critics lamented that torture had become something entertaining, but in all the time since then, horror games have not jumped to cash in on the trend. Horrow games have changed dramatically over the six years since Saw was first released but not along the same lines that their filmic counterparts have. Horror games have become more action packed thanks to Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, all but ignoring the seeming popularity of torture. It seems those critics can breathe a sigh of relief because, while certain horror fans enjoy watching torture, it seems that they also don’t want to partake in it directly.

That’s not to say there are no instances of torture in modern horror games. One scene near the end of Silent Hill: Homecoming feels ripped straight out of Hostel. The hero is tied to a chair while a cultist stabs a drill into his leg, and a few quick-time events later he’s free and the drill is sticking out of the cultist’s eye. Then there are the Manhunt games in which players are forced to participate in a snuff film. And the franchise that arguably started it all, Saw, made its first jump to video games earlier this month. What’s interesting about all these examples of torture is that the player is always the victim, never the torturer. We’re tied to the chair in Silent Hill: Homecoming, we’re a killer in Manhunt, yes, but a killer forced to play the starring role in a snuff film. In the Saw game, we don’t play as Jigsaw but as a cop caught up in one of Jigsaw’s maniacal, elaborate traps. Every torture device that we come across has someone else stuck inside it and solving the trap plays out like a mini puzzle game. This allows for a variety of play that we wouldn’t get to participate in if we had control over Jigsaw because torturing people just isn’t an interesting game mechanic.

Torture as it’s shown in movies can’t support an entire game. For one, the player is stuck in one spot near the victim, which means a lack of visual variety. Second, while I’m sure there are a whole host of unique and varied torture techniques used throughout history that one could compile into a single game, they’re all essentially the same. No matter how different each technique may be, it’s still torture. Ignoring for a moment the emotional revulsion of such a torture game, it’d also get very boring very fast.

But torture, outside of how it’s shown in the movies, has found its way into many games across genres. One of my earlier memories of gaming was killing unarmed scientists in the Facility level of Goldeneye 64. I’d set remote mines on their heads and blow them up or set proximity mines near the exits and take a few potshots at them to scare them into running towards my trap. In Trails HD there are mini-games that encourage the player to cause as much pain to the nameless rider as is possible; there’s even an achievement for breaking every bone in his body. And, of course, there’s The Sims. Nearly everyone who has played the first game has at some point sent a Sim swimming and then removed the ladder to the pool, trapping the Sim inside so that he or she eventually starves to death. Or you could stick them in a tiny room with no exit. Or force a Sim who can’t cook to make a meal on a stove while surrounded by wicker furniture; if he starts a fire, the whole house goes up in flames. The latter set-up would make Jigsaw proud.

Curiously most people don’t see these acts as acts of torture. Instead they’re seen as experiments as ways to explore the boundaries of the game. We’re not just playing the game, we’re playing with it. But we’re still causing these virtual people pain, and in that regard, we’re no different than Jigsaw. At what point does this experimentation become torture? What line does he cross that we don’t? I believe that line lies in the suffering of our virtual victims. In all the cases that I’ve mentioned, we don’t see them suffer prolonged periods of pain. It’s funny to watch the rider in Trials HD smash his face into a low bar because a second later he’s back on the bike attempting the same jump.

Compare that with shooting a random citizen of Liberty City in GTA IV. If you hurt your victim enough without killing him, you can watch him try to escape from you, clutching his stomach and limping away. His pain is so obvious it’s disturbing. Many gamers lamented that GTA IV felt too real that it had lost its cartoonish, over-the-top, gleeful embrace of violence. It’s telling that in GTA IV there are no “killing spree” bonuses to find like in previous games. These icons would trigger a timer and automatically equip you with a pre-selected weapon so you could, well, go on a killing spree. They’re not in the game because when a man starts to limp away from us desperately trying to stay alive then the idea of beating up random strangers looses its whimsy.

It’s this joy in others’ suffering, not just their pain, which separates gamers from Jigsaw. But that difference is frighteningly small. It’s not small because gamers are somehow more violent than other people; it’s simply because in games we’re free to act without inhibitions or guilt. The difference is so small not because games encourage or allow torture but because there’s a little Jigsaw in all of us already.