I officially have Gamer ADD.
After finishing Kirby's Epic Yarn and putting a big cut in Fallout: New Vegas during my Thanksgiving break I was ready for something quick, offbeat and unusual. I stumbled on Kieron Gillen's post about a game called Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer the other night and immediately played it all through in one sitting when I got home from work. It kind of stuck with me.
Maybe a youth of playing Mortal Kombat and Doom really did leave me a little twisted in the head. After all, why would anyone find a game about playing a serial killer appealing? I don't even like Tower Defense games, but this had a twist on the idea - instead of wave after wave of limitless opponents, it's just one person, and you get to know them a little bit, then create a maze that will kill them, sap their will, or leave them a broken and empty shell with just barely enough will to survive.
The remainder of this article will contain spoilers for the game, not so much for its story as for its mechanics. If you are interested in playing the game without "hints" do that before reading below the jump. I may also want to warn you for implied violence and adult content and other unpleasant things.
And no, the irony that I went from writing about Kirby's Epic Yarn, paragon of sweetness and joy, to this, is not lost on me.
I Guess I'm Good At This
I think I spent a bit more time with this game than Gillen did at least. I don't know what that says about me exactly, but I figured out the torture video rating system after a few retries of certain victims. Roughly, how it works is...
Step 1: Chat up a person that you find, until you convince them to "Come home with me" to your death dungeon of doom. There are two meters here, and one of them seems to be how much a person likes you whereas the other is how much time a person is going to spend talking with you before they get bored. Sometimes you have to return to previous conversation bits in order to continue climbing up the conversation meter with a potential victim. I'm not as good at this part of the game as the other part. No matter how hard I tried, I seemed to have missed a step with the kindergarten teacher, as she never would progress past her second dialog option no matter which options I chose. Fortunately you do not need all victims to finish the game.
Step 2: Once in the dungeon, set up a variety of traps so that the person has to slowly work their way through a maze of death.
There are basically four possible outcomes to the dungeon step.
1. The victim (the game calls them "sobbers") escapes with health and/or sanity intact. They call the police on you. Game over.
2. The sobber dies, by running out of Health meter.
3. The sobber falls in to despair, by running out of Will meter. Reduced to a gibbering wreck on the floor of the dungeon and without the will to escape, one assumes they die eventually.
4. The sobber escapes with both Health and Will in the "yellow zone" which is very low but not entirely gone. This is called a "Beautiful Escape" and is ostensibly the goal of the game (though, not really. It just increases the points you get for the torture session overall).
Step 3: After each torture, your protagonist, Verge, uploads the video of his work to the "Dungeoneers' Website." The community of sickos then rates you on a 1 to 5 star rating for your artwork. It's nearly impossible to get 5 stars, but "mathematically possible" according to the game's creator. To get the best score:
1. Use a large variety of different traps.
2. Guess correctly the victim's worst fear, or "Soft Spot" and hit it.
3. Make sure the victim Screams (the in-game announcer, who has a tenor much like the old Unreal announcer, will helpfully tell you when that happens). More screams seem to be better.
4. Give the victim some Hope (again, it will be announced) then mercilessly crush it. Hope happens if the victim walks a while through the dungeon without encountering a trap (believing they may be close to escape) or finds a false door, which is itself a type of trap.
5. Extend the length of the session (there's a timer)
6. Get a Beautiful Escape. You don't need to get a Beautiful Escape to get a good score, though it helps - I was able to get 3.5 stars without the victim escaping which is still a pretty good score.
I found myself wanting a walkthrough for the conversation bits so I could test out the victim I couldn't figure out how to get. The internet is sadly bereft of such a walkthrough at least by my cursory Google scan. I guess I could spend a couple more hours with this and write one of my own, but, um, I probably shouldn't.
Ban This Sick Filth
During the Supreme Court's statement about the deprivation of video games in general, they describe the hypothetical worst game imaginable. This hypothetical worst game is about the realistic and graphic torture of children. There is no such game to my knowledge, but D:BE is at least about graphic torture in general even if children are never involved. (Two characters have a conversation about how children are less interesting to them.) It is even possible to inflict rape on a victim (using an accomplice who spawns like any other trap).
Some members of the RPG Maker community were morbidly fascinated. Others were deeply offended. The idea of laying a "rape trap" in particular really crossed a line with some people, even if the depiction of said rape was done in low-fi pixel graphics. It's maybe a step above Custer's Revenge, but the playfulness of the pixel portrayal adds a certain innocence to this otherwise reprehensible adult act.
To be absolutely clear on this point.. I liked this game; I'm among those fascinated by it. But the acts your avatar commits in this game are not justifiable.
However, the game doesn't make any attempt to justify them. You are playing as a bad guy who hunts and kills people for points.
By god, points: an actual numerical score.
The points system, as the author describes it, was intended as a meta-commentary on the RPG Maker community itself. Of course, being a meta-commentary on critique is one way to try to proof one's own game against critique. I gotta say, it works for me, but I might not feel the same way if I was one of the RPG-maker contest raters getting a little burned. Because of its very existence, however, this scoring system also makes for an interesting commentary on two other perhaps-unintentional things:
1. Game reviews in general
2. What games; political opponents apparently think M-rated games are.
When a game is boxed, shipped, and sent out, the self-assessment that developers do after-the-fact is actually called a Post Mortem. During this analysis they assess the, if you will, execution of the game, and evaluate the game's success according to their own goals as well as its critical reviews and sales figures. More than film seems to be, the game industry is not only addicted to sales figures, but also to ratings, numbers, and stars. People's jobs rise and fall on the Metacritic score and the quality of people's lives depend on five-star ratings.
Also in this game, the more brutally and creatively you torture someone, the more points you get. Hurray! Jack Thompson has been claiming such a game existed for years. I'm actually relieved we finally got over that theoretical hump. Grand Theft Auto was never this game, but this game now, in fact, exists. All we have to do is add a child victim in the game and we're the game the Supreme Court was asking for. ... Made by an Italian, but never mind that, it's as good a reason to argue for First Amendment Rights on the grounds of artistic commentary as I've seen in torture-porn games yet.
I'm the Bad Guy but That's Okay
On the depiction of rape in this game: I was actually more shocked - in fact, the most shocked - by the commenter in the RPG Maker community thread that said, the rape in this game is bad, but then... I guess... explained the time when it might be okay to rape someone? No. You do not justify rape. CUT THAT OUT.
Frequently, in a roleplaying situation, I'll be the guy that doesn't wanna play the hero. I want to play a right-bastard, cut-throat sonofabitch who would slit his momma's throat for a nickel (and other Ted Woolseyisms). I run a D&D game once a month and players love compelling villains. I like to get in to the head of the villain a little bit and I think villains are much more compelling if you can figure out what makes them tick. I also really dig the Renegade options in Mass Effect.
Everyone you ever roleplay as does not have to be someone that you personally agree with. If you can't occasionally step back and go: hey, right now, I'm playing as a bad guy, then you're suffering from a lack of imagination. I find it strange to see comments to the tune of "what this person is doing is monstrous; I can't see why anyone would ever do a monstrous thing, therefore, it's totally unrealistic to play as this character."
Avatars create a strange dynamic where you are partially responsible for evil acts that they do, but can distance yourself from that at the same time because it isn't real. It's cognitive dissonance, sure, but I find it kind of fun. Now it's okay if you can't handle gore or triggers or just don't want to play a game about this topic. Or thought the walk speed was too slow or other mechanical complaints. But if you can't separate yourself even a little from the character you play in a game, you worry me.
For that matter, I haven't seen much outrage about the Dexter game on the iPhone.
We can have TV shows about serial killers, movies about serial killers, books about serial killers... if we want games to move up in to the world of culture with other forms of media, we should have games about serial killers too.
We Could Have a Bad Romance
But there's enough games about hate, isn't there? What we really need more of is games about love. Why are so many games about killing and where are all the games about love? Well... I think you can start here, here, and: here. Yes, because, from the start, to the end, Beautiful Escape is actually framed as a love story - between two cold, broken, pixellated people.
If you can handle creepy stuff and old-school RPG graphics and gameplay in the same package, this game is worth checking out, and only takes a couple hours at the most (depending on how completionist you are about it).