The young man responsible for “The Torture Game 2” doesn’t think you should take his little creation too seriously.
Sure, it’s a computer game in which you, the player, are asked to do horrible, unspeakable, and totally sick, sick, sick things to a defenseless man-like person tied up in some dark room from which he has absolutely no hope of escape. And, sure, one of the horrible, unspeakable, and totally sick, sick, sick things you might, perhaps, do to this man is put a chainsaw to his neck until his head falls off.
But it is, after all: Just. A. Game. As in, nobody really gets hurt.
“” — a sequel to “The Torture Game (1)” it turns out — is a free, and increasingly popular, Web game that can be found on gaming portals such as Newgrounds.com and Kongregate.com. And as the name of the game suggests, torture is pretty much, well, the name of the game.
Here, a pale, androgynous human hangs from ropes on the computer screen before you. Among the devices at your disposal — a chainsaw, a razor blade, spikes, a pistol … and a paintbrush (take that!)
There’s little in the way of instructions and no points to be earned. Instead, this dangling ragdoll offers you a canvas to do with what you will — stab him with spikes, flay the skin from his body with a razor, pull his limbs off with your bare hands, paint him every color of the rainbow. No matter what you do to him, he never screams and his expression never changes. He only utters a vague “uuungh” when you’ve inflicted enough damage to kill him.
And that’s pretty much it.
“The Torture Game 2” caught my attention recently when Derek Yu, editor-in-chief of the respected indie gaming site TIGsource.com, posted a link to it. He’d been intrigued by the screenshot artwork some people were making from the game — colorful, inventive and sometimes macabre paintings created using the in-game blood splatter and the paint option.
But his post set off a debate among his readership, one made up mostly of gamers and game developers themselves. Some were so put off by the senseless violence they vowed never to return to TIGsource.com again. Others defended the game as a perfectly reasonable gaming exploration. Others worried that this was just the kind of ammunition the game haters would use to further their various game-hating causes.
“In my opinion, a piece of software whose entire idea revolves around torturing someone to see how long you can keep them alive should have no need to exist,” wrote one TIGsource reader.
“I think this is very disgusting, but at the same time, quite interesting,” wrote another. “Torture is the most repulsive thing I can think of … But it is a good tool to measure how stunted your empathy is.”
Because I could
Their conversation played out much like the one bouncing around in my own head. As a general rule, I believe so-called violent video games are a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment and escapism for adults, the majority of these games being no worse than the violent films crowding the silver screens at our local multiplexes. Heck, I play violent video games. Many of the people I know and love play violent video games. And we’re all perfectly … eh … normal.
But this game…it pushed even my bloodthirsty limits.
Unlike most video games that come with a healthy dose of hack-and-slash, “The Torture Game 2” offers no story to give context to your actions. Your victim … he’s simply hanging there, waiting for you. Meanwhile, the game’s ragdoll physics lend a sickeningly hypnotic charm to the whole affair. With every touch of your cruel hand, every cut of the chainsaw, your victim sways, bounces and dances like some fleshy marionette.
And while you could choose to do nothing worse than splatter him with paint, most players probably won’t stop there. I didn’t. Curiosity got the better of me and before I knew it I was jabbing giant spikes into his belly, peeling back his face to the bone, and sawing the poor guy’s head from his neck. Because I could.
And though I knew that my actions caused this computer man no real pain, I couldn’t help but notice that it was painful … for me. I felt my shoulders knot up as I played. I felt my stomach do an unpleasant little flippity-flop. I felt guilty.
The man behind the mayhem
With more than 200,000 views and a rating of 9.3 (out 10) from the 200 players who’ve reviewed it, “The Torture Game 2” has been more than well received at Newgrounds.com, a site that allows pretty much anyone to upload Flash games for pretty much anyone else to play, free of charge.
Here, the game’s many fans use the words “fun,” “amazing” and “totally awesome” to describe it. They post comments begging the creator to make a “Torture Game 3.” They happily suggest ways to improve it: “You need a samurai sword in the next one, a flamethrower, a fist, a mace, a grenade…”
And many of them insist that it’s a “great stress reliever.”
“Dude this game was soooo awesome it really helps to vent anger,” enthused someone going by the name Doomfire1.
But what I wanted to know was, why a torture game, of all things?
When I contacted the developer through the Newgrounds Web site, he told me that his name is Carl Havemann, that he’s 19 and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“I never thought of it as a stress reliever,” he said. “The only thing I meant it to be was something simple and pointless meant only for entertainment.”
Pointless entertainment? Really? But what did he want people to get out of playing it?
“You're supposed to make anything you want out of it,” he told me more than once.
Havemann, who's entirely self-taught, said he’s not a professional game developer nor does he want to become one. He said he’s been surprised that so many people have liked his torture game so much. But what about the negative reaction to his game, I asked? What about the people who accused him of making something so vile and callous that, surely, its existence must be a sign that the end times draw near?
“I don't mind people disliking my game,” he said, “but some of them are too serious about something so simple and basically meaningless.”
I have to admit, I was disappointed. I wanted there to be some reason for the ugliness in his game. I wanted “The Torture Game 2” to have something to say. But it was as mute as the victim tied up on the screen before me.
I tried to explain to Havemann that torture is anything but meaningless to many people — especially here in America, where, every day, we learn more and more about how our own government has been secretly torturing people in places like Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and in secret prisons around the world … how every day we hear our leaders tell us that, no really, torture is A-OK.
And then I decided to undo the bunch I’d gotten my panties in.
Yes, “The Torture Game 2” made me vaguely nauseous when I played it, and yes, the unbridled enthusiasm from some of its fans seems more than a little creepy (wrote GaryTheClown: “I like ripping off limbs, then before they can hit the ground I grab them and nail them back to the body”).
But it occurred to me, how could Havemann (or any of his fans, for that matter) be blamed for telling us not to take seriously the torture of a digital mannequin when members of the most powerful government in the world keep telling us the very same thing … only their torture game involves real people?
Come to think of it, maybe if some of the aforementioned government folks blew off a little steam tormenting a digital person or two, they wouldn’t feel the need to go about torturing real people. Clearly, not playing violent video games hasn’t made them any less inclined to do horrible, unspeakable things to people tied up in dark rooms from which they have no hope of escape.
While Havemann may not have had any ambition other than entertainment when he made “The Torture Game 2,” he told me I could make anything I wanted out of the game. Well then, here’s what I make of “The Torture Game” — I think it’s merely a reflection of our sick, sick, sick times.