Thursday, September 8, 2011

Beautiful Escape is Beautifully Disturbing

I wouldn't say that I like Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, a free indie game by Nicolau "Calunio" Chaud. It's a game about stalking innocent people on the streets, seducing them, and bringing them home to your basement to sadistically torture them until you've broken their body and soul. Unlike the Saw and Hostel films where the goal is just gratuitous gore and violence, BE:D is actually fairly tame in its graphical depiction, aiming instead for the psychological aspects that motivate psychopaths.

The atmosphere of everything is so thick and disturbing that it crawls under your skin and makes you wriggle with discomfort, not just because of the subject matter, but because of how creepy it is to be inside the mind of a hunter. This isn't a game for everyone, but its underlying message is surprisingly meta. Not to mention it's definitely one of the darkest and most emotionally-moving games I've ever played. To that end, Beautiful Escape is a successful execution of artistic design, as disturbing as it may be. If you're morbidly curious about this game, continue reading for the rest of my review / analysis.

You play as Verge, a member of an online community of Dungeoneers, who find human victims to torture and upload video footage to the web for other members to critique. They praise each other for using a variety of different torturing devices, for making it last longer, for causing the victim to scream in brutal pain, for giving them hope and then shattering it, and for pushing them to the limits of their vitality and sanity. They don't frown on killing their victims, but they strive for what they call the "beautiful escape," pushing their victim to the brink but letting them eventually escape, left to live the rest of their lives broken and hollow, forever tormented by the memories of the experience.

Verge himself is a high school student who works in the library and lives alone. He's utterly infatuated with his friend Daily, a highly-praised and very popular Dungeoneer. He loves Daily with all of his body and soul, living and breathing every minute of his life for Daily. But Daily is not receptive to Verge's feelings, shutting him down and insisting on maintaining a platonic friendship. Verge is depressed, angsty, and insecure because his infatuations seem completely beyond his reach; he lusts and yearns for Daily to no end, and his own videos are judged poorly by the online community.

Verge, the game's protagonist. (click to enlarge)

It's very easy to sympathize with Verge in this regard, striving for recognition and falling flat every time. We can all relate to these feelings of inadequacy, of not being as good as we hope to be. Verge is basically just like a typical teenager, struggling to find his place in life at the edge of the world. 

But then we run into a scene where we learn more about Verge's background. He says that he's "always had a taste for torture, for sadism, hurting animals, bullying smaller children. I liked watching horror movies. I loved all the screaming and blood." Then he goes on to talk about how he pretended to be the killer from horror movies, that he'd pick out random people from streets and stalk them, plotting how he'd torture and execute them. Then he started stalking his science teacher because he liked her, and once their relationship was developing he killed her in cold blood, saying that "it was more satisfying than any talk or kiss we'd had, or any sex we could have had." 

Verge finds pleasure in inflicting pain and distress in other human beings whom he views only as subjects for his videos. He kills people for the fun of it. He's completely unrelatable in this regard, but it's uncanny to realize that if you take away the sadism, this character is fundamentally an ordinary person like you or me. But the game literally illustrates that these people are distinctly different from you or me: the character portraits for each of the Dungeoneers is in black and white, with their eyes glowing a bright orange. Everyone else is in full color, but the Dungeoneers are different (and they even look like demons).

Four of the Dungeoneers in the game.

As human beings, we love to condemn The Other---someone or something that's weird or different from us---to feel more secure about ourselves. Outsiders make us feel better about being on the Inside. The Other used to be monsters and legends (such as vampires), but as science has advanced, we've had to turn inward to find monsters to set ourselves above. No matter how guilty or immoral we might be, it's somewhat comforting to know that at least we're still better than murderers, that there are truly despicable people out there.

Have you ever wondered why crime dramas are so popular, why such a heavy portion of television culture revolves around tragedy and death? Probably the biggest reason is because it's fun to solve the mystery (and because it's a great pretense for a serialized show), but to a lesser extent it's because we enjoy looking into the mind of murderers and psychopaths from a safe distance. It's a voyeuristic appeal; we would never do these things ourselves, but it satisfies a base curiosity to see it. I mean, just look at Dexter

But playing Beautiful Escape is the opposite of "safe distance." You ARE the psychopath, it's YOU who's preying on innocent victims. In order to progress the game, you HAVE to commit these atrocities. It's too close for comfort; it's pleasing to watch the embers dance in the fireplace, but if you get too close to it you'll burn yourself. And Beautiful Escape burns. As much as we distance ourselves from Verge, there's no escaping the fact that he is the protagonist that we have to control. (Unless of course you just stop playing.)

The central plot of the game is essentially to win the affection of Daily and the Dungeoneering community. A competition surfaces on the community website, called "Ashes to Ashes," awarding $5,000 to the best torture video that uses a fire theme. You (as Verge) hope that if you can win this competition, you'll earn the praise you've so dearly deserved, and that Daily will finally reciprocate your affection. So you start practicing on people from the street, building your skills up before pursuing the competition entry.

The gameplay falls into two distinct sections: seducing a target from the streets, and torturing them in your basement. The seduction aspect plays very similar to a dating sim: you talk to people and ask questions or give responses that raise their relationship bar. Verge has already been stalking prime targets, so each of the characters you talk to prompts a short biography that describes their characteristics, interests, and personality traits. Using this knowledge, you interact with them in ways that appeal to their character while avoiding saying anything to make them impatient and leave. 

Seducing your victims is probably the most emotional aspect of the game, because these are the moments when you're on the verge of the uncanny. After all, you're just having a normal conversation with these people, getting to know them, talking with them about yourself, and developing an affinity for one another. And it's kind of fun to manipulate the conversations, smooth-talking your way into making them like you. You have to be cunning and anticipate where things will go depending on what you say. But then the realization creeps in that the ulterior motive is to get these people back to your basement to torture them. What was so entertaining suddenly becomes revolting.

One of the characters you seduce and torture. (click to enlarge)

It doesn't help that the people you prey on are basically normal, likable people. One of them is a young, attractive kindergarten teacher whose husband had a stroke and became a vegetable. Another is a bass player in a garage band who's too shy to have sex with a band groupie. Another is an aspiring actress. Despite this, each character has some kind of flaw that almost makes them justifiable targets (at least from the perspective of a hunter). The bass player is a former druggie and ex-convict. The actress is vain. The photographer's a hypochondriac womanizer. The kindergarten teacher is the only one who's truly "innocent," and she's also the hardest one to seduce.

It's also just disturbing how easy it is for you (as Verge) to pretend to be a normal person, to get complete strangers to like you. These are ordinary conversations that could be happening anywhere, in your own local streets perhaps, with predators hiding in plain sight. As revolting as it is to watch someone's leg get cut off with a chainsaw, I think it's more psychologically disturbing to get a first hand look inside the mind of a predator, to see what he's thinking and how he's scheming everything that's building up to the torture session. 

Prowling the streets at night, looking for "sobbers."

The aesthetic design for the seduction sequence is simply beautiful. Which only adds to the uncanny feeling of being there. As you walk down the street, dozens of other people race past you, as if they're all in fast-forward, or part of a slow shutter speed photograph. Their sprites are faintly colored, making them look rather like transient ghosts as they speed by. The world just races past you without a moment's notice; you're as invisible to them as they are to you. This creates a remarkable sensation of being surrounded by people and yet feeling isolated, alone. But you really need to see this scene in motion for the full effect.

While this is happening, the song Mad World by Gary Jules plays in the background, perfectly complimenting that "surrounded but alone" feeling. The musical style is a soft, somber piano melody with string harmony, evoking a hint of sadness and foreboding. It makes me feel a deep sense of regret, largely just because of the sound of the music, but because I know what this is leading towards and what I'm about to do. Meanwhile, the lyrics describe "familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces, going nowhere" which is a perfect match for the visual effect of the dozens of people rushing past you. 

In the context of this game, the refrain---"I find kind of funny, I find it kind of sad / the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had / I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take / When people run in circles it's a very very / Mad world,"---feels like a look into the psyche of our psychopath. His dreams of dying either give light to his sadistic pleasure in pain and suffering, or it indicates that the rest of his life is so hollow and tragic that death is a release for him. He struggles to understand himself, feeling like his life is just going in circles. I need not even elaborate on the "mad world" line. This song adds so much depth to the experience.

I should also take a moment to mention that the music selection is very well done. All of the tracks add something deep and stimulating to the atmosphere. Some of them are creepy and moody, others are dark and gothic, others like Mad World are just beautiful. The music does a lot to establish the tone of this game, and successfully shapes the emotion and our expectations. Listen to the song that plays during the end credits, here. Or listen to the song that plays at the very beginning of this video.

Once you've gotten your target's relationship meter high enough, you tell them to "Come home with me." Despite its simplicity, this text is very grim. That's the sign that you've officially seduced your victim, that they are yours in body and spirit. It's the last bit of normal, humane dialogue before the screen fades to black and you become an overt, diabolical monster.

At this point, you're now in the basement with your victim strapped to the wall while you prepare your torture devices. The dungeon is a narrow, linear hallway that the victim walks through on his way to the exit. You place what are basically traps on the floor, and the victim walks across them. Your traps deal damage to the target's health and willpower; some of them damage both, some deal a fixed amount of damage, some can be sustained for more or less damage, and so forth. 

The torture session ends in one of four ways: if you deplete 100% of their health, the victim dies; if you deplete 100% of their willpower, the victim falls into hopeless despair; if you deplete their health and willpower to <20%, you earn the Beautiful Escape; if you satisfy none of these criteria, the victim escapes and you get a Game Over. Achieving a Beautiful Escape requires quite a lot of trial-and-error as you learn how the different traps work. You eventually have to employ a little bit of strategy to find the right formula of doing just enough damage while not killing your target.

The dungeon corridor with trap tiles on the floor. (click to enlarge)

The mechanics of these traps aren't very well explained in the game or in the readme. I read the readme before playing, so I understood the basics, but it still took me four or five Game Over screens to understand exactly what I was aiming for. Besides the hassle of restarting and not fully understanding what I was doing wrong, I had to replay the seduction sequences over and over again, because you can't save between seducing your target and torturing them in the basement. Everything was extremely tedious starting out.

But when it comes to the torture mechanic, there's a weird juxtaposition between crude visuals and graphic content. The game was made in RPG Maker, so the graphics look like primitive 2D sprites. Nothing is gory enough to turn anyone's stomach because there's absolutely no detail. The sprite walks across the trap of razor blades and you just see a few red pixels spill out of the guy's body. That's nothing major, we've been seeing way worse gore in media for decades. The simple visuals don't blatantly disturb you; instead they leave the details open for your imagination. If you stop to think about it, it really creeps under skin.

Ultimately, the torturing is the weakest aspect of Beautiful Escape. I'm glad that it's not gratuitously graphic, because then it would be a lot harder stomach what you're doing, but it doesn't necessarily disturb me in the ways that the rest of the game does. Which seems a little counter-productive. The torturing gameplay is also tedious to figure out, and once you've figured it out it's not all that engaging. Maybe the point is that the torture isn't supposed to be fun, I don't know.

A review of one of your torture videos. (click to enlarge)

Once you've finished your torture session, you upload the video to the Dungeoneering website and people rate it out of five stars. They write a written description of your merits and describe it as poor, acceptable, or impressive. This reviewing mechanism instills a surprising desire to do better. Once you've been critiqued, you understand what you need to do to impress people, and you try to improve with your next video. When the "Ashes to Ashes" contest is announced, you realize that you have to do well if you want to win it, so you strive to get better scores as you practice.

This is also one of the more disturbing aspects of the game. Sure, it's weird and unnerving that people are so nonchalant about sharing these videos with one another, but it's hard to believe that I gave up my inhibitions to get better scores. I was repulsed and disgusted hacking a guy's leg off with a chainsaw, but then I realized that it makes them limp slowly for the rest of the dungeon, and so if I put that early on I can make it last longer and get higher scores. And that if I put a fake door somewhere, I raise their hope, and then I can quickly shatter that hope with a drill press for combo points. 

And that's where Beautiful Escape's message really starts to shine; it's easy to give up our principles when social acceptance is on the line. Of course I don't think anyone would ever want social acceptance from a group of sadistic psychopaths, but you get the point. This message gets taken one step further, however, when, at the end of the game, Verge declares "To hell with the reviews. This time I give myself five stars." 

Calunio says that this is supposed to be a critique of the indie games community, particularly that of RPG Maker projects. Everyone gets so caught up in making games to get good reviews that they don't stop to think if what they're making is actually unique or inspired. People end up just following whatever happens to be the latest trend, reproducing the same ideas and not doing anything to reflect their own individuality or creativity. 

Beautiful Escape never tells you that you need to get high review scores. In fact, getting high review scores does nothing to impact the game. You could kill every single one of your victims and get 1/5 stars every time, but it's not going to affect the ending. We're free to pick how we want to torture our victims in whatever creative ways we want, but more often than not we end up going with the trends and standards that everyone else is promoting, instead of just being ourselves. 

This idea spans perhaps the entire field of media, it's not just limited to the RPG Maker community. If you think about, the mainstream games industry is almost entirely about following the latest trends and standards. When one game is highly successful, everyone rushes to make clones of the formula hoping to cash in on the appeal, instead of focusing on a new IP that people might want to play instead. You don't have to play this game to understand the value of that message, but its impact is greater when you realize that you just played right into the mindset that the game is critiquing. 

So that's Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer. It's not an especially great game, but it's dark and disturbing in a way that's almost beautiful. It's pretty successful at eliciting psychological horror and has some interesting things to say about society. The aesthetic design of some areas is marvelous, and the whole thing is truly unique. I don't really like BE:D, because it's not that great of a game and its subject matter is kind of repulsive, but I appreciate its artistic content. 

If you're interested in playing the game, you can download it here. Or if you want to witness the game but don't actually want to play it, you can watch a video playthrough here. (Also embedded below.)

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