I don’t have an extensive history with kink, and none of it is with BDSM. Without going into to much detail, I have issues with trust. I simply couldn’t trust either someone else or myself with the capacity to hurt someone. Not even for consensual pleasure. It is not a world I have any connection to, which may make Consensual Torture Simulator an odd choice for me to play. But I have enjoyed Merritt Kopas’ work in the past (particularly Lim and Hugpunx) and I was intrigued by her reason for making such a game:“The idea came out of hearing about the torture scene in Grand Theft Auto,” Kopas said. “It seems like AAA video games are invested in providing more and more detailed representations of really horrific violence…so I was thinking, what would a simulator of a scene about consensual violence look like?”
“I won’t pretend that the game is perfect in that respect, like, I’m putting some trust in the player not to just keep going as far as they can, because it’s not a perfect simulation of course,” she continued. “But yeah, beyond the motivation to show more forms of intimacy and negotiated, consensual violence in games, the piece is also motivated by my views on how violence is portrayed in games.”
–From an interview with Patricia Hernandez at Kotaku
From following the artist on twitter, I know that C.T.S. is in part an autobiographical account of her and her partner’s experience with BDSM. The characters aren’t named, but still I have a safe “out” for myself in this knowledge. This isn’t a game about me, it is about these two women. I’m not doing the violence, someone else is. It would be easy to play the game from a removed vantage point, where I play it as if I were watching a couple’s discussion and intimacy from outside. A spectator. It would certainly be more comfortable for me to do that than to take on the role of someone who takes pleasure from inflicting pain. But why is that? Why am I squeamish at the idea of inflicting violence upon someone who wants it in a video game, when nearly every game I have ever played has involved me taking pleasure in inflicting non-consensual violence? I don’t even play many shooters or fighting games, but even so my virtual body count is huge. How many goombas have I murdered for fun? How many pikachus have “fainted” to sate me? How many people died because I just HAD to sabotage that wonder the French were building and we were plunged into war? So I have no problem with “fun” violence, but someone who is only violent at the target’s request is who I’m presuming to judge? I have no desire to get into BDSM in my own life, but after thinking about my relationship to violence in games in this larger context, I want to take this game and its theme seriously as I play it. I want to engage with this idea of violence and intimacy that Merritt is presenting on her terms, not on what will make me more comfortable.
Mattie Brice recently wrote an excellent piece called Death of the Player where she discusses the difference between play-centric and player-centric design. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about play/er-centric games and “death of the author”, and personally I come down on the side of believing that (for better or worse) the audience has more power in ultimately deciding what any piece “means”. But that doesn’t mean that I think an audience has carte blanche, or that they shouldn’t be aware of what biases and expectations they bring. To me, “death of the author” and “death of the player” are two sides of the same coin that is “death of the ego”. They are about learning to let go of entitlement and recognize our biases, and that is something we need to do no matter what role we are in. Maybe the goal of play shouldn’t always be to find your own solution. Given the choice, I’d find another way to be intimate with my partner, but what if I simply do not have that choice.
My virtual partner and I set about discussing our boundaries and establishing a safeword. She wants me to know that if at any point I feel uncomfortable I should stop. This is supposed to make us both feel good, and we need to trust each other. I play as though I am really there, trying to make the choices and decisions I would if I were in this situation. I look over the options presented to me, hoping to find some that are milder and better to start with. All the options are pretty violent, and my partner keeps asking me for more. I play slowly, trying to make sure I don’t go to far. My partner never uses the safeword, most likely she is able to take anything I chose to do, but I still take breaks and ask how she is doing. Eventually these breaks are more for my sake than hers. Occasionally I grow curious about how she will react if I choose a harsher action. My curiosity gets the better of me, and I instantly feel uncomfortable for it. Not because of my partner, who of course is a champ and never uses the safeword, but because reading through the description of my action gives me a visceral image. I worry that I’ve gone too far, that she may not be taking it as well as she seems. That I may be hurting her, rather than just being violent. I don’t feel comfortable with the amount of responsibility I am being asked of, and I also do not feel comfortable trusting her to make sure I don’t do something horrible in this situation. How can I ask someone to do that? Eventually I find a pattern that seems to satisfy both of us. She cries, reaches our agreed upon limit, and while she seems like she could continue I feel more than comfortable stopping. We spend the rest of our virtual evening drinking chamomile tea and cuddling.
I’ve been in love before. I’ve loved someone to the point I felt I would do anything for them, even if it meant giving up part of myself. If that person had asked me to hit them like this, I don’t know what I would have done. That might have been too much of myself to give up. Or maybe I would’ve done anything to make them happy. That person later became abusive. I’m not comfortable going into details here (I’m barely comfortable saying it at all online). None of it was similar to what happens in this game, but I can’t help but think about this consensual violence and my own non-consensual treatment. I think about boundaries and limits and the many ways someone can love or be violent. It is not easy to think about, and I’m not walking away with any big, glowing epiphany on violence or intimacy. I’m still going to enjoy cartoonishly and non-consensually murdering pixels when I play games (honestly, fuck goombas), so this game is not as simple as “violence good/bad.” I’m not going to suddenly be able to trust someone with this level of intimacy. This was not a fun game, but it is an important game. Not all play is fun, and playing with ideas that make you uncomfortable or scared can be valuable. I knew that conceptually, but rarely have I played important or provocative games that weren’t also a bit “fun”. I do not think I will play this game again anytime soon, but the ideas and questions it leaves me with are something I will be playing with on my own for awhile.
Is this “death of the player”? I’ve taken Merritt’s very personal game and completely subsumed it into my own story. But then again, I’ve also put myself into this game on the game’s own terms, rather than my own need to be entertained. This is a game that empowers its players, but not completely and not in the sense most people consider. It empowers the player by giving them tools to think about these important topics. Empowerment and entitlement are not the same thing any more than play and player are. I sit here, near tears, memories and what-ifs flooding through me, and wonder if a pithy line at the end of this will make up for my lack of closure and answers. And so I continue to play.
… Crap, it didn’t.
Consensual Torture Sim can be purchased for $2 on Gumroad or itch.io. You can check out more of Merritt Kopas’ games on her website.
You know how I cited Mattie Brice’s article for this? She has a Patreon you can support for more quality writing.