Friday, August 7, 2009

The Suffering

The Suffering is easily my favorite action horror game.

I suppose a definition of terms is appropriate here: Most horror games fall into the Survival Horror mode, where the emphasis is on tension, puzzle solving, and features protagonists who are not necessarily the most capable combatants. The game's atmosphere takes center-stage and the player navigates through a dangerous environment with limited resources, doing their best to survive. Action horror, as the name suggest, involves direct conflict with the forces assaulting the player. The characters are more mobile, better armed, and infinitely more capable than their survival horror counterparts. Most of the time I prefer survival horror, as it becomes very difficult to be frightened of anything whose ass you can easily kick.

The Suffering is different. The craftsmanship and storytelling that went into the game is top-notch and it deserves a place in horror history for the intelligence of its storytelling, the sophistication of the scares, and the sheer unadulterated fun that can be found in the gameplay.

Players take on the role of the awkwardly-named Torque, a man sentenced to death for the murder of his family. Transferred to the maximum security Abbott Penitentiary located on Carnate Island, his arrival at the prison triggers a hellish conflagration to erupt on the island. Manifestations of the island's grisly history come alive and begin butchering guard and convict alike. Torque is forced to escape the chaos, the ghosts of his family following him through his bloody ordeal.

The horror in the game comes from two fronts. In the action angle, the monsters Torque must face are manifestations of the evils that had occurred on the island, from creatures based on methods of execution to the ghosts of little girls burned alive during Puritan-era witch trials. The monsters, designed by Stan Winston Studios, are an imaginative change of pace from the endless procession of zombies and demons and other generic monstrosities most action horror games dish out. Torque is more than capable at confronting them, as the game's controls are very smooth and intuitive, making dodging and counterattacking very natural.

The other aspect of the game's horror is the horrible manifestations surrounding Torque. As Torque moves through the island, his murdered wife and children appear before him several times, forcing him to confront his past. Phones ring in the prison and answering them allows the player to listen to conversations from the past. Three ghosts of long-dead island victims, each representing Torque's good, evil, and insanity respectively, attempt to guide Torque towards salvation or damnation. Finally, the very island molds itself around Torque's internal torment. The graffiti on the prison walls becomes accusatory, asking Torque if he ever loved his estranged family, while the abandoned insane asylum flashes Rorschach images at the player, dragging Torque deeper into insanity. I've long believed that the best haunted house stories involve characters who are already haunted themselves, and nowhere is this better displayed than the private hell created for Torque.

The game has a morality system, where the choices the player makes impacts the game's ending. At several points in the game, Torque is given the choice between doing good and doing evil. As these opportunities unfold, the player hears Torque's wife urging him to do the right thing, while the demonic voice of his insanity urges him to acts of cruelty. The consequences of the choices are displayed on a photograph of Torque's family that the player carries. Good choices make the image appear more pristine, while violence and cruelty slowly corrupt and distort the photo.

Torque suffers from amnesia about the specifics of what happened to his family, and the choices the player makes ties into the truth about their fate. Were they murdered by outsiders in a gang conflict or did Torque's jealousy and rage swallow them all? The effect is much more personal and chilling than most games with morality systems. Making the player take control of a potential family murderer is a bold move and, try as I might, I'm too invested in the plot to play the game any other way but good.

There are a lot of other wonderful touches to the game. Setting the game in the prison resolves the hoary old problem older horror games had, where muscular, well-armed characters couldn't go through a flimsy mansion door without a rooster key. Here, Torque's progress is controlled and blocked by heavy prison doors. The puzzles are all logical and fit will with the prison motif. Finally, the game includes a couple scrap books in the extra features section, one kept by a fellow convict and one by the wife of one of the prison guards. As the player advance through the game, the scrap books are filled out by the characters, detailing the monsters and horrible events on the island. It's a great touch, and both writers have distinct personalities and points of view. Finally, the game's music is comprised of samples of prison doors closing, chains rattling, and other sounds of incarceration and penance. It's a great counterpoint to the action.

The old girl hasn't aged well. It's a generation-old, having been released for the Xbox/PS2 and the character graphics and animation are crude by today's standards. This breaks my heart. Video games, more than any other artistic medium (feel free to debate the term) are very technology-dependent. Players tend to have very little interest playing games that look out-of-date, and gems like The Suffering get lost in the mad dash for the next best thing. Apparently there's a movie in the works starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Torque, but I'll believe it when I see it.

I should probably say a few things about the sequel, The Suffering: Ties That Bind, but the easy answer is I didn't like it as much. The action moves to a demonic invasion of Torque's native Baltimore, and involves mysterious government goons, a gang lord, and a bunch of other pulpy touches. I liked the notion of the first game that a place can soak up so much evil that it take on horrible life of its own, but TTB turned the event into another apocalypse. Finally, Torque's wife shows up a lot more often and is more nagging and unpleasant, making me reconsider killing her in the original.

Whatevs. Check it out. You can apparently download the full PC game here.

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