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M  has been taking up a slot in my Netflix queue for over 2 months. Originally I had gotten it not just because it’s critically acclaimed, but it’s also one of Peter Lorre’s first roles (Peter Lorre rocks).

In the movie, Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a serial killer/rapist who preys on children. Not exactly what you’d call an upbeat film – which naturally then led it to sitting neglected on my counter for quite a while (as happens semi-regularly with the more serious fare in my Netflix queue).

Last week I finally got around to watching it (turns out Peter Lorre rocks in it), and there were a number of interesting comparisons to The Baron, a IF by Victor Gijsbers, which I played recently after a recommendation from a commenter here. In The Baron you play a father who is struggling against his pattern of sexually abusing his daughter. Both explore this same dark side of human nature in different ways.

To be honest, I went through a fair bit of internal debate to even discuss these two works. It started with having to restrain myself from my usual sacrasm in just coming up with a title. As I struggled more and more with how to discuss the portrayal of the sexual abuse of children, I questioned if it was worth the mental energy focusing on such a macabre subject. But in turn I realized the same argument could also be applied to the notion of making games with these subjects.

While I’ll naturally defend anyone’s right to communicate these types of themes in art, it was more a question of, “Why would I want to devote my own time to it?” whether on the small scale of a blog post or larger. Time is precious, and surely, with all the criticism heaped upon games by the ignorant, this is not the most effective theme to pursue. But in the end, all art serves to shed light on human nature, and it is necessary that at least some art chases after the dark and horrific corners of the human soul. In doing so, that we may better understand all the problems and the people in our society, to encourage change for the better. It becomes important then, to look at how works like these attempt to do just that.

M is masterful in the sheer number of perspective changes. First you watch from the perspective of the kids’ parents, missing their children. Then you watch from perspective of the townsfolk, near hysteria over the danger. Then the police, who are clamping down on the town in their desparate search. The town’s criminals, both struck with horror of the crime and frustrated that they are associated with the murderer, vow to find him themselves.

You watch Lorre evading the criminals chasing him. You follow the criminals in their pursuit. By the time you reach the end of the movie, and Lorre’s impassioned speech defending himself, you’ve bounced around so many times you’re ready to hear his point of view:

By contrast, in The Baron you’re constrained to one perspective, as the abuser. You start by not realizing your role, as you leave your cottage at night to make your way to the Baron’s castle, where he is keeping your daughter Maartje. Along the way you have several confrontations that lead to the revelation that you are in fact the same person as the Baron. You are the one who cannot control himself and is abusing his daughter.

Each confrontation makes you ask questions of yourself, either in the confrontation itself, afterwards in interpreting it to your daughter, or both. On your way to the castle you pass a she-wolf in the forest – did you ignore her as you do any difficulty, or did you call on your courage to continue the hard task in front of you? A gargoyle, who must kill an innocent every night to keep from returning to stone permanently, seeks your counsel – is he better off forgoing his life or is change possible? Then you confront the Baron himself. Your ultimate confrontation is with your daughter, who you must recount your journey to and come to a decision on how you view your own terrible acts.

The variety in ways you can approach each confrontation serves another purpose beyond the introspection of a single play through. Playing the game again is made to parallel another evening where you have to face the same compulsion. Every night is the same struggle. Do you seek forgiveness, or is your behavior uncontrollable, like Beckert’s? Do you believe you can achieve forgiveness through repentance and self-contempt, or are they your punishment that you must accept without hope? How can you keep yourself from falling prey to the same impulses? You can’t simply answer these questions once and have solved the problem.

The movie asks these questions implicitly, by having characters state their perspectives or showing them dramatically, leaving the question in the viewer’s mind. The game questions you directly, in the context of the almost-dream world you journey through. The questions they both raise are never really resolved – I don’t know that they ever could be. Art like this can force us to ask questions like these, but answers will never be forthcoming. It is the struggle to find these answers that is what enlightens us.

10 Responses to Difficult Subject(s)

  • Jimmy Maher says:

    I believe I was the commenter. :)

    Glad to hear you… well, “enjoyed” certainly isn’t the right word… got something out of The Baron. These subjects certainly are difficult, but I think games have to sometimes engage with things that make us uncomfortable if they are ever to make a claim to having real cultural relevence. It’s the reason I am excited to see games like The Baron making strides in that direction. You might be interested in looking at Fate ( by the same author, which also deals with serious moral dilemnas without being QUITE so dark and disturbing.

    As for me, I’m going to check out M. Thanks for the tip.

  • Borut says:

    Yeah, thanks Jimmy, I appreciate the recommendation – it is hard for me to get into a lot of IF, but the Baron was also good in that it was fairly succinct, too. :)

  • Reid says:

    I will also check out M and The Baron.

    You ask the question, “Why would I want to devote my own time to it?”

    It will be a different answer for those who tackle these tricky subjects. As you said, some will see the value in illuminating the darker sides of what it is to be human.

    I recently saw “Playing Columbine” a documentary about Danny Ledonne’s experiences after releasing Super Columbine Massacre RPG!. He states in the documentary that the reason he made the game was because it “felt necessary” due to the lack of in depth analysis of who the killers were and why would do such a thing.

    In my own experience, I also subscribe to the “it feels necessary” reasoning. As an artist, sometimes you want to express yourself, other times experiment with new ideas and sometimes artists feel a certain duty to society to promote discussion or introspection on a subject.

  • Patrick says:

    I made a game about two friends of mine and the chronic uglyness of their off/on seven year relationship. They were not amused.

  • Borut says:

    Interesting – I know I’ve certainly had a friend or two that have gone through that type of relationship. Not exactly the easiest problem to directly communicate to those involved, in any form.

  • Victor Gijsbers says:

    due to the lack of in depth analysis of who the killers were and why would do such a thing.

    With the appropriate substitutions, that describes my motivations for writing “The Baron” very well. And, you know, school shootings happen very rarely; sexual abuse of children happens very often. (I don’t have the numbers here, but they are shocking.)

    Can we afford not to try to understand the psyche of the abusers? I don’t think we can.

    Although I let the player state her own case, “The Baron” as a whole suggests that simply saying that such people are “evil” or “monsters” is not the kind of analysis that will help us combat this phenomenon. On the contrary–it hinders us in doing so.

  • Borut says:

    Also well put, Victor. I think that’s inherently true of any social problem to some extent – most of the time people focus on “fixing” it doesn’t focus on understanding why the problem occurs, and as such, typically has limited impact (from the “War on Drugs” to the lawsuits against certain videogame developers & movie studios after Columbine, to why U.S. soldiers were abusive at abu ghraib, the list goes on).

    One of the interesting things about The Baron in that regard is what it seems to leave open to the player in coming to that understanding and what that understanding is, such as the degree to which an abuser is able to avoid or reform their compulsion.

    Was that openness indirectly a by-product of the main goal being to simply encourage the process of understanding child abuse (therefore any point on that regard would have been secondary to the real point of the game)? Or was there a larger point being made in that each abuser has the potential for different circumstances (in that some have the potential for change, some don’t)? Or, are those determinations fairly meaningless, and the main understanding about the problem you wanted to convey to the player was the constant questioning & turmoil someone must put themselves through in dealing with their own actions?

  • Victor Gijsbers says:

    Partly, the openness is there to model the thought processes of the abuser. At some level–generally not conscious, I suppose–all those possibilities must be crossing his mind. The idea of free will demands that he sees both the possibility of freedom and the possibility of enslavement.

    Then, the openness is there because I don’t think I possess more wisdom in this respect than my players potentially have. Can the abuser change? Can the abused forgive? I have no first-hand experience, and even if I had, that would be experience only of a single case. I don’t have the answers; the player must come up with them herself. Also, the player must come up with them herself: there is no lazy sitting back and seeing what I have to say.

    Finally, the openness is there because giving the story a specific ending would destroy it. That ending would either have to be happy, in which case the work could be accused of trivialising the issue; or unhappy, in which case it could be accused of being fatalist. By working in the medium of interactive fiction, a medium that can embody possibilities in a way that static fiction cannot, you take on the responsibility of leaving those possibilities open that are important to your theme. Here, I had to emphasise both the almost insurmountable difficulty of breaking out of such a cycle and the possibility, however slight, of success.