When it comes to games that give you moral choices, I’m always faced with the same problem: I am constitutionally unable to not do the right thing. This is despite the fact that I’ve always wanted to play a character that goes bad. To this day, I have no idea what it looks like when you harvest a Little Sister for ADAM in Bioshock. I spent roughly half of my time in Watch Dogs preventing crimes to polish my reputation. In all the judgments I’ve handed down as the leader of the Inquisition in Thedas, I have elected to give every criminal a second chance.
I understand that this is just about the most vanilla way to spend your life playing games, but I find it hard to help. In my head, I realize that the characters in these games aren’t real, that my moral decisions in the game don’t affect who I am in real life, but I know the game is built to remember and recognize me, and I feel compelled to toe a strict moral line. Even if the only thing watching me is my Kinect sensor, I can never get past the anxiety I feel when embodying a character who has willfully hurt those undeserving of harm, and I can’t resist the satisfaction of being empowered to do something noble.
Tormentum: Dark Sorrow is set in a world so utterly miserable that human kindness doesn’t even seem possible. You begin the game as a prisoner, taken from your home in the night and whisked away in a demon-blimp that looks like a cross between a rotting, distended eyeball and an insect larva. Your memory is foggy, and your face is obscured by a tattered hood. When you arrive at your destination—a foreboding castle in a fiery wasteland—you’re told that “this place will purge you of all evil hatched within your bowels.” You shrug, and you begin to look around your new cell for clues.
This kind of heavy-metal hellscape isn’t for everyone, but it’s hard not to appreciate the careful artistic effort that’s evident in each of the tableaux you pass through in Tormentum. You navigate the world by clicking left, right, up, or down through several series of carefully rendered frames, each of which shudders with an eerie, visceral energy. The icons and environs of Tormentum aim for transcendence by way of abject ugliness, and it’s on the strength of these painterly images that the game is able to maintain its oppressive atmosphere of complete spiritual void.
Your advancement through the game is punctuated by a series of small puzzles, each of which has its own unique mechanics. One requires you to fit a handful of Tetris-shaped blocks into a five-by-five square; another presents you with a set of five spring-loaded levers that have to be arranged in a specific order, but when you adjust the position of one, the other four shift out of place. Working these puzzles out provides a nice change of pace from the exploration side of the game, but varied though these puzzles may be, they often don’t present any significant challenge. Many can be figured out with just a couple minutes of tinkering, and several of them have solutions that are scrawled on one of the many bits of paper that are quite easy to find scattered throughout the game.
In a way, it’s good that the puzzles don’t create major barriers to progress in Tormentum. They feel mostly like interesting diversions in a game that is more concerned with driving a story. In its heart of hearts, Tormentum wants to be a narrative reflection on the possibility of good in a world that only knows evil.
Yet as promising as that sounds, it is unfortunately the place where Tormentum fails most noticeably. At the end of the game—heed this as your plot-detail warning—it is revealed in a banal twist that your character has been dead all along. The haunting world you’ve been wandering through is merely a projection of your troubled subconscious, tormented by your choice to kill your beloved and later yourself. The powers that be have given you a chance to redeem yourself, and now you are being judged on your actions over the course of the game.
One the one hand, it would be a worthwhile experiment to consider the extent to which it is possible to resist your own inclination toward selfish action in a world that is essentially you. If there were genuine stakes in making conscious decisions to think beyond yourself, if it were difficult to do the good that you had failed to do in the past, the game could carry a poignant message about hope and personal resilience—even a bold statement about the possibility of free will. But this simply isn’t the case with Tormentum. Good choices may take you a bit longer to follow through on than bad ones, but ultimately, they are just as easy to make, and the game all but tells you that good is the only way to go. There’s no pain in choosing right, no pleasure in doing wrong. Consequently, the final realization offered by Tormentum rings hollow.
In the end, I was allowed to play Tormentum like I play all games that ask you to make moral choices. I skated through the game unlocking cages, freeing prisoners, and forgiving murderers with impunity. And I wasn’t punished for it even once.