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About the Story
They caught Abdul during an insurgency in the east. He tried to take out a regiment with some home-made explosives strapped to his chest. They didn't explode, so pretty soon the coalition had a real live terrorist in their clutches. But who sent him? The fundamentalists over the border? He has been shipped over here to be "questioned". And you have been given the plum job.
Entrant, Portrait - 2007 IF Art Show
Play This Thing!
Quit This Thing
Rendition leverages the power of complicity, but not to any very effective end. I found it possible both to downplay the goal, since the piece never convinced me that there was anything important to gain by breaking Abdul, and to discount the methods, since the interaction didn't permit such tactics as conversation, persuasion, or alternative forms of espionage. I was free to QUIT, my moral disapproval unchallenged.
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The implementation is pretty awful. While most body parts are present, the game gives no consideration to whether the action you are attempting actually makes sense with that part. Thus you can happily pull Abdul's eyes and twist his belly. But then, everything about this game is lazy, most of all the thought behind it. You are a psychopath, taking gleeful pleasure in your work. If you were hoping for a consideration of what it means to be a scared kid who joined the military to get money for college and is now thrown into a strange, hostile land where most of the people want to kill you, and how that situation might lead you into doing things that would be unthinkable back home, you won't find it here. If you were hoping to understand what could lead a man to hate so much in the name of religion that he is willing to strap dynamite to his chest and detonate himself in the midst of a crowd, this game won't help with that either.
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Even as an experiment, then, Rendition must be judged a failure. Does that mean it is worthless? Not quite. There is one aspect of the game I have not yet commented on, its most interesting aspect, the one thing about this game that is truly worth remembering. If you have not seen it in action, I will inevitably spoil it for you (as Adam Thornton spoiled half of it, but only half of it, for me). On the other hand, it is so easy to miss that not reading my comments will very likely deprive you of the experience as well. [...] This is indeed a brilliant touch. Only by not being satisfied with the information supplied to you by the game, only by stepping outside of its boundaries and trying to find the truth yourself, are you able to discover something about Abdul and the character you are playing. This, at last, is a real point that the game is making, a point not only about our relation to the media and how they function in political situations, but a point also about our relation as readers to works of literature. [...] The paucity of meaning within Rendition turns out to be at least partly a result of the paucity of our attempts to understand.
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Number of Reviews: 10
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Do you want to torture foreigners in the name of the holy "war on terrorism"? Well, here is your chance. The range of conversation topics with the sole NPC (Abdul, a suspected "terrorist") is wide, but he will only reply in his own language (at least, initially...). If you are unwilling or unable to take the time to examine his responses (I discovered, with the help of some machine translation, that they seem to be genuine phrases that react to his current status and there is more going on than meets the eye), you will inevitably end up resorting to brute force and Lynndie England-style humiliation.
Here, the de-humanizing warlike aspects of the "war" are laid bare, with point scored for each and every creative use of abuse verbs applied to various parts of Abdul's shivering, naked body. It's an incredibly shallow approach to simulating a highly disturbing scenario, likely to be dismissed as "sick" by the easily offended. But look deeper to reveal the pro-humanist agenda. The "entryist" tactic is that of a torture simulator in which the PC enjoys his or her job (again, see Lynndie England), in which the parser begrudgingly rejects sexual abuse as being "sadly less acceptable", and in which the in-game help comes in the form of a "Memo from High Command" that regards the Geneva Convention as a minor nuisance. But disguised underneath is a bleakly funny role-playing game that asks the question: "How far are you willing to go?". And by extension, how far are you willing to let those in positions of authority, the ones that represent you, go? Does your meek head-in-the-sand acquiescence not vindicate and legitimise their warlike aggression?
Rendition never spells out it's affiliations: Abdul is simply from "the East". You are one of the self-proclaimed "chosen people". All we learn from About/Credits is that the game is a "political art experiment". Rendition, like the best contemporary art, makes the player think about the issues they'd rather not think about. Yes, the results are both disgusting and offensive... yet it somehow brings you closer to the truth than any number of "balanced" news reports could ever do.
A short prologue indicates that the coalition has a terrorist in their 'clutches' who has been sent here to be '"questioned"' (for which read 'tortured'). The player is then permitted to brainstorm abuse verbs to apply to the various parts of a rag-doll in a bare room. Nothing else is possible, except to consult a poorly-written memo which instructs the player to limit repetitions of an abuse verb.
In any other context, players would quit and pan such a game as boring and meritless. Under the heading of protest, it elicits partisan scuffles and elaborate rationalizations. What all this controversy over the nominal premise conceals is the artistic and political failure of the work.
My reaction was not one of shock, horror or outrage, only disappointment and a sense of tedium. That is not because I disagree with the author's political views; it is because the author has passed up an opportunity not only to write a competent game, but to make an insightful or at least politically effective statement on an important issue.
No attention is paid to place, plot, or characterization. Given that interrogation under torture is one of the most dramatic situations available, it is remarkable that none of this emotional power has been harnessed. Andrew Plotkin's seminal Spider & Web centered on an incandescent interrogation scene to great artistic effect, while George Orwell's 1984 used character and a horrific interrogation scene to drive home a political point. rendition does not give us a chance to understand or empathize with any of the characters. Nor does it draw our attention to any dimension of the actual problem. No attention is paid to the psychology of evil, the moral and personal dilemmas of war, or the social pathologies which allow institutionalized torture to happen. We are only given blithely one-dimensional stereotypes which dictate exactly what we should think:
'It [the door] seals your activities from the prying eyes and ears of do-gooders.'
'an operative may choose to proceed for as long as he or she wishes.'
'Yes the Geneva convention is a pain in the backside isn't it?'
'His foreskin appears undamaged.'
'Having filled yourself up with beer several hours earlier, you have no difficulty bending over and pissing all over his left thumb. Abdul screams in horror.'
The result is inept propaganda which can only preach to the choir. That is a profound failure of execution. But there is an incredibly rich vein here for a sensitive author who can attend to the details - emotionally intense, thought-provoking, relevant, and convincing. I hope that we will see some thought-out and researched games which attempt to cast real light on this and similar issues of social justice.
Rendition is nominally a portrait of Abdul, failed suicide terrorist taken captive by a Western army. However, it is impossible to actually get to know Abdul as a person, since the two of you don't speak the same language and the only way of interacting with him is through violence. This, of course, is exactly what the work is all about.
Although it is hard not to sympathise with the political message behind Rendition, the work suffers somewhat from being too obvious. After the first few moves, the player will have formed a pretty clear idea of what the piece is about and what limits to her own actions are, and there is little left to actually shock the player or make her think about political issues.
I think the piece will be more powerful if it is incorporated into a larger work that poses as a game. It could be the epilogue to a thrilling, puzzle-based chase after Abdul which allows us to understand why both Abdul and the protagonist think their causes are good and righteous; then, the sheer pointlessness of the interrogation and the impossibility of communication might have more shock value. My advice to the author is to think about extending Rendition along those lines.
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