Content Warning: Descriptions and depictions of extreme violence, sexual assault.
There are bad video games, and there’s Agony. In the past, I’ve argued it’s useful to play bad games so you can better appreciate the well-made ones, but not here. It’s one thing for a game to be poorly designed—which I assure you, Agony is—but it’s another to come away from the experience with a sense of disgust, wondering what the people behind the game were thinking. It’s not just that Agony is an awful, frustrating way to spend a few hours, but how the game, over and over, reminds you it has an axe to grind with 50% of the population.
It’s impossible to go more than a few minutes without Agony reminding you what it thinks about women. Men are tortured and strung up in Agony, but it’s the women who strut around the world without clothes, whose screams of “pull it out” become environmental texture, and who the game constantly, specifically goes out of its way to violently degrade.
Agony, a game whose pitch is walking through a totally fucked up!!! version of Hell, describes itself as a “first-person survival horror game.” The screenshots are seductive, the actual in-game visuals less so. But it’s not hard to see how the game managed to rocket past its jokey $66,666 fundraising target on Kickstarter, eventually nabbing $182,642. Hell isn’t a new setting for video games—see: Doom, Shadows of the Damned, God of War, Bayonetta, etc.—but outside of Dante’s Inferno, it’s typically the equivalent of an ice stage, a way to change the look of things. Agony promised a lengthy trip to the underworld, one pulsing with the flesh of sinners, surrounded by a grotesque aesthetic riffing on the mind of H.R. Giger.
That’s a pitch that worked for a lot of people, myself included. Despite Hell’s prominence in games, it’s woefully underexplored. Hell is such a conceptually fascinating idea, especially when you go beyond the pools of blood and start trying to imagine the logistics and politics of such a place, and with Agony wanting to spend its hours taking a deeper dive into the place, I was curious. Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels, while a disappointing final chapter for the monster known as Pinhead, spent much of its time exploring the mundane pettiness involved in running Hell as an institution. These are not the details Agony is concerned with. It’s more interested in coming across as badass, without acknowledging how it’s accomplishing that, or what kind of toxic ideology it’s spreading by indulging in the worst kinds of faux edgy art.
Agony is the kind of game conservative culture warriors will defend not because it’s good, but because it “offends” people. If someone’s upset over the way it depicts women, who cares if it’s no fun to play? In today’s Trump-fueled victimhood culture, that’s basically a win.
It’s such a bad fucking video game, too. You spend 95% of Agony waiting for poorly designed AI enemies to walk past you, so you can sprint to the next area. It’s not scary, it’s not fun, it’s not interesting. The game wants you to sneak around and be careful—there’s even a button to hold your breath—but the AI has no idea what’s going on most of the time, so you’re better off just holding down the run button, knowing they’re likely to get caught on some geometry. In another dimension, one where Agony is worth playing, the maze-like design reflects the patchwork nature of Hell itself, but here, it’s Agony’s way of padding how much time you spend with the game. If you get lost, you won’t realize there’s really only 90 minutes of stuff to do, and it would have been better off without any game elements entirely.
Annoyed but wanting to see the whole game through, I eventually resorted to putting a YouTube walkthrough of the game on another monitor, to ensure I wouldn’t get stuck again.
If nothing else, Agony has its visuals, atmosphere, and shock value. It’s what sold the game, and remains the core strength. There are times when you cannot help but stop, look around, and admire the repulsive beauty. There is an art to disgust, a way of manipulating our unspoken fears of the human body. But it becomes a real problem when you look past the goo seeping out of the walls and begin piecing together the story this version of Hell tells.
“Slut.” “Whore.” “I can nearly feel her red cunt.” These are just a handful of gender-targeted comments found in everything from characters to diary entries. It’s the game doing world building. (Your character doesn’t speak in Agony, outside of grunting as they die for the 57th time.) The story Agony is trying to tell is muddled and confusing, but in short: you’re a bad person who did bad things on Earth, and when you died, arrived in Hell. But you quickly learn there might be a way out, if one of Hell’s leaders, the Red Goddess, grants passage. Agony’s The Red Goddess is a succubus, a demon known for seducing men, and she lords around the place naked. I mean, The Red Goddess should be allowed to do as she pleases, so strut in your birthday suit all you want, but Agony wields its imagery with the subtlety of a brick. It’s a mixture of what you might find in a horny teenager’s sketchbook crossed with an angry YouTuber screaming about how feminists have come to destroy their video games.
This game isn’t subtle, as evidenced by this vagina apple that provides skill points:
(Agony is hardly the first game to feature sexualized objects—remember (old) Prey’s doors?—and given the way H.R. Giger’s sexualized aesthetic has influenced games, it’s also no surprise.)
You’ll find lots of lesbian sex, moaning women, bare breasts, and vagina imagery in Agony’s afterlife, but despite Hell’s vast resources for constructing pits of lava and caves of pain, there are precious few dicks. Each time I found a man—human, demon, in-between—I would look to see if the game was applying the same aggressive exploitation to their sexual parts, and it was never the case. You can find a dick, but it’s just that: a penis, part of the naked body. Some demons even get a loincloth to cover up their presumably enormous dicks, which only underscores the asymetric gender dynamics at play. It’s intentional.
In Agony, it’s not enough to watch someone smash a bunch of bleeding and screaming fetuses over and over, you need to find them strung up by their umbilical cords, too.
And this is just the stuff they managed to ship with the game. Even if you try to grant the developers the benefit of the doubt—gee, maybe they didn’t realize how aggressive this stuff was coming across—the cut content only underscores a specific message. Ahead of release, the conversation around Agony had nothing to do with how it plays, it was whether the game would ship with an fabled Adults Only rating on consoles. The console versions were “censored," but to restore the original vision, the PC version would get an “unrated” patch. “Unrated” patches are nothing new; visual novels with explicit sex scenes often resort to this in order to release their games on platforms like Steam. Valve has since clamped down on this.
Due to “legal issues,” the “unrated” patch was dropped, but the developers detailed its contents, including “brutal sex scenes,” “lesbian and gay sex scenes,” and “genital physics.”
“You all censored a HELL of a lot more than just a few seconds in game,” wrote one backer on Kickstarter, illuminating the target audience. “Purple blood? Succubus missing nipples in areas? Bodies with cloth covering them? You've lied and been a shit developer who goes dark with the real questions and hide behind ‘legal agreements [prevent us from talking more].’”
The developer declined to comment, citing the “legal agreements,” but released a video with the content that didn’t make it into the game. Content warning: violence against children and extreme, violent sexual imagery.
On one hand, it’s hard not to laugh at the game’s “butt physics.” On the other hand, the next piece of cut content is called “the raping of succubus,” in which what happens is exactly as described, with one of the game’s demons held down and sexually assaulted by the player. The game’s camera later pans down, as if emulating a PornHub video, for an intimate view.
The rest of the video isn’t worth describing, but it throws out any notion Agony wasn’t crafted as a power fantasy, in which the notion of “hell” and “demons” are sheer window dressing, a way to mask what the game is actually about: forced domination and submission of women.
Though it’s not customary to do so, as art should speak for itself, I did contact the game’s developers, wondering if they would respond to some of my observations about the game. Agony’s publicist told me my inquiry was passed on, but I’ve yet to hear back.
It’s worth asking whether Agony falls under the same category as Hatred, the 2015 top-down action game that glamorized mass shootings. By writing about it, aren’t you just giving it the craved attention? Hatred was the heir apparent to Postal, a game whose trolly nature now seem like an antiquated version of today’s “trolling the libs.” But whereas Hatred wore its subversive nature on its sleeve, reveling in every new headline or comment calling for its banning, Agony is more insidious. It presents as one thing, but exists as another.
Agony masquerades as a hardcore trip to hell for real gamers. The game’s Steam page makes no mention of almost anything I’ve mentioned here. Instead, it focuses on the game’s story of a “tormented soul within the depths of hell, without any memories about your past,” how you’ll be able to use a “special ability” to possess demons, the kinds of “hostile environment” players will have to survive in, and the game’s inclusion of both a story mode and an “open challenge system” that randomly generates levels, complete with high scores.
Perhaps the scariest interpretation is the developers don’t think any of this is a problem.
After 30 minutes of playing Agony, I’d had enough. The only reason I clocked more than five hours was to reject any notion I hadn’t given the game its due. I gave Agony the full benefit of the doubt—more than it deserved. It’s easy to see how a disingenuous person might argue “Hey, stop looking for politics in everything!” but Agony is stuffed with political messages. It has a lot to say about women, sexual violence, the power dynamics of sex between genders, and how society often views gay sex through the lens of straight men.
Rather than coding its ideology in metaphor or subtext, it’s danced right in front of you. Agony knows exactly what it’s saying. Fortunately, you don’t have to listen.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/3k45an/agony-a-game-about-dehumanizing-women-isnt-just-bad-its-toxic