Summary: Not torture, but not my idea of fun
[spoiler]Serial killers: what would popular culture be without them? They can be used to maintain crisp ethical distinctions: the serial killer is evil – the hedonic pursuit of innocent suffering is about as morally uncomplicated a sort of violence as one can imagine. And yet they can also be used in almost the opposite way: the serial killer is too mad to be bad, killing not through choice but from compulsion. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and serial killers gotta kill serially, so that they resemble a sort of natural disaster for their victims, no more significant than a bacterium or a virus. And for those of us who are not so compelled: well – how lucky we are that we are not people like that. Or we can toy, American Psycho style, with the serial killer as anti-hero, inviting the reader to tiptoe thrillingly through the larger-than-life mind of the monster, the serial killer as Miltonic satan. Or we can use them, more worryingly, as a way of exploring our own fears that behind our civilised lives there lurk darker urges, that our mental hygiene may ultimately fail to suppress. Or, as with other figures of supernatural disgust, we can domesticate them, as witches and phantoms of folklore become characters so homely that our children can impersonate them for haloween.
The Urge plays with a number of these ideas. At first it plays rather shamelessly and schlockily on the classic horror-show villain: the efficient loner and his evil ways. For a time, I thought that this was all it was aiming to do: that it was all about the familiar old trick of forcing the player to do (or not to do) unpleasant things with drills and pliers. “This is not a game”, it sternly insists. Dark! Plumb the depths, and (the implication) admit to yourself that you are enjoying this. Well, I wasn’t, and I was rather inclined to give up. But then, suddenly, an interruption: some alternative torture methods which were pure comedy. You can either pull out the victim’s fingernails or … make it look at your grandmother’s boring photographs. Now we seemed to be heading for some sort of comedic parody – but the game then switched tack again, and seemed to adopt a sort of “banality of evil” approach. My, this serial killer is so ordinary: he just wants to watch TV, eat dinner. He’s a bit of a loser with a nerdy hobby, which unfortunately involves keeping heads in the freezer, until he forms a relationship (sweet) which ends … well, as one might expect.
In all of this, I found the tone rather difficult to grasp. I wasn’t really sure what the author was trying to achieve. By this I don’t just mean that I didn’t detect any “message”, more that there seemed a lack of narrative drive. It was as if the “serial killer” type was being used as a powerful engine for a work which lacked a steering wheel, which sat somewhere uncomfortably between parody, horror and comedy, without being willing to devote itself wholeheartedly to any of them. I can’t say I got much out of it, though it’s not really a theme that resonates with me in any of its forms, so perhaps that’s not surprising.
The production values here are very high (technically it demonstrates how slick Twine can look) with excellent use of different typefaces, styles of text, dynamically changing screens, and so forth. The writing is competent, though flat; and there is plenty of it. But the most serious criticism, apart from the lack of direction, seems to me to be the way Twine is being used here. Many, many, screens consist simply of a passage of text with a single link or (for slight variation) a passage of text where the reader can change one word (e.g. switch “victim” to “lover”), and then continue. In those cases, it didn’t seem to me that the decision to change the word made any difference later. It was pretty rare to have even the appearance of choice, and there were very, very few points at which it seemed that any decision you made would actually significantly affect the story: indeed, there seemed to be only one real “crux”, from which, admittedly, the story goes in wildly different directions. So my experience was really of reading a not-especially-well-written short story, about a subject that does not really interest me, where instead of turning the page I had to click some sort of link. I ended up quite admiring the way this was put together technically, but not really being very engaged with it. If you are fond of serial-killer fiction, as I am not, you might get more from it; but my overall assessment is that the game is “worthy”, with all the positives and negatives that implies.[/spoiler]