I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about the work of Nicolau Chaud, Brazilian freeware developer and psychotherapist, but it’s hard. I’m having trouble for a couple of reason. First off, other people have already pulled it off, and pretty well. In his 2010 write-up on RPS, Kieron Gillen called Chaud’s Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer “the sort of disturbing which one can defend and recommend.“ Wow. The sort of disturbing that you recommend to people. That’s exactly what Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer is. Which leads me to the second reason I’m finding this difficult. Chaud’s work defies every metric games criticism has set up for determining value in games, and in doing so, it highlights one of the biggest problems in games criticism: the fact that it still relies so heavily on metrics. Really, Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer is one giant middle finger to metrics and conventional games criticism.
Because the game really isn’t fun. It unceremoniously drags the power fantasy element that’s prevalent in videogames to the forefront by making you play as a man who orchestrates torture sessions and posts videos of them online. And it makes you get to know this character more intimately by telling a love story. You could call the game tasteless, but if you did you’d probably be one of the ones that didn’t play it in the first place. Because while you’re playing, interacting with the thing through the lens of its SNES-era sprites, it just feels too earnest to be tasteless. It doesn’t play like a gag, meant to shock and awe. It feels calculated. I almost want to describe it as the videogame version of a psychological thriller, but “thrill” isn’t what it does. “Thrill” has Saw connotations of popcorn, carbonated beverages and escapism. Dungeoneer doesn’t thrill, it unsettles and unravels. It assaults the player’s psychology. It makes you question your own stability. You think “Why am I still playing this?” But then you keep playing. And then when you’re done, you go and tell someone else to play it. Because Dungeoneer just isn’t like any other game. I’m writing about this thing, months after I played it, and I still don’t really know how I feel about it. I can think of other games that have tried to do something similar, but I can’t think of any that have succeeded. And Dungeoneer does succeed, in its own weird way.
Stick with me as I change gears for a bit. In 2007, Justin Vernon released his debut album as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon wrote and tracked all of the songs for the album in a few months while he was staying in some secluded cabin in Wisconsin. That’s interesting in itself, but the thing that really sets Vernon’s recording process apart is that he tracked all but a few of his vocals with a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone. This is unusual because most artists don’t restrict themselves to a single microphone, but also because in contemporary, professional recordings, pretty much everyone uses condenser microphones. Vernon, however, opted for a microphone with a much more limited capacity for reproducing soundwaves. So instead of relying on a condenser mic’s vocal clarity, Vernon constructed a unique soundscape by alternating the placements and angles of his more limited SM57. The result is a distant, murky falsetto that sounds nothing like anything else.
Like Vernon, Chaud takes an unconventional approach. He makes games with RPG Maker 2003. Not only does he take on premises that no one else would touch and approach them with the most audaciously straight face, but he does so with a development tool that’s arguably much less flexible than many of its contemporaries, like GameMaker or Stencyl. And he doesn’t even use the latest version of that tool, RPG Maker VX Ace. He attempts to implement high-concept ideas with a program designed for making retro, turn-based, role-playing games. Furthermore, the games he produces have little, if anything, to do with the sort of game RPG Maker is designed for, aside from their aesthetic.
Every artist is limited, to some extent, by tools and the capacity to use those tools effectively. With Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, Chaud has proven that he can transcend the toolset and make his ideas work.The fact that you don’t have to be a whiz programmer to communicate in this medium is catching on. There are lots of gamemaking tools out there, and budding developers could spend a year just trying out different tools with the hope of finding that “perfect fit.” Chaud’s work suggests that if you find a tool, master it and stick with it, limitation can be a catalyst for innovation.
Chaud just finished development on his latest game, (This link is not safe for work or younglings) Polymorphous Perversity, which is in testing and should be unleashed onto the internet any day now. Chaud’s latest ambition is a sex game, based on Freud’s concept by the same name, which hopes to teach players “about all dimensions of a human’s libido.” Whether or not Polymorphous Perversity succeeds in its ambitions, I think there’s already a sort of victory in Chaud’s efforts to continue to push the dimensions of game development. His games might make us uncomfortable, but that’s precisely why they’re important.