Agony is an upcoming survival horror video game developed by Madmind Studio and published by PlayWay. Players begin their journey as a tormented soul within the depths of hell without any memories about their past. The special ability to control people on their path, and even possess simple minded demons, gives the player the necessary measures to survive in the extreme conditions they are in. The studio somewhat recently released a gameplay demo that got me thinking about whether gore is particularly healthy for the player. Can we learn from it or is it just plain gross?
I think gore can be healthy as long as it does not push you into the realm of trauma. It can help us learn through fear because it forces us to experience the wrong and taboo. What safer method than with a virtual game like Agony? First, let us discuss the fear aspect. Agony is a game filled to the brim with images of mutilation. This is something anyone can empathize with, as everyone experiences pain and we know it's not okay, to put it lightly. But how does it function as a healthy experience? The very same reason our greatest cathedrals are covered in carvings of it; it is a wrongness (or punishment) we can all relate to. The fear of such punishment is directly related to learning not to do a “wrong” thing; do not sin, or you will be punished with this pain. Do not fail in the game, or you will become what you strive so hard to run away from.
And the learning goes further than holding one to an arbitrary sense of “good” over “evil”. There is also a kind of basic instinct learning going on too. For example, for a moment in the game's demo, you watch a wall of rocks being built with live babies as mortar. Watching this gives you a strong feeling of disgust and fear, forcing you to acknowledge the wrongness of the situation. You shouldn't murder babies with rocks, and you shouldn't harm babies at all. A rather decent survival skill, if one is to take the Darwinian approach. You shouldn't bash someone's head in with your fist (like in the ending scene of the demo), and you shouldn't commit murder for no reason in the first place. Again, this is a decent survival skill. Watching mutilation in Agony can function as a healthy experience because it makes you empathize and learn.
Now, the most interesting fear that Agony shows us is the feeling of having been consumed. Most prevalent in Agony is the flesh walls and doorways filled with teeth (did anyone notice that they were herbivore teeth? Oh no, cow teeth, how scary!). Much like Jabu Jabu's Belly in Ocarina of Time, only with more detail and less kid-friendly. In addition, your main enemy in the demo is the capra demon, who's head is a large mouth by which you are consumed when you “die.” There is a distinct theme of mouths and throats here. This is meant to make the player feel constricted and claustrophobic. There is no escape because you've already been swallowed.
Why is this healthy? Just like with mutilation, it forces you to feel the wrongness. It goes even further than a simple punishment not to do the “wrong” thing. This is something far worse than mutilation because you cannot possibly heal from it, you cannot come back from it. You will disappear and your body will be gone forever. It can remind you of your mortality, which is an extremely important lesson in survival. You are not invincible; in this game you can easily be “consumed” and your spirit spit out without any regard at all.
So when you're playing Agony, don't just run from the gross gore. Try to figure out just what makes it so disgusting to you. Does it work as a simple learned punishment, a reminder of mortality, or both? What's so creepy about the torso with four crab-like limbs? Mutilation and the fear of being devoured can invoke a common sense of punishment for “sins” and help learn a sense of morality or mortality.