(trigger warning: torture, sexual torture) (skip it)
In ESRB T-for-Teen-rated Star Wars: The Old Republic, Vette the slave is one of the first companion characters available to the Sith Warrior. And one of the first decisions you make, while out and about in the galaxy, is whether to remove her shock collar. None of my Sith buddies have. Vette asks for freedom from the collar now and again; one of your responses is to give her a fast backhand slap. She cries. Signs point to most players merrily joking over internet forums and youtube commentary about how much fun it is to get to -1000 reputation with Vette, just by just torturing the hell out of this standard-issue Twi’lek. Lest you think this outrageous, tender reader, it's just that same, lovable gamer graveyard humor. There's plenty of light slavery and torture in Teen-oriented television and literature. I think.
In our first encounter with Vette, she’s being tortured by a Gaoler, as he says things about having his fun while he can, and having one for the road.
“Take this shock control collar,” says the Gaoler. “I’ll set it to a high level. Use it enough, she’ll show you the back door to ‘er mother’s house.”
After offering to help our character unlock a tomb she says, “So we’re clear, I’m officially on strike when it comes to domestic duties.
“Well let’s give this higher setting a test run.” The player can say, before shocking Vette.
“Uhhhg, Ahh! Okay that’s worse. Stop.”
Youtube also instructs on the proper mix of dark-side, along with many light-side choices a player can make to win Vette’s heart, ultimately paving your way to marrying the Twilek. You do elect to remove the collar. Despite living as a Sith, you lead her to peaceful, forgiving decisions toward others, people who may have harmed the blue humanoid and her family. She eventually even jokes about bringing the shock collar into the bedroom.
“You wanted to talk?” Asks the player.
“More than talk,” she says. “I told the crew to get lost for a few hours. Just you, me, and an empty ship.”
“What were you thinking we might do in those hours,” says the player, adding the obligatory, “wife?”
“I might surprise you. I found my old shock collar the other day… come on.” And things fade to black for a few moments. When they come back she says, “So worth the wait. We’ll have to set aside a few hours every day…”
Players ultimately choose whether they want the torture or the romance. Unlike, say, Samuel L Jackson torturing a captive in the movie Unthinkable, not everyone has the same story. You can control a little, through the writing of a game like SW:TOR, though a lot of the pacing, choice of gore, a lot of that can’t be controlled. What’s more, the player receives certain bonuses for building up either Light Side or Dark Side points. If they need the Dark Side to progress, then electrocuting, slapping, and berating their slave might be less about what they want. More about the points they feel they need.
Miguel Sicart, author of The Ethics of Computer Games, has argued that games which reward unethical behaviors can be the most revealing. When, for instance, a few salubrious rounds of torture are all that's standing between a player and a few hours of otherwise unnecessary work (this brings to mind a Warcraft quest chain involving a “neural needler” and a restrained prisoner) the human, internal conflict can itself become a turning point. Players aren't mindless, says Sicart. They're moral agents. At certain ages they may not yet be geared for certain moments, but they do see the discrepancy between morality and what the system rewards. These queasy “ick” moments bring about what Sicart calls Ethical Cognitive Dissonance. The thought of torture curdles my blood, and yet I might rain down war crimes on my digital foes – anything the system asks – if it means saving two or three hours.
George Lucas’ works are known for throwing morals up on the screen, quite literally in works like the Clone Wars cartoons: don’t do what’s easy do what’s right, in war truth is the first victim, friendship is magic, whatever. So I’m curious if these outcomes do lead to deep moral thought about slavery, especially some of the implied sexual exploitation of Vette. In one scene, a wealthy trophy wife approaches your character after plenty of flirting. Vette asks to be excused, but is told she’s not allowed to, “leave your side.” And maybe it’s a mark of good character writing that we feel for Vette. Maybe it’s also telling that the brutal character choices you’re making come off as so bland. At an extreme point of torture, Vette will say,
“Okay, I can’t take this anymore. Look I throw myself on your mercy or whatever. Please, just please remove this collar.”
“You must learn to accept your situation,” says the player.
“But I’m gonna die from this. Don’t you understand?”
After a moment, the player says, “Make your case, quickly.”
“What? I… okay, I know… I know I’ve been lippy but I’m not that strong. I can’t take living like this. I feel like I’m rotting from the inside. Like I can’t feel anything anymore that’s not this collar.”
“You are weak.”
“I never knew evil was so petty until I met you.”