When you think of horror games, there are series and titles that quickly come to mind, be it survival horror—gaming’s go-to horror subgenre—or any of the other variations, titles like Resident Evil or Fatal Frame are ever-present in our shared gaming consciousness. But there are series that fall off the wagon somewhere along the way, underrated and often completely forgotten by new and old players alike. Today, I’m talking about one of those and one of my all-time favourites: The Suffering.
The Suffering is a strange mix of survival and psychological horror, a bit clumsy in its attempts for the latter but solid as hell for the former. It stars Torque, a new prisoner at Abbot State Penitentiary on Carnate Island, off the coast of Maryland, jailed for the murder of his entire family. He claims innocence but no one believes him, of course.
But as soon as he arrives, his presence seems to awaken something in the island, dark spirits that had before been merely the occasional apparition, now given form and substance. These are the Malefactors, the main enemies in The Suffering, creatures representing exactly what the title suggest, suffering. Each Malefactor represents a form of death tied to the island’s history. Slayers represent death by blades and shanks, Mainliners represent the lethal injection while others deal with the island’s history of violence, with creatures like the Inferna which represent women burned alive during Witch trials.
The island is also home to some amazing ghosts, two of them former inmates, one dead by electrocution and another by the gas chamber and they embody these forms of capital punishment in their apparitions. But the real star of the show for the ghosts is Dr. Killjoy, the former head of an asylum on the island. He lives in 16mm film projections, and just shows up all over the island, convinced Torque is his new patient and must treat him. He’s phenomenal, the character concept superb and the voice acting to match it.
The Suffering has so much great symbolism about the nature of violence, hatred and not only the damage it does but what it leaves behind for, essentially, others to suffer. There’s something of a morality system and the personal demons and ghosts haunting Torque, most notably his wife and two sons, react differently depending on your choices. The more you dive into viciousness, cruelty and frankly evil, their voices also darken, their words become wicked and hateful. The more Torque strives for goodness, the more they reassure him. It’s adds something of a psychological edge to the morality system, makes it feel more personal.
Another aspect where psychology meets gameplay is with The Creature, Torque’s inner violent monster, the evil we carry within. On Carnate it manifests itself as a real thing and when Torque’s sanity meter maxes out, you can unleash it, with Torque physically transforming into a murderous creature. The kicker is, it’s heavily questioned whether he does in fact transform, or if that’s just how the creature appears under Torque’s perception. Maybe he just goes nuts and starts tearing things apart with his bare hands…maybe.
This trend continues into the game’s sequel, The Suffering: Ties that Bind, which follows soon after Torque’s escape from Carnate after the facility and in fact the entire island becomes a hell-hole of angry spirits and monstrous creatures. But of course, as Torque returns to his home of Baltimore, the evil follows him, and some familiar and new Malefactors take to the streets. For example, the Marksmen return, this time not representing death by firing squad as they did on Carnate but the deaths by police during civil rights protests in the 60s. Slayers return but now they’re indicative of mugging and knife violence on the streets and Mainliners now represent the many drug pushers of Baltimore.
While some of the monster rehash is a bit disappointing, they tie well into the city’s fictional backstory. And much like The Suffering, Ties That Bind brings some interesting apparitions with it, such as the ghost of a serial rapist, a man in a trench coat with bound and somewhat deformed women tied to him, representing his violence towards women and his victims at the same time. It’s messed up. The other ghost is one of a Slave Hunter, a man with vicious dogs he would send after escaped slaves. His dogs have human-ish faces, for that extra bit of holy-crap-ness. And of course, Dr. Killjoy returns!
Ties That Bind delves even deeper into Torque’s consciousness and explores the truth of Torque’s past and what happened to his family by focusing on Torque’s relationship to another character, ever-present and always a danger, a man only known as Blackmore, Baltimore’s kingpin–voiced by the one, the only and the sadly late Michael Clarke Duncan.
I mentioned The Suffering is a bit clumsy with the psychological horror. It does an amazing job with the symbolism and the exploration of hatred and violence, and it’s great at making you question what you’re seeing. Where it kinda screws up is when it bombards you sudden flashes of images, sort of short visual hallucinations, ranging from images of the game itself to Rorschach blotches. They’re disconcerting at first but lose their effectiveness over time. The real visual hallucinations of Torque’s family and the encounters with monsters and scenes of Carnate’s troubled past that turn out to be just images conjured from Torque’s damaged psyche are much more effective.
You can’t find The Suffering or its sequel on Steam, for some reason it’s no longer there. You can, however, get them on GoG. For a moment I thought I would add them to the list of out of print games for my let’s plays but then GoG gave me that pleasant surprise. They’re cheap as well so if you want some solid heavy action psychological survival horror, go for it, you won’t regret it. This is one of those series I consider jewels of gaming.