Nine minutes before the bell tolls, and puts an end to the jubilant swing music playing through the halls. Nine minutes until the final guest of the Sexy Brutale breathes their last. You will live this loop over, and over, and over, a hundred times, failing to complete your mission – failing to save your friends. Eight minutes now. Seven minutes. Six. Five – every second is another dead comrade, lost to the twisted poesy of their danse macabre. Those you do not see, you can hear; the mansion echoes around you with the cacophony of perfectly orchestrated slayings. As the clock ticks slowly down, the tinges of a full, eldritch madness ooze from the walls of this curse-bound casino. The hour strikes, and the world cuts to black.
Your magic pocketwatch moves strangely – backwards – and time retreats.
The swing music begins again, and onward you press; the lives of your friends are at stake, and not death, nor curse, nor time will stop you from saving them.
This is the fundamental loop of Cavalier Game Studios’ The Sexy Brutale. Though structured like an adventure game (find puzzle->find item->complete puzzle), Brutale’s goals and methods feel like the product of modern games culture – or, rather, they feel in protest of it. You are, functionally, a god in this universe, though not due to might or strength. You are of the New Testament, with the infinite capacity to do good – not harm. Boiled down, The Sexy Brutale is a pacifist power fantasy.
What a rare thing, in the games space. So often are we offered up the latest weapons, armors, and death animations, but The Sexy Brutale gives us a watch and tells us: there are still yet good works to be done. This arc of play is additive – where other games demand death for progress, Brutale requires salvation. In many ways, it is a compact, inverse Hitman; the player must shadow several targets, but so that they may be saved – not killed. Much of the same narrative legwork occurs – we experience the character and story of the Brutale’s various colorful guests, just as we learn about Sapienza’s PharmaFrat and scientist spy – but the catharsis of completion radically differs. I left every anti-assassination thinking about the life not yet lived by each character. I felt happy.
I felt hope.
Then the tale of the Brutale complicates itself. Dedicated as it is to the feel-goods of pacifism-as-power-fantasy, The Sexy Brutale is interested in thinking deeper on the nature of good deeds and their contribution towards the whole of a flawed human being. Brutale has something greater to offer than mere catharsis, and it loves to hide such rewards right under your nose. When Cavalier pulls the rug out from under you, it is because they want you to realize that they’ve been tugging on it the entire time.
This is a game obsessed with recontextualization. The Sexy Brutale engages you in a constant cycle of relearning – of bettered learning. You will feel the reverberations of each masquerader’s actions – some of which result in literal reverberations: a shaking felt throughout the mansion – as they splay out across the grandness of this fantastical tragedy. At one point, you receive an ability whose entire purpose is to learn new facts about the mansion – nearly all of which drastically grow your understanding of the many moving parts within. Each bit of stimuli is a mystery and a promise – what on earth is THAT? followed by: the game will let me know when it’s ready. The Sexy Brutale is a construction of arcs – signaled by the distant sound of shattering glass, the blast of a gunshot, and the crackle of electricity – and one of its many priorities is that you experience those arcs in fullness.
Perhaps most impressive of all is that all these seemingly disparate stories function as fundamental building blocks to the greater over-arc of the plot. The appropriative inclusion of Vodou mysticism is the one faltering point in this series of broadened understandings, though it is (fortunately) a tangent, rather than the lynchpin by which this world explains its primary magiks. Aside from this misstep, it is truly remarkable how well Cavalier understands game storytelling. The Sexy Brutale is structured such that very little narrative downtime exists; for a game about repetition, there is a surprising lack of redundancy. Perhaps this is why the ending hit me so deeply, as the game pulled its blinders off of me one last time. Cavalier didn’t reinvent the wheel, but I’ll be damned if the one they made doesn’t spin well.
I have been thinking, over the course of this ghoulish year, about the use of games in our current cultural narrative. It is easy – and rightfully so – to slip into the visceral pleasures of video games. They offer a particular sensation of release unattainable to other mediums. There is, perhaps, no example more relevant than Wolfenstein II, especially in light of this quote from Machine Games creative director, Jens Matthies:
“For [The New Colossus], our theme was catharsis. That’s like the thing we write at the top of the whiteboard when we started brainstorming. So, that’s something that flows very deeply throughout this game, is the idea of catharsis.”
As I have played Wolfenstein II over the last few days (gleefully killing Nazis, thankyouverymuch), I found my thoughts turning to this quote – and then towards The Sexy Brutale. While The New Colossus pointedly mocks and deconstructs the dangerous, idiotic dynamics of fascism, all I walked away with was my catharsis. There is not insignificant value in that, but there is a cap of satisfaction when it comes to endless killing. It is undoubtedly reassuring that a AAA title has embraced anti-fascism as ideology and not aesthetic, but it is still, ultimately, an interactive work limited by the modality of violence.
And so I think on The Sexy Brutale, which made me feel things in 2017 that Wolfenstein could not. I think on the hope it engenders, and I gain my catharsis therein. If games like Wolfenstein are the call to revolution, then The Sexy Brutale is the reminder that – one day, when the work is done – there is something left for us afterwards. There are lives that we can still save, and one of those lives is our own. Something can be built from the ashes of tragedy, and, maybe, we don’t even need a magic pocketwatch to do so.
The Sexy Brutale is available for $19.99 on Steam, the Playstation 4, the Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.