I haven't played Rendition to the end, and I don't plan to. I suspect most people reading this won't want to either.
Rendition is a short interactive fiction about torturing a terror suspect for information. It is both banal and distasteful. The piece provides little motivating background, little to make the player want to commit the atrocities the piece demands; and, for that matter, since the torturer and his suspect don't apparently even speak the same language, there's no possibility of finding out anything of value. The goal is simply to accumulate points for thinking of new areas of the suspect's body to which to apply pain, while remaining within the literal confines of the Geneva convention rules. (The legalistic way it approaches these makes a mockery of them, which is also part of the point.)
The correct response, I'm fairly sure, is to quit.
I don't claim that this opens new vistas of insight into the ethics of torture. The interesting thing about torture is not whether it's right to inflict such things on another human, but the process by which originally decent or well-intentioned people work themselves around, morally, to a position where they regard torture as necessary or acceptable -- either because they've so dehumanized the enemy or because they are in such terrible fear of the outcomes if they don't get what they want. That's a psychological abyss which Rendition does not even begin to explore. Instead of offering any nuance, it asks the player, Do you want to be a part of this? in such a way that the only reasonable answer is No.
The rhetorical point is obvious. It's difficult (at least for me as an American) to play, and quit in disgust, without a follow-up thought: am I not already complicit in this? What can I do about it? Where's the prompt where I can type QUIT to close Guantanamo? And if you're already expressing your disapproval of American policy, voting for leaders you believe would change that policy, and contributing time and money to get them elected, you may find yourself muttering to the screen: I'm doing what I can.
What's interesting about Rendition is not its cheap rhetorical trick or its obvious message, but the fact that it presents in a single atomic example the emotive power of complicity in gaming and interactive story-telling. When the player reaches the point of questioning his own involvement in a story, that story takes on a new significance, one which is not possible in non-interactive media.
That moment challenges the player to deny the goals and motivations at work (this goal isn't worth what I have to do to get there, even if it is called "winning"); or to deny the story/game's constraints (there are better ways to solve this problem that the story/game isn't letting me use!); or, perhaps, to admit that the goal is worthwhile and the means inevitable, but that we ourselves are too weak-stomached to want to stay through it all.
Rendition leverages the power of complicity, but not to any very effective end. I found it possible both to downplay the goal, since the piece never convinced me that there was anything important to gain by breaking Abdul, and to discount the methods, since the interaction didn't permit such tactics as conversation, persuasion, or alternative forms of espionage. I was free to QUIT, my moral disapproval unchallenged.
A much more powerful work would be the one that convinced on both counts -- that some real disaster was at hand and that the torture of possibly innocent suspects was our only hope of avoiding it. Such a work might make us understand more truly what is at stake: that principles of decency and honor have a cost. That's not a reason to abandon them, but it is a fact we should be aware of, should think about and explore, before the terrifying moment of decision arrives.
This is why we need interactive stories.
N.B.: Rendition was built using the Z-machine, an interactive fiction engine originally created by Infocom. To play the game, you need to install a Z-machine interpreter on your machine, and download the game file. We link to Z-machine interpreters for PC, Mac, and Linux above--you can probably find them for other devices, too.