Five pairs of eyes are shifting nervously. The sounds of a casino in full swing are bleeding through, from somewhere a floor or two above. Two black clad enforcers circle the table methodically, duct taped participants keeping close track of their whereabouts. Tauntingly slow, the croupier flips the next card. Torture card. This is going to hurt.
The reason we found ourselves in this dank basement was the release of a brand new immersive horror card game, created by HVRTING. Coined as ‘Fun for the whole family!’ and ‘A first date game I’ll never forget.’, the game sure gives Uno a run for its money when it comes to testing how strong a friendship truly is. For this festive occasion, the LA-based HVRTING teamed up with Faceless Ventures, an immersive horror company kicking up dust in the UK, playing games at the exact same time over two continents, screams and groans being transmitted over the Atlantic via video link.
The card game itself plays out fairly simple, but very effective. Between two and eight participants are putting their life on the line, and only one will be allowed to leave. In order to achieve this, players attempt to collect Resource Cards which will aid in their escape. Any player collecting all four Resources gains his freedom – or can attempt to win a precious fifth card, allowing them to exact their revenge. Standing in the way of leaving at least partially intact however, next to a number of game modifiers, are the dreaded Torture Cards. Receiving one of these cards, evidently, results in punishment, either through deprivation, endurance, or through sanctions distributed by the enforcers. Ranging from uncomfortable to downright painful, rest assured that picking a torture card is guaranteed to make your heart sink.
As an immersive experience, I think the night worked on two different levels. On face value, being tied up in a basement, being tortured and fighting for your escape obviously is a fairly terrifying predicament. The setting we were playing in made it very easy to believe we were actually taking part in an illicit game that wouldn’t end well for most involved. Add in a croupier who, beneath a very stern, down-to-business attitude, really seemed to be enjoying our hardships, and two enforcers that could go from gently wiping the perspiration off our brows to a much, much more violent demeanor in seconds – no one in that room was doubting the severity of the situation. Just before every card reveal a tense silence fell over the room, without exception, and certain Torture Cards drew shocked gasps from the participants not undergoing the punishment. On top of all that, one of the enforcers occasionally went rogue, handing out punishment as he saw fit, which really hammered home the point that the house always wins. As the game went on, and as we were feeling the strain of the experience more and more, the competitive element really fell into place, until stealing a rare resource card from another player felt like a masterful tactical move.
On the other hand, there is a kind of satirical humour inherent to the game. Torture methods like gagging or waterboarding are handed out with the banality of Monopoly’s ‘Go Directly to Jail’ card. It’s a joke that, especially in the moment, is perhaps lost on all but the most fanatic immersive horror fans, but these methods are now so common in the more intense immersive horror experiences that treating them as run-of-the-mill game mechanisms is pretty on point. Seeing your fellow players in these predicaments does create a bizarre balance between gleeful voyeurism and pitying shock, I truly felt myself shifting between honest compassion and suppressing a wide grin, and I think that feeling might have been my favourite thing about the show. The fact that participants decided to show up in exaggerated stereotypes of Las Vegas high rollers only accentuated the implicit absurdity of how the game was being played, leaving me on the verge of laughing more than a few times. There’s just something about seeing someone in a glitzy suit and a pink feather boa being suffocated right in front of you, I guess.
My only point of critique is that I feel the game would be even better off with just a few more options. Minimizing the chances of the same player repeatedly drawing the same Torture Card should be high on the agenda – I’m sure you can imagine the effects of encountering a series of ‘You will be pinched viciously’ cards, and if not, I’ve got (very colorful) pictures. Apart from that, the game really is at its best when previously undiscovered Torture Cards are flipped, looking over the faces of the other participants, seeing the eyes of the croupier light up. A larger variety of Torture Cards is an obvious solution, as is the addition of blank cards, so players could let their imagination run freely. Maybe some kind of betting mechanic would be interesting as well, where players could risk severe punishment for higher rewards? That said, it is straightforward to customize the rules and intensity of the game to your own liking. Either way, as we understand it, expansion packs are already in the works, and we can’t wait to get our hands on them – and to throw our own HVRTING parties.
In conclusion, for someone who really has a hard time finding pleasure in card games, I had an amazing night. HVRTING took a simple idea and elevated it to a thrilling, multi layered concept. The Faceless Ventures team took that framework and ran with it, getting the vibe just right, both through set dressing and acting chops. Importantly, they clearly understood the satire beneath the main game, allowing humour to creep into the experience, without losing any tension. An excellent collaboration, and anyone who argues otherwise deserves a slap across the face.
The HVRTING card game is available for purchase now.