Entertain this scenario for a moment. It’s not a full narrative, just a synopsis. Ready?
There was once a prisoner who was tortured so much that they shed an entire aspect of their personality to protect themselves.
Reflect on that a moment. What emotions does that siphon out, and what images does it inspire? What do you think could have been done to a person so horrific, so inhumane that they willingly gave up their logic or their fear just to make the torture a little more bearable?
This is the exact scenario of the AI Alpha in the web series Red Vs. Blue.
Fairly major spoilers going forward, but I’ll be discussing this in confined terms, so there’ll be no immediately apparent connections to early seasons.
Alpha was created for Project Freelancer, a program which studied the compatibility and effects of agents paired with AI. But Alpha was just one AI, and the project hosted numerous agents, so to get more units, they cheated and stripped the original personality of its various traits via torture. This revelation of the origin of the series’s AIs, that they’re byproducts of torture, is delivered through monologue by one of the main supporting characters. With that knowledge, our minds get to work piecing together the gap left in—what the project’s staff did to that AI that it unfastened its logic so that it couldn’t understand what was happening, and then its anger so that it couldn’t lose control to overpowering emotions. The most we get is that it was subjected to “scenario after scenario of stress and danger,” but those are vague terms that could mean anything. Anything that causes stress. Anything that makes one feel endangered. Anything you could imagine, the AI Alpha experienced firsthand, time after time after time, for however long.
Except not really. From this article’s title, you know I’m here to talk about where this series went wrong with its torture of Alpha, and where it went wrong is showing a scene of that very torture. Cameras in room, we see what’s going on, and it’s a lot of talk. Talk and lies. The project director tells Alpha that a couple of his friends died in combat because of his decisions, so he then fragments off his memories, creating a new AI.
When I first saw this scene, I was deeply unimpressed. Learning that your choices caused the deaths of others is a form of psychological agony I can’t dismiss, but for all the imagination we’ve been free-reign to before this scene, it’s underwhelming torment. I mean, I was expecting something gruesome. The digital equivalent to shaving off a person’s flesh down to their bone, or fixing hooks to every pore of their skin and pulling the strings taut. Or worse yet, and that’s the strength in not knowing: the worst thing you could possibly imagine being done to a person, its instruments are too tame for what actually transpired. The show hid what seemed to be a game-winning card, but when it played it, it was a Petit Dragon.
Red Vs. Blue had two options for how Alpha’s torture should’ve gone. The first is that it could’ve stopped after that monologue. My imagination took root in the gap that reveal left, and the torture scene dumped dirt on what had grown. The second option is to shoot the torture scene from a different angle, namely outside the chamber it takes place in. We can’t see anything, but we can hear Alpha’s screams as they torture it. Even if everything that transpires behind those walls remains the same, we, the audience, can’t know that, and those tortured screams then become fertilizer for our imagination’s sprouts. Just think: What would it take for you to cast away your logic and your emotions in order to protect yourself?