This article originally appeared on VICE Brazil. Content warning for intense violence.
A few kilometers away from Porto Alegre, the capital city of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the Guaíba River waterway, there's a spot popularly known as Prison Island. It was the place for several government installations—from gunpowder storage units for the army during 19th century to swine flu research labs in the 1940s—until it was finally converted into a prison for ordinary civilians and political convicts during the Brazilian Military Dictatorship. From its inauguration in the 1960s until it was shut down in 1983, the prison was the setting for countless tortures and homicides that, like many other similar cases from that macabre time period, were swept under the rug of Brazilian history.
Years later, a group of gaming students from Porto Alegre decided to recapitulate the events that occurred on Prison Island, with an unquestionably terrifying video game also called Prison Island.
"It's a topic that, in Brazil, still isn't widely talked about," said Nathália Cruz, one of the founders of the studio Utopia Games, when asked about why they chose to depict cases related to the Dictatorship. "It's a subject very much disguised from the public. There are people who think that the Military Dictatorship was [a positive thing]. There are older people who think that life was better back then, that everything was wonderful and safe before. But if you look into the accounts of all the people who were tortured during that time, the atrocities that took place, you see that it's important to take yet another look at these historical facts."
Cruz was always a fan of horror stories and movies, and even kept a blog on the topic during her teens. "We were very inspired by Silent Hills' P.T. and the show Amnesia. Those were our biggest reference points," she said, adding that she also drew inspiration from new horror video games to develop Prison Island. But, unlike most other fantasy and horror games out there, this Brazilian video game is based on events that actually happened.
The game tells the story of a researcher from the National Truth Commission (a group that investigates human rights violations that happened during the Brazilian Military Dictatorship) who goes to the island looking for clues about an old inmate who'd been last seen there. The story is based on one of Prison island's most infamous cases: The case of Sargent Manoel Soares, who was arrested by one of the DOPS and whose body was found five months later, with tied up hands, in a lake by the island. To add veracity to the incidents, the video game also includes the letters that Soares exchanged with his wife during his time in prison.
A substantial portion of the research done by the developers is derived from reports published by the National Truth Commission, which provide gruesome details about the reality on the island. "The atrocities," said Cruz. "The documents released by the National Truth Commission state that rats and roaches were inserted into people's genitals, for instance. Absurd things took place and they aren't talked about."
Cruz believes that Brazil still hasn't reconciled with some of the ghosts from the days of its Military Dictatorship. "Nowadays, we watch Bolsonaro speak during Dilma's impeachment and glorify [Coronel Carlos] Ustra, who tortured people during the Dictatorship," she said, adding that the video game may be a way for people to rescue a part of the Brazilian history that's been buried by the past. "We wanted to use new media to tell those stories."
"There are some cool games that explore the other side, like Xilo, which was created by Rodrigo Motta and shows Brazilian culture, and Árida, which received an Ancine editorial and addresses the Battle of Canudos," she explained. "Some games now are finally starting to explore Brazilian culture."
Despite the desire to share more stories about her culture, Cruz comes across common obstacles among local developers. "I too am hesitant about doing something too local that might not work or be successful outside of the country," she explained. "And that's why a lot of developers end up picking up elements from foreign cultures—such as Eastern or North American cultures—so their product can [appeal to] more of a global language."
Cruz affirms that Prison Island is as interesting to a Brazilian person wanting to know more about the atrocities of the Military Dictatorship as it is to a foreigner who's just looking for another horror video game. "We tell people that the place is real, that the island with a prison where people were tortured and killed actually exists, and suddenly seems as if the same horror story could work out whether the island were in the Caribbean, China, or North America," she said. "The concept is already pretty scary in itself."
Translated by Livia Holmblad.