I’m on the second to last level of Nightmare Temptation Academy, and I’ve just raped a former bro (the only one spared in the Beta Uprising) using a love potion of used condoms and bloody tampons. I feel okay about myself because I didn’t sell my soul to avoid making hard choices. Now I have to decide between lying about the rape to the resident social justice warrior or admitting I did it. I need to choose wisely. If I make it to the next round, I can rap battle Not Satan. Game developer and artist Lena NW’s Nightmare Temptation Academy, released in early April, is a choose-your-own-adventure/dating simulation/roleplaying game and rap musical. Set in an alternate universe at the end of the world, you move through a burning planet as a 14-year-old girl, one of five high schoolers left alive after society was obliterated for unknown reasons.
Your classmates embody different Dungeons & Dragons alignment types, and you “click and chat” to befriend or betray them. Your teacher is “the machine,” a glitchy artificial intelligence relic from the “before times” that erases memories of your families and punishes individual thought with electrocution. Rap skills are social currency, suicide is always an option, and you can have sex with any character, if that’s what you choose. While the talking Moon (taken from the Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda game) dictates the apocalypse, it’s up to you and your morals how you’ll spend your final days. “These types of games are rich for making social commentary,” Lena NW says over FaceTime from our real-life end times, a.k.a. quarantine in L.A. She’s sipping from a bottle of jasmine iced tea with a five-foot not-safe-for-work poster of the Nightmare Temptation Academy squad behind her.
In early dating simulations, she explains, “you’d play this guy character trying to romance all these women. I wanted to force people to be a protagonist that I related to.” In her 75-page Master’s of Fine Artsthesis, Lena NW describes Nightmare Temptation Academy as “a reckoning with the media and culture that has jaded me beyond the ability to perform and experience sincerity.” The protagonist is part girl and part hyena, styled in 2004-era Hot Topic. You were born a teenager, raised by savage ghosts. You are without context; you don’t remember the first time you fucked, yet you know how to do it. It’s a metaphor for the first internet generation’s sudden exposure to a limitless world of content via their Windows 98. Scary, creepy, nasty content delighted and disturbed us before we could truly understand it.
“My parents had no idea what I was doing online for literally the entire day,” Lena NW says with a laugh. That was the remarkable thing about it—the ability to chat with strangers on Omegle at sleepovers when we were supposed to be watching The Parent Trap. Lena NW actually plays a role in my formative internet use: When I was a junior in high school, she made her first browser game, Fuck Everything. On our lunch breaks, my best friend and I would play the dating simulation that can only end in raping or getting raped. We couldn’t explain our attraction to horrified classmates, but we were inspired by her illustration style and brazen attitude toward sex—one might see Lena NW as an anime Aline Kominsky-Crumb.
I also think we wanted to experience rape in a disembodied, fictional way, to quell our anxieties about sex and violence in real life. As Lena NW says about her latest release, “Play to unleash the repressed desires that lurk in your heart!” “People dismiss my work as ‘this is just shock value.’ But I feel like [in Nightmare Temptation Academy] you’re navigating a personality that’s desensitized to shock. It’s like a part of my culture,” Lena NW says. “I grew up playing and watching amateur DIY stuff on the internet made by normal people. I loved Neurotically Yours, Happy Tree Friends, Mouchette, the Meet’N’Fuck series on Newgrounds or Frank’s Adventure. I was probably 9 or 10 when I was on those websites, and it almost gave me a kind of depravity.”
In a way, shock value and depravity was the name of the game in the web of the late ’90s and early 2000s. Mouchette is the imagined, collaborative diary of a suicidal tween, while Happy Tree Friends is a show banned in Russia for its gory depictions of cartoon creatures’ deaths. These projects are, crucially, original content that could be described as “passion projects” as opposed to profit-minded video games from industry moguls. They were just unique and sensational enough to circulate and garner a fan base of all ages. Newgrounds initially began as a 13-year-old’s zine mailed to internet friends, before becoming the popular site that hosts submissions to four verticals: gaming, filming, audio, and artwork. It’s “Everything, By Everyone.” As the intense backlash to Tumblr’s 2018 ban of adult content indicates, people crave space to explore taboo fantasies and content that strays from mainstream, IRL ideas of acceptability. And this moment of internet culture did exactly that by refusing to be sanitized because of the discomfort of adults.
One player tells me that she had to stop, take breaks, and breathe through it, but she plans to finish the game because “playing does feel powerful.”
Lena NW grew up as an outcast anime kid. She would draw hentai (anime porn) in class, a genre mimicked in Nightmare Temptation Academy when your player and Reilly, your ride-or-die creative partner, hold a dick-sketching contest. Mini-games feature in every level of Nightmare Temptation Academy—you’re taken from the main plot to simulate a school shooting or to protect the semi-sentient “blobby globs” from moving feces. Made by Lena NW’s collaborator costcodreamgurl, these diversions are modeled after Neopets minigames. Neopets.com (referred to as “the paradigm of internet girl culture” by the Mary Sue) was Lena’s first internet obsession, partly because of the Adventure Generator, where users could write original scripts for their favorite pets. When she logged on to her childhood account last year, “everything made sense,” Lena NW explains. “I know why I make shit like this.”
Her shit isn’t for everyone. Nightmare Temptation Academy, already operating in the niche sphere of art games, is strictly NSFW and for adults over the age of 18. In the intro, a Star Wars-like scroll lists every kind of potential “trigger” embedded in the gameplay. One player tells me that she had to stop, take breaks, and breathe through it, but she plans to finish the game because “playing does feel powerful.” She understands that it’s not senseless sexual or graphic violence but a meta meditation on the way internet culture fetishizes and normalizes these images. Making this point effectively isn’t pretty. In a 2017 article for Kotaku, journalist Dan Starkey wrote that “Lena NW stands at the uncomfortable intersection of feminism and 4chan.”
That might seem oxymoronic. The notorious platform of memes and pranks once made headlines for attempting to ban the word “feminist” from the internet by trolling a Time magazine poll. Pop culture imagines the quintessential 4chan user as a 30-year-old incel living in his mom’s basement and harboring an alt-right allegiance. Lena NW’s work purports that online platforms aren’t inherently evil, while the people who (ab)use them can be. Her participation on 4chan from a young age can’t be unlearned, she says. I’d argue Lena NW was trolling when she painted Jameis Winston, the then star quarterback of the Florida State University Seminoles, getting a blow job from a fraternity brother. The painting came after Winston was accused and acquitted of rape, making it—in my mind—a critique of the university power hierarchy. Rather than assuming pornographic imagery is inherently harmful, we should examine why the artist chose that medium of expression, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Intention is at the core of Nightmare Temptation Academy. You could be “good” throughout the whole game, but temptation to select the “bad” option is persistent. It’s hard to imagine a player not experimenting with the extreme within the safety of a fictional single-player universe. “An individual’s relationship to consuming violent media can be complicated, ambiguous, and confusing,” Lena NW wrote in her thesis. “I feel that anyone who plays Nightmare Temptation Academy who concludes that I support, condone, or glamorize violence is deliberately misinterpreting me for the sake of moralizing. The act of sitting at a computer for approximately 3,000 hours to make a game is an inherently nonviolent act.”
I spoke with one player, TJ, who sees Lena NW’s intent to include “every type of deviant taboo there is” as a way to convey that our perversions aren’t wrong or shameful. “There’s very few people that I would actually recommend the game to,” TJ says. “But for me, and I guess some people like me, it can mean a lot.” In an early scene, an older classmate rejects the protagonist, saying you’re too young to consent. You have the option to spew a retort about how belittling that is. “That scene actually did ‘trigger’ me; I could feel a sense of dread and bad real-life memories come back,” TJ says. “It’s the exact way I felt when I was in high school: hurt, invalidated, powerless, babied… But the option for that angry reaction made me feel heard.” Nightmare Temptation Academy returns players to their sensitive adolescent selves and an antique web experience. Some of us will be TikTok famous and some of us remain eternal MySpace queens; this game is for the latter. Thanks to the mind of Lena NW, we can revel in the uncensored internet that made us, for better or worse, the freaks we are today.