What if I told you that a free, 10 minute long horror game delivers on BioShock’s medium-defining twist even more memorably than the revered Irrational game?
NB: Contains some spoilers. We recommend playing through The Static Speaks My Name before reading on.
The near-ubiquitous objective-based gameplay mechanic lends itself surprisingly well to the story of a schizophrenic (or, more likely, individual suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with psychotic symptoms) caught in a tug-of-war between his compulsions and desires.
The Static Speaks My Name, developed by thewhalehusband (Jesse Barksdale), opens in a dark, space-like void with a single flickering, white shape suspended in the distance.
The shape, appearing like a planetoid made of television static, seems to be a portal into the final day of one Jacob Ernholtz, a 31-year-old man who met his end due to asphyxiation by hanging.
This opening scene is reminiscent of the opening of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. In both instances, a man’s life is represented by a monochromatic planet sitting alone in space. It is a cold and lonely space, reflecting the experience of those isolated or cornered by life’s circumstances.
The game takes place in Jacob’s home. The player sees the world through Jacob’s eyes, from the moment that he wakes up to his eventual death. The apartment appears to be relatively normal, and the player, upon waking, is greeted with a familiar prompt on the top of the screen. It is a mission objective. Use the restroom. Eat breakfast. The first few objectives are reasonable. Daily tasks and activities. The illusion of normalcy fades quickly, though.
The objectives begin to conflict with the desires of the player and, ultimately, of the character. Jacob, unable to deny or ignore his objectives, is compelled to complete them even when they have to be accomplished in uncomfortable, roundabout ways.
There is no food in the refrigerator, so when Jacob is told to eat breakfast, he must resort to eating his pets. These begin to feel less like his wishes and more like compulsions. Without succumbing to his compulsions, he is unable to progress through his day. He gets hung up on the task that he has failed to accomplished and cannot focus on anything else until he uses the restroom, eats breakfast, or chats with his friends on the internet.
This is not the first game to force the player to do something that they do not want to do, gating off the rest of the game until the action is completed. The most famous example of this is perhaps the end of the final confrontation with The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
Static’s example is particularly effective, though, due to the dissonance between the banal wording of the objectives and the unconventionality of their execution. The player feels trapped by Jacob’s compulsions, just as Jacob is trapped in his own apartment, having boarded up his doors and windows. Jacob, and the player, by extension, are not only trapped within the game’s limited physical space, but also within a claustrophobically constrictive experiential space.
The uncomfortable dissonance is at its strongest during the instant message chat with a friend on Jacob’s computer. It is unclear who this friend is. The chat becomes explicitly and uncomfortably sexual almost immediately.
Is this someone that Jacob knows in real life? Is this a scammer or random person just looking for cyber-sex, as was common in the early days of internet chatrooms? Is this someone from a sex chat web service that Jacob has visited in the past?
Jacob does not seem disturbed by the graphic sexual nature of the chat, ignoring that thread of the conversation completely. He seems to be happy to have someone to talk to – one last link to the outside world. A lifeline in his otherwise isolated life.
The player chooses between messages that Jacob can send to this mysterious person. They all seem to be calls for help, and, as an uninitiated player, being able to ask such questions would have shed some light on some of the games greater mysteries.
Whatever is selected, though, Jacob is unable to bring himself to share his experience. He “ummm”s and small-talks his way through the encounter, directly ignoring the commands that the player has given him, mirroring his own experience of being unable to share or put into words his own experience, isolating him even further.
The next objective takes a sudden turn towards the bizarre. “Decide what to do with the man in the cage”. Given the cryptic and misleading nature of previous objectives, the player begins to wonder what this objective means. Certainly, no literal man in a cage has been seen in the apartment so far. Is it a metaphor for Jacob himself? In fact, the objective is meant to lead players to a hidden room.
It is difficult to find. The entrance is hidden behind Jacob’s bedroom door, visually obscuring it from players. This forces the player to explore, if they haven’t already, Jacob’s strange apartment. While Jacob’s room appears mostly normal, there are indications of abnormality upon stepping into the hallway.
Most noticeably, the windows and doors are boarded up, as has been previously mentioned, and there is a pile of televisions in the hallway, all with static on screen. There are multiple copies of the same painting hanging on the walls, which could be dismissed as an artifact of lower-budget videogame design. This assumption is proven incorrect, though, upon entering Jacob’s study.
Jacob’s study is full of the painting that could be seen in various places in Jacob’s home. The painting, which features two palm trees on a small island, covers the walls. It is plastered throughout the room in various sizes, positions, and orientations. There are color inverted copies of it, there are grayscale copies of it at various levels of contrast, there are copies of it with notes written all over them, some of which indicate a search for hidden meaning, sometimes religious in nature. Shapes and lines are deeply scrutinized, as if the mysteries of the universe are buried in this innocuous painting. It is unclear what drew Jacob to it in the first place, but it is clear that he has become completely obsessed with this picture.
Experientially, the player feels disturbed, scared, or disgusted by the unsettling display of paranoid obsession. I would like to posit that Jacob feels the same way. He seems to take no pleasure in his search for meaning. He is, perhaps, aware of how crazy this behavior appears. Yet, something compels him to continue, in the same way that the player was compelled to eat Jacob’s shrimp or chat with his friend online.
Jacob believes that there is some deeper meaning, woven into the construction of the universe itself, that the painting holds the key to. The difference between those with psychotic and non-psychotic mindsets is that those of us without psychosis are able to dismiss these thoughts as being incorrect or exaggerated. We know that paintings we see are not fundamentally tied to the structure of the universe. We know that the world does not revolve around our lives, and art has no deep, personal meaning that exclusively applies to only us.
Except, in this case, Jacob is entirely right, and we know it. As crazy as his beliefs would be in real life, Jacob is onto something, since he exists in a videogame. His world was made only for him. He is a mouse living in a cage built with the sole purpose of broadcasting his story.
Jacob knows that his beliefs are crazy, but he feels that there is something about the painting that is fundamentally woven into the fabric of the universe around him. Players of the game will recognize that there is, indeed, a ‘god’ who created this world (Jesse Barksdale), and the painting is at the absolute center of this universe’s construction. By nature of the artificiality of the medium, we are brought into Jacob’s delusion. We begin to wonder if there is meaning in the painting.
Did Jesse intend to communicate something to us through the painting? Is there something in the painting that explains some of the deeper mysteries of the game? This is a possibility. We have a psychotic mindset induced as we search for meaning in Jacob’s world alongside him.
It is this reframing of the narrative that contextualizes the dissonance of the gameplay experience so far. In fact, there could not be a more perfect synthesis of the player’s experience and the character’s experience. With each objective, we, the player, are not only forced to complete them (or never progress through the story), but we also believe that there is *meaning* to the objectives, since we recognize that they are a part of a linear narrative. An artificial story being told.
We are being ordered around, at times against our own better judgment, but we follow through with the objectives because we believe that the game and its creator knows better than us where this story should go. The vague promise of answers for the questions that we have compels us to continue. We have an itch (our confusion and curiosity) that can only be scratched by complying with the game’s morbid requests, and this reflects the experience of suffering from Jacob’s mental illness far more effectively than I have ever seen a game accomplish.
I will not spoil the ending of the game. The game tells the player the final events in the story from the very beginning, but the way that this plays out is worth experiencing. The game is disturbing not only because its content is morbid and creepy, but rather because it drags the player into the troubled mind of the protagonist, making his experience and illness inescapable.
The player feels trapped in a mind that he or she finds completely alien and inhospitable. The profound truth of the game is that it is likely that Jacob feels exactly the same way.