Monday, 13 April 2015

Cats in the Sun: Representations of Suicide in Two Games

This piece discusses suicide in a way that, while hopefully pragmatic may be difficult or triggering for some readers. It contains spoilers for two games, The Cat Lady and Actual Sunlight, which both examine the theme of suicide in deeply emotive manners.

In video games suicide is painless. Respawns, resets, failed lives are all grist to the iterative mill that pulls the player forward; they mean nothing except as learning experiences or temporary annoyances, instantly soothed over by the continuation of the game. By restarting. In this milieu, suicide can be part of that cycle of death and rebirth - a conscious seeking of the failstate to reset a misaligned system, to test a theory or practise a maneuver, or even to just partake of the vicarious joy of self-annihilation and le petit mort of that momentary reversible end.

BRIAN:     What are you playing?
TIM:          Tomb Raider III.
BRIAN:     She’s Drowning.
TIM:          Yeah.
BRIAN:     Is that the point of the game?
TIM:          Depends on what mood you’re in, really.

Or, as this scene from UK sitcom Spaced attests to, sometimes dying can be the point of the game.

The Cat Lady starts with the death of its protagonist Susan Ashworth by suicide. Pretty soon she comes back to life and discovers that she is no-longer able to die, although her immortality is shown to the player, but not to Susan herself, to be at the expense of others’ deaths. Susan is thwarted, but she is also punished. It is suggested by the entity that Susan meets and deals with that the fate of those who die by suicide is worse than that of those who die by other means. And this was where my problems with The Cat Lady started.

I once, as a selfish teenager, thought that I might be able to break my girlfriend’s suicidal urges by telling her that I would never forgive her if she succeeded. Thankfully, those thoughts stayed in my head and were never articulated; for as much as I was a terrible person to go out with at least I never added to her burdens in that way. The idea that those who die by suicide are damned further and more conclusively than those other dead is a common and horrible stigma. It may have a place in horror stories, although I would argue that it does harm far beyond its narrative usefulness, but in a setting that aims to make us sympathise with the deceased then it is unforgivable, even as a background aside.

This is the first of many points at which the twin aims of The Cat Lady diverge and create a tension that is, in my mind, irreconcilable[1]. The game wants to be a serious and sensitive portrayal of living with suicidal feelings, of loneliness and of coming to terms with death. But it also wants to be a schlocky horror story, with blood and nudity and power chords and unmitigated, violent evil. And so, after a meditation on the taking of one’s own life and what it means to want to be dead Susan enters into the machinery of the void, forced to fix that which no longer works...

… and it promptly chops her arm off. And then there’s a sequence of spurting blood, bad metal and she wakes up in a hospital talking to a creepy doctor and we’re right back into the most obvious of storylines once again.

It is supremely frustrating. The game aims to humanise Susan’s suffering but it succeeds in simultaneously demonising the psychiatric profession and other mentally and physically ill people. There is the hospital in which no-one, not orderly nor nurse nor doctor, acts in a professional manner. There are the so-called Parasites; the villains of the game. These cliched horror murderers are portrayed as part of the usual portfolio of killers set loose from the asylum; including the butcher-doctor, cannibal couple and random hammer guy. And then there is The Eye of Adam, the game’s big boss, so to speak, a man who causes others to kill themselves because he really just wants to die.

Of all of the people who I have known who have been suicidal the only person to complete the taking of their own life was not depressed. This is anecdotal data, not evidence, but it is important in our cultural understanding of what suicide is and what it means to choose to no longer live that we understand suicide and depression as separate concepts. Depression is a risk factor for suicide, that is undoubtable, and it is the most common psychiatric condition present in those who die by suicide. But depression and suicidality are parallel streams; not everyone who is depressed is suicidal and suicide should not only be understood as a function of depression.

My favourite part of The Cat Lady is a sequence that introduces that old bugbear of mine, the sanity meter. Susan is at home after escaping her first confrontation with a murderous Parasite and for the first time since her suicide attempt. As she goes about washing herself and getting a coffee and a cigarette she is given a stress meter and a wellbeing meter. Each of these are filled by events as she potters about; a reminder of her past triggers stress, a nice shower triggers wellbeing. There is a sense as you do this that you might just succeed in making it through, but the deck is rigged. Eventually Susan has a quiet breakdown, sobbing on her bed. The feeling that you just might make it if you do the right things, if you solve the puzzle correctly, is one that I found myself relating to immensely, along with the final, lonely moment of collapse.

It turns out eventually that, unlike my own, Susan’s depression is tied directly to trauma. This need to explain why people are depressed is understandable but I think ultimately devalues both trauma and depression. I have been through both, and for a while they were deeply entangled, but one of the most important things for me, at least, and I feel it is the same for others I have spoken to in similar situations, is to know the limits of each. To be at peace with both one must understand what the qualities of each sadness are and to relate to them for what they are. Tying depression to mourning works only to delegitimise the sadness of those who untouched by tragedy, or who have dealt with it already. Calling mourning depression risks medicalising human experience. They are linked, but they should not be bound.

When we get suicide represented without depression it tends to be noble, heroic or tragic. The orientalism of honourable seppuku or the brave sacrifice that saves others. In contrast, the suicide of the depressed is coded very often as one imbued with selfishness. The short game Actual Sunlight makes this explicit: every time the player-character contemplates killing themselves they are turned away by the thought of a duty to someone else. When they finally do complete their suicide, at the end of the game, it is in part because they no longer feel beholden to anyone else, they are finally able to make this one selfish act.

Actual Sunlight is in my view a deeply irresponsible game[2]. In this world killing oneself is no-longer a fail-state, it is the completion of the game. It imparts the value of success on the ending of one’s life. It is difficult for me to criticise in this manner because it is so clearly a very personal story, and to its credit it does contain disclaimers and content warnings from the start. I feel that if it had been presented in any other medium I would have loved it for its raw honesty, but as a game I cannot do so.[3]

The advice given by mental health and anti-suicide charities to the media on reporting in cases of suicide is primarily about the protection of other at-risk people. Don’t detail methods of suicide. Don’t disclose the contents of suicide notes or final social media postings. Don’t use formulations such as ‘successful suicide attempt’ even. This is because it is well researched that reporting in this manner can cause further suicides as people become fixated on the justifications of others, get ideas about how they can achieve the aim and begin to see it as a valid and successful answer to their problems. This suggestion or strengthening of destructive thought patterns is known as suicidal ideation and it kills.

The status of ideation in fiction is more complicated. Unlike the unavoidable gut-punch of a suicide note splashed on a front page with a headline screaming the method of death that sends your thoughts spiraling all day most fiction is consumed voluntarily. In addition, the very unreality of the situation can help many people, where they feel able to do so, to work through their own suicidal feelings and to come to terms with who they are in a relatively safe environment. Many of the more public forms of fiction, for example television soaps, will also provide information and support as well as content warnings when showing traumatic scenes that might cause viewers distress or unearth difficult feelings. I myself made very sure that I was in a safe place mentally before playing either of the games I am discussing here.

It is hard to say that a work of fiction or a work of art shouldn’t approach suicide head-on, and I don’t believe that either, but there are still consequences to the way that they might do so. Actual Sunlight’s position as a game blurs, or rather hyphenates the distinction between reader and protagonist. The character of Evan is a player-character, his actions are driven by the player and his death implicates them. The game encourages you to interact with objects and other people, but each interaction only brings forth bitter justification, eloquent and clever and above all funny, for the ending of Evan’s life. The player has no opportunity to argue and is instead further wrapped up in Evan’s warped worldview, which sees women only as objects, men only as rivals and those younger than him only as incomplete failures yet to make the decisions that will consign their life to the inevitable. This is an ideation machine.

There is a chan culture meme, and if you do not know about chan culture then you are a lucky person indeed and I don’t suggest that you find out, that is crystallised into the words ‘do it f****t’. It is drive-by ideation, the one-upmanship of trolls who would just love to be killers, and it manifests usually in a description of a life that is not worth living, that would be better off ended. The life described is all of the worst elements of the self-image of the stereotypical chan-dweller, and the clear intention is that, just maybe, the post will catch someone at their lowest ebb and push them over. It is targeted ideation. Actual Sunlight bears an awful lot of similarity to this rhetoric.

This is where it becomes difficult to split the artistic intention of the author from the reality of the situation of the work. I don’t believe that Actual Sunlight wants to be an incitement to suicide, I believe that it is the heartfelt expression of the creators’ own feelings, but that is how it acts. In order to play Actual Sunlight one needs to have a knowledge of the language of top-down RPGs, how they function and tell stories and how movement and interaction through them work. To have this knowledge a player needs to have spent a non-trivial amount of time playing computer games. That non-trivial amount of time spent playing computer games is one of the things that Actual Sunlight puts forward as being a waste of a life, of making a person’s value as a person diminish to the point where their death is a greater good.

Actual Sunlight does this repeatedly, building a picture of a life that hews closely to that of many of the people who will be playing it as it builds a picture of the life of Evan, and then insisting that this life is fundamentally unfixable - is only worth trashing. And then it makes the player complicit in that ending. As with the chan meme it indicts itself in a way that attempts to (or at least manages to even if that is not the intent) indict those most likely to come into contact with it (and alienates those who don’t fit the mold of its protagonist), a self-destructive variation on last man standing.

Susan Ashworth is not the only person in the Cat Lady to attempt or complete a suicide. One of the major plotlines in the game is her lodger and later friend Mitzi’s search for a murderer who calls himself the Eye of Adam. The Eye is a frequenter of suicide support chat rooms and message boards who this time actively seeks people to encourage and aid in their suicide attempts. He too wants to die, although disappointingly this is revealed to be because he is severely physically disabled, once again undercutting one of The Cat Lady’s greatest moments of understanding. As Susan and Mitzi evaluate their changed relationship to their own value as people in the one moment of true player choice in the game, and as Susan’s inability to die is challenged and transformed into an unwillingness to die, the game unveils the old ableist trope of the ‘evil cripple’ whose life is not worth living.

This final judgement of the value of lives is shared with Actual Sunlight, although in the Cat Lady you can spare The Eye and condemn him to the ‘horror’ of being alive as he is. Susan finds the strength to go on, but it is at the expense of the deaths of others. Ultimately, both games are unable to escape the transactional underpinnings of suicidal thinking, or maybe they illuminate them starkly. All I know is that it is important most of all to find the value of your own life in and of itself.

For support with suicidal feelings please look here for a list of hotlines by country. For further information on reporting or writing about suicide please look here. I am not an expert on suicide, although I have done what research I can it is a very complex and personal subject and my views should not be held over the head of either your own or someone you know’s struggle with suicidal feelings. The most important thing to do is to talk and to understand.

[1] For an alternative view that sees power in this dissonance see Sin Vega’s article here

[2] Jed Pressgrove's essential Marxist reading of actual sunlight sees it in an entirely different light

[3] Laura Dale examines the specific nature of culpability and suicide as they relate to games, looking at her experiences with Life is Strange in this excellent piece

This post has been funded by Patreon. It has been slightly updated at 22/04/15 to include some new links.