Note: This editorial contains spoilers for the game. It’s free, so consider playing it for yourself before reading.
The opening shot of Jesse Barksdale’s The Static Speaks My Name (TSSMN) says that today will be a better day. But in the paranoid, enclosed environment of a boarded up apartment, I wonder if it really will. With a repetitive vision of a single painting of two trees, televisions playing nothing but static, and notes hinting at death, depression, and self-destruction, will today only be a good day because it means the end of the protagonist’s lonely life? A break from the cycle?
TSSMN speaks very little during its short duration, but there are many notes and hints as to what happened to the main character. The first seems to be his obsession with the meaning behind a painting. There are walls covered with its image, and dozens of different variations on it, all covered in hand-written notes struggling to understand its meaning. At a glance, it’s just a picture of two trees on an island, but for someone struggling, trapped in their own mind by a cycle of depression, it seems to be soaked in importance. It seems to scream hundreds of different things to the main character, but all of them are just outside of his grasp.
So there he stands, back at the painting. Do those trees mean anything? Likely not. It is just a painting of two trees. Yet, in TSSMN, we see the aftermath of a man obsessed with finding the meaning in this painting. We know that his mind has the time to roll over endless possibilities, studying every minute detail of the painting. He even goes so far as to change it, using different contrasts to look at the painting in new ways. What our main character does not realize, though, is that he has changed the painting entirely in his search for its meaning. It’s not anything like what it was, but he still looks for outside meaning in something he himself has changed. It is a reflection of himself more than the creator, but he is beyond realizing this.
He is a prisoner of this line of thinking. There is a point when his search for meaning is so distorted that it locks him away from the real world. We see this in several aspects of TSSMN, such as the boarded-up doors and windows. All outside meaning has been locked out, leaving only introspection, which has become poisonous. We can also see it in the static playing on the televisions. TV tends to at least give people a mock view of the world, one that shows a world we could desire that often isn’t even close to how things work in the real world. Even so, the protagonist doesn’t even get that much of a view of the outside world. The TVs play nothing but static, cutting the protagonist off from even distorted outside stimulus.
His computer works, though, and it is there where he might be able to make some outside contact. Still, these are nothing more than words on a screen. The protagonist reaches out to someone over messenger, never quite capable of telling them the truth about how he feels and what he’s thinking. He can chat with someone during the course of gameplay, but the person’s replies only push him to engage in cyber sex. Perhaps the person is real, and even someone who knows him, but either way they clearly do not see what he needs right now is help, something that his inability to communicate screams.
He does have some friends, but his most frequent companionship consists of the pet shrimp in his room. Can he turn to them, even to at least speak about his problems and thoughts to a pet? No, as the darkness that has overtaken his thoughts is devouring what few friendships he has. The shrimp are his only pets, but there is no food in this place he has trapped himself in. The only thing he can rely on for sustenance here are the shrimp themselves, devouring his own loved ones. The only other picture in this place is one of the pet shrimp, with a note saying that they’re his babies. They are the only thing close to him anymore, and the prison his mind has built requires that he eat them to survive.
This moment, as silly or bizarre as eating shrimp from a tank to live may be, seems important to the game’s untold story. We see this in the protagonist’s consumption of his own pets, which the game has gone out of its way to say that he cares about. They are his babies, and he is eating them in his depression, simply to survive. Depression consumes friendships, the game says in its own way. Eating a pet, a creature that likely loves him more than any other being in his life, makes this point sickeningly clear.
The darkness is a prison, and there seem to be few escape routes. In the case of TSSMN, there is only one exit. It reveals itself in the form of an imprisoned guest, one who is freed just moments before the game’s final act. The person, locked in a room with another rendition of the twin trees painting being made, can only be let go just before the protagonist finally commits suicide. That feeling of freedom comes when an exit finally presents itself, even if the only way to silence the maddening search for meaning, or the way that today will be a better day, is for death to finally end it. It’s a horrible end to a difficult tale, but given the way the protagonist’s life is consuming friendships with no hope of help, what other way out is there? What other route to freedom?
Is death freedom, though, because in the framework of TSSMN, it is still something we are told to do. We are told to eat, use the bathroom, clean the microwave, and kill ourselves. That final act, the one that should lead to freedom, is still the player doing the bidding of the depression. TSSMN tells us that this is just the last order from the disease that is breaking the protagonist down. This becomes even more clear in the internet chat, the only instance in which the game lets the player choose from two different commands. The problem is that the game gives the same response in chat no matter what the player chooses. The depression has already chosen where the protagonist’s life is going to go, and even if the player thinks they’re deviating from those commands, they’re still following orders. The depression is still in control, leading the player all the way to the noose at the very end.
The noose was the final act of ‘choice’ the game hands the player. This is where the gameplay made its final point, and I remembered that, despite everything the game had created, it was still waiting for my final command to finish the poor man’s life. As a game, it is a self-contained universe run on its own rules. TSSMN tells the player that depression works in similar ways, as it convinces the sufferer that there is only one route. It tells the afflicted person that there is no way out, that the dark thoughts must be followed out to their logical, self-destructive conclusion. The commands in the game only seem to give the player that one way out, and that this path must be followed to its end no matter what. To finish the game, we must end the protagonist’s life. And we must finish the game, right?
Instead of issuing the command, I shut the game off. Dying is a fail state in games for a reason. If we’ve died, especially on purpose, then we haven’t won. The game’s commands might lead to that conclusion, but dying means I have lost my battle. For TSSMN, the death of the player is still a failure. It’s still a moment where the player has not brought the protagonist out of their depression. The player, just like the main character, are trapped in a series of orders that don’t appear to offer any other way out. Shutting the game off is a way of cutting the cycle – of finding a way out when the game gives no other route. It’s a symbolic break in the single line of thinking depression can lead to.
What can be more destructive to a game character than shutting the game off? In that moment, hasn’t the player collapsed the universe? But the protagonist survived based on those actions. It required a line of thinking completely outside of the rules that the game, or depression, imposed on the protagonist. It shows that there is a way out, however strange and outlandish it may be, and that it can be found. It’s not easy to find, but it can be done. It’s a strange message of hope in a dark, bleak game, but it is still there for the player to find.
The Static Speaks My Name says many things over its short play time, compressing an emotional experience into about ten minutes. For those willing to look, it gives a glimpse of the final moments of a man’s life and of the depression that has crippled his thoughts into a self-replicating cycle of darkness. It lets the player feel the hopelessness of his situation, and witness the way it takes over how the mind perceives the outside world, locking out hope and substituting its own self-deprecating meaning. We see it devour friendships, leaving the protagonist alone. In the end, though, we see that there is hope and an escape route, even if it is terribly difficult to find. It’s a hard look at a difficult topic, letting players feel some of the power of depression, if only for a little while.
Thankfully, only for a little while.
The Static Speaks My Name is available for free on Itch.io (you can make a donation to the developer if you would like). For more information on developer Jesse Barksdale and his works, you can follow him on Twitter.