That Static Speaks My Name
Developed by: Jesse Barksdale
Published by: Jesse Barksdale
Available on: Windows, OSX

Jacob Ernholtz has peculiar tastes. The 31 year-old keeps an aquarium filled with pet shrimp, and his bookshelves are lined with fictional titles like “Empty Women,” “faking spanish (impostero espanol),” and “What’s the Least He Can Eat: A Guide to Raising Thin Children.” On the ceiling above his bed, a poster promises “Today Will Be A Better Day.” When you take control of Ernholtz in the opening moments of “The Static Speaks My Name,” waking at 3:22AM to the harsh buzz of the bedside alarm, everything feels off, suspended in a peculiarity that feels simultaneously comic and cryptic, both an uncanny dream state and a final countdown toward something irreversibly horrific.

First developed by Jesse Barksdale as a crude prototype at the Ludum Dare game jam in 2014,“The Static Speaks My Name” fits within the tradition of short-duration games like Jason Rohrer’s “Passage,” Tale of Tales’ “The Graveyard,” Anna Anthropy’s “Dys4ia,” Robert Yang’s “Succulent” and Terry Cavanagh’s “Don’t Look Back.” It can be played through in about 10 minutes, and creates the kind of experience that echoed through my thoughts days after playing, and which I returned to play through as one might a favorite poem or song.

The first-person game has you move through Ernholtz’s apartment, looking for the few objects that have been invisibly designated as interactive with small bits of white text like: “Take the keys,” “Clean the microwave,” or “Eat the shrimp.” With a few exceptions, these acts aren’t animated or accompanied by any sensual simulation.

You don’t watch Ernholtz clean out his microwave, you just hit the “E” button and jump forward in time to a point where all the stains have been removed. Likewise, you don’t see Ernholtz reach out and take the keys from the wall or eat the shrimp from the aquarium, the environment just instantly changes in a way that suggests these acts have already been done.

In a very short prologue before the game begins, you find yourself hovering in outer space facing a vaporous sphere. As you approach it, Ernholtz’s name and age appear alongside his cause of death: asphyxiation by hanging. Once you draw near enough to this floating cloud, you’re transported inside Ernholtz’s body for what turns out to be his last few moments alive.

It would be a misreading, though, to say the game is about suicide or in any way attempts to represent, the psychological or social conditions that might lead one to it. Its unsteady mixture of sarcasm, self-loathing, and dream logic feel more like attempts to make the clichés about depression and mental instability garrishly visible. Barksdale has made a tightly controlled farce about the vanity of imagining you can occupy another person’s consciousness.

Ernholtz’s fixation on a painting of two palm trees that fill his apartment seems to have triggered a deconstructive mania that helped unmoor Ernholtz’s mind and life. At first the painting is barely noticeable, a bland vacation fantasy that seems like it might have been taken from a waiting room or principal’s office. In one hidden room you find duplicates of the painting spread across the wall, some with different color gradients, while notes pasted on the wall alongside suggest some physical implausibility of the shadows cast by the trees.

When you eventually discover a naked man in a cage on all fours, trapped in a hidden vault at the back of the apartment, someone who seems by all to be the original painter, it is clear Ernholtz’s obsessiveness is not particularly sympathetic.

Barksdale’s work makes an interesting contrast to the recent group of games like “Gone Home,” “That Dragon, Cancer,” or “Cart Life”—sometimes described as “empathy games”— suggesting that the desire to represent experiences as complicated as cancer, mortality, systemic poverty, or sexual awakening can be usefully captured through interactive systems. There’s much to admire in these games and their work to foster an appreciation for the human experiences outside what’s typically acknowledged in entertainment. “The Static Speaks My Name” is less a refutation of this approach than a reminder of how absurd things can be when we confuse a desire to understand and appreciate other people’s life experiences by oversimplifying them in a form that reduces them to a series of inputs and outputs.

The beauty of Barksdale’s work is in capturing the creeping unease that can come from wanting other people’s lives to make too much sense.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.