Published in Cipher in March 2017
The story begins in an endless void of stars. You approach one, and it’s actually a tumbling ball of static. Text appears beneath it:
name: jacob ernholtz
method: asphyxiation by hanging
The ball of static swallows you. Then comes the sound of a garish alarm. It’s 3:22 a.m., exactly when you wanted to wake up. The first thing you see is a poster on your ceiling that says, “Today will be a better day.” Below the text is a disturbing hand-sketched face that looks like a demented baby.
I should let you know right now that I’m about to spoil a video game for you. The game is called “The Static Speaks My Name.” It’s free, and it takes 15 minutes to play. If you don’t care about spoilers, continue reading at your own risk.
You wander into the hallway. It’s unclear if you’re in a house or apartment, but your windows are boarded up. By the door is a stack of five TVs, all tuned to pure static. Before making your way to the kitchen, you decide to spend some time in your Painting Room. The walls in this room are covered with dozens of reproductions of the exact same painting: two generic palm trees on a small island. The Painting Room has infrared copies, blown-up copies, black and white copies, even one on the ceiling. Many are annotated with theories about the Biblical significance of leaf positions and the secret codes embedded in the trees’ shadows. On one wall there is a large map of the Bahamas with a sticker next to it that reads, “possible setting of painting.”
In the kitchen, you open the fridge and there’s absolutely nothing in it. So you walk back to your bedroom, where you see your aquarium filled with your pet shrimp. Next to the tank is a large framed photograph of your shrimp captioned, “MY BABIES.” Below: “Printed by Jico’s Professional Photography.” You are hungry. You lift a shrimp out of the tank and lower it into your mouth. You chomp on it and swallow. Then you do it again.
“The Static Speaks My Name” came out in 2015. You play as a 31-year-old man named Jacob Ernholtz, and the objective—if you can call it that—is to do all that I’ve outlined above. There are a few more goals: chat online, clean the microwave, decide what to do about the naked man you imprisoned in a cage in your secret room (he’s the one who paints the palm trees) and finally, hang yourself in the closet. The hanging is accompanied by disturbingly realistic choking sounds.
As you can tell by now, this is not a traditional game. You can’t win or lose. It’s not fun. It requires no puzzle-solving or quick thinking. But a large percentage of people who have written about it attest that it’s acutely disturbing. Why?
The hook lies within the darkness of the house and the boarded-up windows. This probably makes sense to anyone who’s ever been so depressed that they made sure no sunlight entered their room. The game establishes more connection through its odd brand, which walks the line between humor and desperate cries for help. If you don’t connect with the darkness, you’re unlikely to be impacted by the game at all. But if you do, it’s just the right door into the most sensitive parts of your consciousness.
Some of the darkness includes the books in the shelves: they have titles like “The Autoerotica of Benjamin Franklin” and “What’s the Least He Can Eat: A Guide to Raising Thin Children.” On a table, there are instructions for strategically positioning books in your bookshelf so nobody knows the bookshelf is really a door leading to a chamber where you keep your kidnapped guy. Also, you have to love the idea of hiring a pet photographer for shrimp.
People say that humor is a coping mechanism. This game takes that concept and pushes it as far as it can go.
Part of the game engenders a strange relatability. It’s subtle, though, and metaphorical. The game’s despair, despite being far-flung, brings out a darkness that most people have felt or could imagine themselves feeling. Each absurd element translates to a real-world fear.
Eating the shrimp: could I become so sad that I destroy something I love?
The palm tree painting: could I become so obsessed with something that it ruins me?
The man in the cage: could I become so sad that I lose all empathy and do something reprehensible?
The noose in the closet: could I somehow get so depressed, or could my life become so destroyed, that I end my life?
The symbolic crux of the game is the painting. What about this painting is so unnerving? It could be the generic, vaporwave nature of it all. (Vaporwave is an Internet art movement that uses obsolete technology and pastel colors to make commentary on material culture. It’s complicated. Look it up.) Imagine if the painting represented a well-rendered tropical environment (think “Birth of Venus”). It probably wouldn’t do quite the same thing.
But you know what would? A poorly-made painting of a forest with childishly rendered triangle-trees. Or maybe a watercolor of a bouquet, the type of painting that you might find in a rest home bedroom. It’s the utter cliché that does the trick. That, and the pathetic innocence of it. It’s the same kind of aesthetic that makes me cry a few tears over the cartoon characters on knock-off cereal boxes.
The painting depicts the outdoors. Outdoors: something this game doesn’t feature whatsoever. Jacob yearns for nature, but he worships one of the outdoors’ most hackneyed iterations. He wants paradise, but he’s only able to imagine it in the most pathetic and reductive way. Something about it is heartbreaking.
Is the island paradise, though? Or is it just the miserable “stranded” caricature portrayed in "The Far Side” at least 200 times? A desert island is basically the outdoor version of Jacob’s depressing, boarded-up apartment. Does Jacob even want the island? He seems more interested in the representations of it, judging by all the annotations on the positioning of one of the palm leaves. Or maybe the island means nothing and forces the viewer to try to dig for meaning, just as Jacob does. Something so meaningless and generic simply begs investigation.
Also of note is the turn-of-the-century box PC—another trope found in vaporwave culture. The desktop background is tiled with the palm tree picture. The objective is “chat online with friends.” But you only have three buddies, and none of them are online. A stranger messages you.
Faerie9968: im horny
The game gives you two options:
Press ‘G’ to say you’ve embarrassed everyone who believed in you
Press ‘H’ to say you can feel the atoms in your body waking up
No matter which you press, you can only say:
Faerie9968: im touching myself
Faerie9968: do u want to see
Press ‘G’ to say you’re about to do something horrible
Press ‘H’ to admit you saw your reflection be decapitated with a shovel
No matter which you press:
ratherBtravelin: i dont know
ratherBtravelin: maybe, but
She says she’s thinking about how big you are and that she’s getting wet. Then she asks for your credit card number.
This exchange is the ultimate metaphor for social desperation. None of your three friends are online. Instead, you’re faced with one of the most depraved, lonely things in existence: a fraud sex-bot. Sex, something ideally fueled by intimacy, here is funneled and warped through the absolute depravity of scamming.
It’s significant that the computer is archaic, given that the game was made in 2015, when these computers hadn’t been so much as seen for at least a decade. Jacob’s computer is just like him: obsolete and lacking a place in the world. The handle “ratherBtravelin” must have been created a long, long time ago, when Jacob might have still traveled. A time when he didn’t want to board up his windows. Or maybe he never traveled, and it’s just a nod to the palm trees. “Palmtreeluvr” would have been a more obvious choice, in that case.
And of course, the inability to say what you really mean mirrors the real-world experience of words frozen inside of you. What does it mean to “feel the atoms in your body waking up,” anyway? Something about it strikes me as highly irrational. It reminds me of delusional parasitosis, an erroneous belief that you are infested. Or it could be a small, strangely-worded hint that Jacob is getting ready to commit suicide. The strange wording really fits with someone so isolated. Someone so isolated and detached, it seems, as to sense himself on an atomic level.
For me, the kidnapped man broke the flow of the game. Jacob was understandable and sympathetic until this point. I was relating to this character the whole way through, finding metaphors for my own existence, but I have never, not even in the bottom of my heart, not even in a metaphorical way, wanted to imprison a naked guy in a cage in my closet. I guess I’m just too normal. But I still felt a pang in my heart—sympathy for the man in the cage.
For the record, whether the man in the cage is the artist of the original palm trees painting has been a point of dispute online. I’m pretty sure they’re the same person. There’s an article about a missing local painter named “Jason Malone” hanging on the fridge. If that isn’t enough proof, one of the infrared scans in the Painting Room reveals the signature “J. Malone.”
After hanging yourself, you are transported back to that endless void filled with stars. Other balls of static surround you. If you approach them, you see other names.
name: nadia handford
name: barbie hedquist
method: leap from condo balcony
There are a few more. You can’t enter into any of these balls of static. But it makes you realize that living in the last few minutes of Jacob’s life was just a taste. You have just been inside one of millions of suicides, and this void probably contains every single suicide there’s ever been.
This game crushed me. I played it alone in my dorm room at the wrong time, shortly after I learned that someone very special to me did not want to speak with me ever again. Today, I can play this game and feel nothing. I played it a few more times and became habituated. But when I first played it, it threw me into a more terrifying sadness than I had experienced in a long, long time.
I never enjoyed shrimp in the first place, but I have made a special effort to avoid it since I played the game. I began noticing it everywhere: on billboards, in Red Lobster commercials, in a photo of someone I was Instagram-creeping. Every time, it gave me a startling mini-flashback. At my dad’s birthday dinner, I made everyone at the table promise to not order shrimp. The waiter brought surprise shrimp hors d’oeuvres anyway.
Acknowledging all this, “The Static Speaks My Name” still elicits a manageable level of darkness. Enough to make its point, but not enough to completely wreck you. There is worse out there, after all. For example, my friend recalled a time where his friends pinned him down and forced him to watch a video of a man being eaten alive by piranhas. I made this friend play “Static,” and it messed him up. “I had to spend the next half hour reading pleasant haikus and talking to people outside,” he said. But it wasn’t as bad as the piranhas.
The creator of "Static," Jesse Barksdale, didn’t seem to stray far from home for his first game. His Tumblr is filled with his grotesque DIY artwork and posts like:
my children’s clothing store ‘the most rotten milk’ is, unfortunately, closing :-(
i could have used your support, guys. a few weeks ago literally nobody came inside for 9 days straight.
I really think that status is fake. I hope it’s fake. Here’s another one:
my memory is bad, so remind me
what % of the day am i in control of my mind?
he says, tearing out his intestines for the cheering crowd
Some of his more depressing statuses from several years ago make me think that “Static” is this guy’s genuine, heartfelt autobiography.
im not against suicide, im really not, but i’ve found a few things to live for and it’s a good feeling even when the things you live for make your life worse
Some of that goes without saying. Obviously nobody who has been relatively happy for their entire lives would make a game like this.
One night, I stumbled upon an interview Jesse did with a tiny YouTube channel called MediaCube. His voice was sort of comforting and nasally—like he could voice a cartoon character. He repeatedly insisted that every artistic choice in the game was very deliberate, yet he refused to answer any questions, wanting the game to stay open to interpretation.
I learned that Jesse has been making games for a long time, but this was the first one he thought was good enough to put out in the world. He originally made “Static” for Ludum Dare, a 48-hour gamejam (a high-speed game-making competition). The game was a puzzle involving an inescapable house. The only way out was to hang yourself so your ghost could walk through the wall. With one hour left in the competition, Jesse decided the house needed more decoration. So he made one image, the palm trees, and duplicated it all over the walls. The game came somewhere in the top two hundred out of a couple thousand.
When making the final game, Jesse decided to exclusively limit the wall art to palm trees. He couldn’t resist the “MY BABIES” poster, however.
“I was thinking really hard: Should I put something else up? I feel like it should only be palm trees. But that was too funny...that someone would take glamor shots of their pet shrimp.”
The final version took four months to create. He hoped a hundred people would play it, and now several hundred thousand have. He doesn’t plan on making a sequel where the other suicide stars are explored, however.
“I think it’s, for me, at least more interesting implying that other stories and experiences exist rather than actually, literally seeing them,” he said.
At the 11th hour, I emailed Jesse Barksdale, the creator of "Static," asking him why he ruined my life. Actually, I asked him why he wanted to create an unlikable protagonist. He replied at the 11th hour and fifty-ninth minute: "Most protagonists of movies, games, and books are likeable people, at least in some way. That's one of the 'rules' of creating a main character, so it seems like an interesting challenge to make a character with few or no redeeming qualities. I'm always interested in experimentation, so I guess it's fun to see if I can make something interesting while going against what is considered 'good advice.' I also even have an issue with the idea of 'goodness.'"
He also elaborated on his inner demons so profoundly that I have no choice but to simply paste his reply here in its entirety.
"I've experienced periods of depression and obsession my whole life and 'static' is for sure a manifestation of that...I think that art, when you're doing it "properly" is almost just magically a manifestation of whoever you are and whatever you're thinking in that moment. It's difficult to exactly describe which parts of 'static' are a reflection of myself in the same way it's difficult to describe your personality besides very surface things like "I like movies and pizza." But yes, since 'static' was made entirely by me, it's very much a reflection of the emotions I was feeling during the time that I made it."
I told him I would mail him a copy of Cipher and that I would not use his address to kidnap him.
Jesse maintains an online store where you can buy “Static” merchandise, such as a poster of the shrimp photo and a “Today will be a better day” mug. He also has a new game out called “Bucket Detective” that has a lot more plot and humor, but is still all kinds of fucked up. I recommend it highly. What other deranged things will this man produce? Only time will tell.
“The Static Speaks My Name.” Consider the title: I mean, how far down the rabbit hole would you have to be to relate to static, anyway? Well…
Static happens when a signal is empty, and there’s nothing to fill the gap. One of the primary causes of static is something called the “cosmic microwave background,” or the thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang. Static is the sound of the invisible universe that we never really think about. That’s what called Jacob. Someday we will all return there, too. Until then, we can play this game, probably feel moved and disgusted, and attempt to return to our lives.