Suicide Discussion as an Art Stunt

by Jed Pressgrove

Earlier this month developer Porpentine released a Twine called “Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone” for a limited time only. This event was as much about Porpentine’s statement as anything:

This game will be available for 24 hours and then I am deleting it forever.

You can download it here until then.

What you do with it, whether you distribute, share, or cover it, is up to you.

Suicide is a social problem.

Suicide is a social failure.

This game will live through social means only.

This game will not be around forever because the people you fail will not be around forever.

They are never coming back.

This game’s title:

Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

This game’s title when you feel uncomfortable with the topic of suicide and would rather indefinitely forestall your inevitable confrontation with reality:

Anyways, this is dedicated to Sasha Menu Courey & all the others.

Suicide is indeed a major and complex social problem, as established by Emile Durkheim’s groundbreaking sociological work, “Suicide.” Porpentine’s game, now hosted at StoryCade (among others), does not address suicide as broadly as Durkheim, who identified several types of suicide and numerous related social facts. Porpentine focuses on a type of suicide caused by abuse and neglect. The developer’s reference of Sasha Menu Courey might seem disrespectful following a flippant “Anyways,” but Courey’s case is significant: Courey committed suicide in 2011 after the University of Missouri failed to respond to Courey’s report that she had been raped by one or more UM football players. I say without hesitation that it’s better to spend time learning about the broken system of UM, and what that says about American culture’s handling of rape and mental illness, than playing Porpentine’s game.

“Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone” comes across as an art stunt. The game’s poetry, addition/subtraction, and suspense don’t promote broad understanding about a serious subject. Rather, these elements, along with the “for a limited time only” approach, appear to be designed to build the mystique of Porpentine as an unconventional artist. And like Porpentine’s accusatory tone, all of these things play with people’s emotions. By distributing, sharing, or covering, the audience becomes part of an art marketing campaign.

(Let’s place the criticism aside: from a purely emotional standpoint, I don’t find Porpentine’s approach edifying. In the last few years, two of my loved ones have committed suicide. I loved both of these people unconditionally, but I still interrogated myself: did I ever do anything, however small, to contribute to their suicide? Was there anything I could have done to let them know that I was there for them? Eventually, I realized I probably wasn’t the only person who has asked these questions. I decided it was best to honor the memories of my loved ones, to discuss with others how important they were as people, and to be mindful of how much my action or inaction might affect people. I imagine almost everyone, at some point, must come to terms with the suicide of a loved one.)

Porpentine’s statements and game don’t acknowledge the complexity of a universal problem. One can be intrigued, impressed, or simply shocked by the game’s limited release, imagery, abstract yet blunt style, and mature subject matter. But the world needs more articulate dialogue about suicide, not more artistic branding.

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5 comments

  1. I’m very sorry to hear about your loss, but it does seem a little bit disingenuous to posit an either/or scenario in which people will ONLY play the game, but not be moved to further edify themselves. Especially since much of the game is about obfuscation and giving the player very little context to work with.

  2. Hey Robot, thank you for your comment. With my statement about the UM/Courey case vs. playing the game, I intend to challenge people who have played or will play the game. Namely, did the game share anything insightful about suicide/abuse? I think it’s a relevant question, and although my answer is “No,” someone could answer it a far different way (personally, I’d like to read more reviews of this game).

    I agree the game is about obfuscation and giving the player little context, but I think this approach detracts from the idea of addressing or presenting a social problem like suicide. To me, these elements make the game feel more like art for art’s sake rather than art that communicates something that people can take away from it.

    1. The passage that prompted my response was this one:
      “I say without hesitation that it’s better to spend time learning about the broken system of UM, and what that says about American culture’s handling of rape and mental illness, than playing Porpentine’s game.”

      Which did not register as a challenge so much as an authoritative statement that seems, I don’t know, unearned? It’s possible that the wording is simply not as clear as you’d hoped, but my first thought is: “better for whom? Better for those who are playing the game but have not themselves considered suicide? Better for those who have not considered suicide but are dealing with the suicide of a loved one? Better for those who never think about suicide at all and mostly just play games for fun? Better for those who are dealing with the suicide of a loved one and are now considering suicide themselves? Better for those who are dealing with the suicide of a loved one and find the concept of suicide morally repugnant?” All of these (admittedly overlapping) categories of people have different sets of priorities and needs, and while I agree with your later point that suicide is a universal problem, the individual responses and dialogues that surround it are not.

      So, to respond to your question: the game gave me insight into the way that Porpentine views and conceptualizes abuse and suicide. Both of which are large/interrelated social problems, but they are also problems that are individuated in a way that I personally have difficulty reconciling the ethics of suggesting that Porpentine’s work is invalid because it fails to address *all* facets of abuse and suicide. There is also the question of marketing and motivation – Porpentine does have a Patreon page and makes some money through that, but pretty much all of her games are free. She’s already garnered a fair bit of social capital through her other works, so I’m not really sure what she stands to gain from a “stunt.”

      It could be a matter of differing critical approach, but it seems like you’re privileging the critical apparatus you’re using to address the purported object of study (Porpentine’s game) and faulting that object for not reflecting the criticism you’ve read. Which, depending on the scope of your piece, maybe that was the point. Were you to build this in to a lengthier, more sustained criticism, I’d love to see more attention paid to what Durkheim says about abuse and suicide and how that contrasts (or syncs up with) what Porpentine has done. Perhaps a more thorough exploration of the game’s mechanics (especially the passages that appear in the negative numbers, as those are frequently overlooked).

      For me, I felt the obfuscation was an effective way to communicate the idea that this is a large, interrelated problem. Something large enough that we cannot hold all of its facets and considerations in our heads at once, but instead experience a kind of sleight of hand, of parts crystallizing and disappearing. By also “endangering” the ability of future players to find and play the game (although there are already plenty of other hosts) Porpentine also engages in a sort of extradiegetic rhetoric that frames her argument in a space that is outside of the typically cloistered realm of a single-player game. Design that forces the player out of the game to “solve” comes across (to me) as an evolution of some of the mechanics she experimented with in Ultra Business Tycoon III.

      At any rate, to be clear, I agree with your point that the world needs more candid discussion about suicide in the world, but I cannot get behind the idea that all forms of discourse must be instrumentalized in precisely the same manner and produce the same cogent answers. Explicitly because suicide and other issues cannot be conquered by logic alone. Speaking as someone who has struggled with similar issues, sometimes logic is abhorrent, an abomination because it fails to articulate in a satisfying way the myriad causes for suicide. Sometimes just feeling pain in a safe space and commiserating with someone else is enough.

      1. The statement is authoritative as far as how strongly I feel about the game. You are right that others with different critical lenses and experiences could disagree with me.

        I can agree the game has its own tone, style, mechanics, method of release, and artist’s statement. From my view, these elements are there as part of a display that said more to me about Porpentine as an artist than it did about abuse and suicide. That is, the elements might intrigue, impress, or shock me on technical and artistic levels, but I didn’t take much perspective from them in regard to the main subject or even Porpentine as an individual (whose personal experience is just as real as mine). It all came across to me as an art thing, or “stunt,” from an unconventional artist, in contrast to other games I’ve recently reviewed such as Traitor, Mainichi, and Grand Titons.

        Your last paragraph is very well put, and your suggestions for a longer piece of criticism on the game would be good areas to explore and discuss.

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