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Uh, no., November 16, 2010
This review of Suicide covers release 1.
The author of Suicide has a menu item entitled “Why make a game about teen suicide?” I’m writing this review because I’m not satisfied with the author’s answer, both in the game menu and in terms of the game itself. For me, a teenage suicide attempt is not an abstract subject. (It’s been over twenty years.) The author might say that I’m not the intended audience for this game. Well, who is the intended audience? If the work’s title was instead something actually funny like You Have To Go, I never would have looked at it.
The author indicates that the original intent was centered around the idea of changing the “*** You have died***” failure message to “*** You have survived***”. The easiest way I know to kill the PC is to type “quit”. If I find the character or the situation uninteresting, I won’t play the game. But to have a player empathize with a PC who wants to commit suicide? That’s an interesting challenge for an author. I can’t even imagine a realistic scenario for this; I’d probably write something about a despised nonhuman character who must commit ritual suicide to appease the vengeful Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Instead, the author of Suicide decided to (try to) write realistically about suicide. The author apparently wanted to write a piece that is both funny and also has a serious message. In my opinion, the author fails on both counts. It is possible to joke about suicide. When I say Suicide isn’t funny, I mean in the sense that it’s boring. It fails as dark humor in, say, the spirit of Harold and Maude or Heathers. As for a serious message, the work is ignorant regarding the experience and psychology of suicide attempts.
A few comments about the work itself. It was beta-tested, and it shows. (Hence a two-star rating.) There are minor spelling issues: the “bath tub”, one ending's name is (Spoiler - click to show)“THERAPUTIC”. The parser does a decent job: I found “turn on faucet” annoying that it assumed I wanted to take a shower, but it’s tough to be too annoyed when it correctly accepts “draw bath” or “fill tub”. The parser does get picky regarding reading one of the diary entries. (The opening quote from “Suicide is Painless”, the copyrighted lyrics to the M*A*S*H theme, needs an attribution.)
A couple of different technical points irritate me. First off, the author doesn’t appear to understand why you can’t kill yourself with a hair dryer. (Spoiler - click to show) If the electrical receptacle in the bathroom contains a GFCI (not described, incidentally) and it is tripped when you bring the hair dryer into the tub, you wouldn’t be able to step out of the tub and immediately power the hair dryer again. It would not “come to life”. You’d have to reset the GFCI first. (I think hair dryers themselves now contain GFCIs anyway. There’s an episode of Mythbusters in which they had to disable the internal GFCIs in order to test a myth.) Secondly, I also must comment on an ending, (Spoiler - click to show) the “GIRL INTERRUPTED” ending: if the PC showed up at an ER with an aspirin overdose, the treatment would likely be activated charcoal, not a stomach pump. I know this from experience, but it’s also easy to find on Wikipedia. Minimal research would have discovered this.
I have more substantial problems with the psychology depicted in this work. The introductory text states: “Tonight’s the night you are going to kill yourself. You walk into the bathroom, realizing that this is the last room you’re ever going to be in alive. The thought is both terrifying and liberating.” I’m sorry, but this last sentence is just wrong. Waking Up, Alive by Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D. does an excellent job describing suicidal attempts “from the inside”. Heckler characterizes a suicidal trance prior to attempts. My point here is that a suicidal person will likely not be experiencing strong emotions. Instead, a suicidal person might end up appearing to an unsuspecting observer detached and at peace. Another problem I have is the simplistic psychology of some of the endings. (Spoiler - click to show) The “THERAPUTIC” ending is, well, stupid. You take ecstasy, which makes you happy, which compels you to tell everything to your parents – uh, no. If this is supposed to be a serious message about suicide not being a quick fix, I’m not sure what this quick fix is doing in here. (There’s also the implicit message that you can’t talk about difficult things unless you feel like it.) The “UNCONSCIOUS DROWNING” ending is filled with pathos, but at the same time it reads a lot like a teenage fantasy of how her parents can’t go on without the PC. I’m not going through every unsuccessful ending, but the few I’ve checked (“GIRL INTERRUPTED”, “SHAKY HANDS”, “SHALLOW CUTS”) make no mention of the PC’s parents after she’s shipped off to psychiatric care, an interesting way of helping the player consider the effect of the PC’s actions on her family.
There’s another problem I have with this work: the choice of a teenaged girl as the PC, (Spoiler - click to show) and she happens to be distraught over a jerk. Let’s face it: teenaged girls face problems that teenaged boys don’t. I’m certainly not going to claim boys have it easy, but I don’t remember getting pregnant or being called a slut. Getting back to our PC: if someone is feeling this isolated and alone – no matter how foolish she is in her reasoning – why would anyone want her to die? I can empathize with her pain, even if I can’t empathize with her decision. Now one can respond by saying “Oh, come on. There’s no real person here. It’s just a game.” That’s a possible reaction. It’s a reaction that’s difficult to reconcile with the author’s stated “hope to have gotten across a message as well.”
The last problem I’ll mention about this game is its tone towards suicide. I first learned about guidelines for media coverage from Kay Redfield Jamison’s excellent book Night Falls Fast. You can find similar guidelines at www.afsp.org, under About Suicide < For The Media < Recommendations. These recommendations were formulated in the context of encouraging responsible news reporting so as to not contribute to suicide contagion. If I someday write dramatically about suicide, I plan to keep such guidelines in mind.
I won’t go through all these recommendations, but I’ll highlight a few points. The guidelines mention that the “cause of an individual suicide is invariably more complicated than a recent painful event such as the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a job.” I can think of a number of reasons why this is important to understand. It helps survivors in healing, in that they didn’t cause it to happen. It can help prevent suicide, in that it places suffering in a broader context of life rather than a shameful silence. It might help all of us in understanding that one sloppy depiction of suicide by itself won’t cause a vulnerable person to go kill themselves. Yet if the author is serious about helping, it’s not enough to risk throwing fuel on a fire and then say, truthfully, “Hey, I didn’t start it.” Since the author has stated a serious intent, I want to mention a couple sentences from the AFSP recommendations. A concern: “Dramatizing the impact of suicide through descriptions and pictures of grieving relatives, teachers or classmates or community expressions of grief may encourage potential victims to see suicide as a way of getting attention or as a form of retaliation against others.” (I’d add “attempted suicide” to the previous sentence.) A recommendation for language: “Whenever possible, it is preferable to avoid referring to suicide in the headline.”
One of the most frustrating aspects of Suicide is that I’m seeing how it could be both a funny and useful piece. Such a rewrite could use the existing code base. It’d be more effective if the PC had a stupid motivation. I can imagine a PC who is 40 years old living alone and disturbed by someone on the Internet who doesn’t understand suicide. Is he moved enough to write a response? NO! He immediately shuts off his computer and runs to the bathroom! That’ll teach that anonymous person online! (Spoiler - click to show) But the PC is wearing a dress, because he doesn’t want to leave the impression that suicidal ideation has a simple cause. If he’s discovered dead by his landlord, the landlord will be pissed off about the condition of the bathroom. If the PC comes to in the ER, the PC starts bitching how Dr. House would be doing a better job. I could go on, but this isn’t my piece to write. Aside from the humor, it also underlines a serious point: apparently, males living alone are at the greatest risk demographically for dying by suicide. (I’m not saying that all males living alone are at risk.)
Having written all of this, there's a basic truth: I don't like writing about suicide. I don't like writing about it for many reasons, but here's one: it's a cheap way of getting attention. It's incredibly hypocritical to write "Don't use suicide as a way of getting attention, even though I just did!" Another reason I hate writing about it is that it often attracts the lecturers about how wrong it is, people who must denounce those who've tried it as crazy or defective or sinners or what have you. I get these reactions, but do they really help anybody? Look: I can appreciate someone who has never stumbled and doesn't have time to wait for stragglers. I just don't see why such a person feels entitled to lecture everybody else on how to walk.
I'm going to end this review by leaving things with the author. If this was either a first draft at an honest treatment of suicide or a "funny" entry with a suicide hotline number thrown in to cover his backside (you never know about that internet . . . .), that's up to him. For the depressed persons reading this review, drawn by the title of this work, I want you to know: you are not alone. It can get better. Things can hurt -- believe me, I know how things can and also wish I didn't know -- but that hurting is what connects you to other people.