Intimacy with the Devil: Horror and 'the static speaks my name'
the static speaks my name creates an uncomfortable intimacy between the player and the protagonist.
This post contains spoilers for the static speaks my name, which is a game that takes probably five to seven minutes to get through and is free to play on Steam. So, if you would like to not be spoiled but would like to read on, you can find the game here and then come right back for this discussion of it.
You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat.
-- Montresor, the killer in Edgar Allan Poe's “The Cask of Amontillado”
There is a kind of polarity in horror fiction that one can see when contrasting some of the best known works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft often creates a sense of distance between the reader and the horrors that his characters speak of. In stories like “The Statement of Randolph Carter” and “The Call of Cthulu”, the story is told to us through the testimony of others and through the presentation of supposedly “found” documents, not through direct experience of the terror itself. Essentially these are stories told not merely second hand, but third and even fourth hand by narrators who “heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend...”
This approach actually works quite well given Lovecraft's approach to the denizens of the supernatural world, forces that he believes drive men to madness and incoherence, and, thus, can never be explained fully. After all, we would go mad to hear them if we were to understand them completely and intimately. This is a form of horror that works with our terror of the unknown and in the dark depths where things can only vaguely be seen, allowing what we don't know to prey on our minds, things that are thankfully far distant from us.
By contrast, Poe often creates narration that does the complete opposite of what Lovecraft does. Rather than distance the reader from horror and madness, Poe's narrators are commonly madmen and killers, people we shouldn't understand that, however, insist that we do. Thus, the narrators (and murderers) of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” actually speak to their readers directly actually deliberately speaking to “you” (as in the quote above), insisting on an intimacy with us in order to justify and explain their actions.
The horror of Poe's stories is, as Montresor suggests above, the notion that we might begin to understand the mind of the killer by being privy to that mind and possibly by discovering certain affinities with it and even a familiarity to it.
the static speaks my name probably borrows more from Poe's horror than from Lovecraft's, but it plays around a little with both, mostly though, what it wants to do is to create an uncomfortable intimacy with the player as the source of its horror.
While Poe's first person narration still distances us slightly from madness, since the person telling the story is not ourselves, as a video game, the static speaks my name places us more intimately in relation to its narrative through gaming's version of first person, which implies the idea that the protagonist is ourselves. After all, we don't observe him. We look out directly from behind his eyes.
The game's opening moments, “our” awakening as “we” view an alarm clock vertically in a small apartment immediately implies just such a thing as well as the familiarity of a common enough experience. Who hasn't awakened at an odd hour of the night due to a wrongly programmed alarm clock?
The first instruction of the game is to do the most natural thing one might do under those circumstances, to get up and go to the bathroom. All of this and (for the most part) everything else in the room that we are now moving through is also common enough to find a kinship between ourselves wand the protagonist. These are familiar things and events. This looks like a run of the mill apartment bedroom. It has a bookshelf, a bed, an alarm clock, and an aquarium... that holds some very large shrimp in it?
Intimacy is created between protagonist and player via the first person perspective and the normalcy of the setting until, that is, the game adds this one slightly odd element. This is how much of the horror of the game creeps up on the player. Things look fairly normal as you begin to play, but then something indicates that there is something kind of “off” about what's going on here and maybe also, then, that there is something off about you.
Bathroom looks normal, as does the hallway, but then there's the four television sets alive with static and snow in the living room that are piled on top of one another. The dining room contains a small table with two tropical looking paintings hanging above it, but then you open a door to a room that has nothing but the same tropical painting hung over and over and over again across three walls. Oh, and with it post-it notes explaining the images' theological and semiotic implications, their play with parts of the spectrum, etc., etc. We go to fix breakfast, but when we find the fridge empty, we return to our room and eat the shrimp straight out of the tank. And I haven't even begun to talk about what's behind the bookshelf in the hallway...
In some sense, what the static speaks my name is doing is a familiar trope in video games. The whole five to seven minutes of playtime is essentially the “your character has amnesia” trope solved at breakneck speed. In other words, it is a game about coming to know yourself. The horror of it is getting to know yourself by first feeling a sense of familiarity with this persona that you are occupying and then becoming more intimately acquainted with your own “quirks”. The game allows madness to creep into the player's mind as “you” begin to discover who “you” are. Poe, it strikes me, would be proud.
Oh, and before you go, you really should decide what to do with the man in the cage.