(CW: depression, suicidal ideation)
I have lived as a shut-in - to greater and lesser degrees - for almost all of my adult life. An illness struck me at school, and it did not leave. After sitting for weeks (and then months) in the darkness of my room, I found I had come to like it. I quietly dropped out, and have since sought to live alone in a series one-bedroom flats, working solitary night-time jobs. This has been my life for a decade.
Depression, panic, suicide attempts; a machine-gun-fire of nervous tics, mutterings, murmurs and muscle spasms; torn and mismatched clothes, no eye-contact, night buses, no friends. The results of my experiment in isolation have been wholly unsurprising and unambiguously unhealthy. Textbook case. What needs to be done next is clear. I am not well, and I need to make myself better.
In The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther, Esther is dead, and your character is grieving. You are alone, marooned on an island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. You walk blearily across the windswept landscape, from a fragile and sickly dusk into the small-hour gloom of the morning. The path you take is winding and circuitous and seemingly without object. Talking wildly to yourself, you start ascending the island’s peak, where – teetering, seething in the wind - a grey metal tower blinks red. The purpose of your walk, hitherto unclear, pulls rapidly into focus.
I revisited Dear Esther late last summer, in the ruins of an abortive relationship. My PC could not run the game, so I sought out walkthroughs on my phone. The format worked well. Buried under a duvet, I spent days watching the game’s death-march play out on loop; there was enough variation in the different playthroughs to maintain my hazy, lizard-brain stimulation. When evening came and forced me to leave my bunkered room, I would swaddle myself in jumpers and coats. Shuttling to work on the night-bus, I cocooned myself, maintaining unbroken my private communion with the screen.
Dear Esther’s fevered tone – and much besides – seems deliberately evocative of the fiction of J.G. Ballard. Car wrecks and cryptic prose; radio towers emitting submerged and spluttering signals; paranoiacs wilfully stranded on uninhabitable islands: The Chinese Room borrows heavily from Ballard’s language of trauma.
Ballard’s story The Enormous Space has obvious parallels with Dear Esther. Ballard’s middle-aged narrator has been abandoned by his wife, pushing him into a desolate bachelorhood. Reeling from the humiliation, he reflects that
“I could change the course of my life by a single action. To shut out the world, and solve all my difficulties at a stroke, I had the simplest of weapons – my own front door.”
He makes a retreat that is total: he cuts off his phone, burns all his letters, and resolves to never again leaves his property. By rapidly accelerating his isolation, he can thereby take ownership of it. His wife has not rejected him; he has rejected the world.
Dear Esther’s narrator has suffered a greater loss than Ballard’s; this should not blind us to the fact that the extremity of his isolation has been similarly willed...
In both Ballard’s work and in Dear Esther, the protagonists’ pain makes them radically solipsistic. Inner life and outer landscape become blurred. Esther’s narrator talks of giving birth to the island, of its shorelines and stone as an extension of his flesh. In The Enormous Space, the house ‘responds’ to the narrator’s presence, and the rooms “seem larger and less confined, as if they too have found freedom”. The characters, turned terminally inward, inhabit a world they can only understand as extensions of their obsessions, selves and wounds.
The characters possess obviously tenuous grasps on reality. The streams-of-consciousness of Ballard, the cliff-side etchings of Esther’s narrator: each is littered with chemical compounds, allusions to theology, the half-understood junk-jargon of twentieth century science. For The Enormous Space’s narrator, his house “begins to resemble an advanced mathematical surface”. He boasts that his “senses [are] tuned to all the wave-lengths of the invisible”. Similarly, Esther’s narrator believes that he
“must […] venture even deeper into veins of the island, where the signals are blocked altogether. Only then will I understand them, when I stand on the summit and they flow into me, uncorrupted.”
Spun off their axes by sudden and senseless traumas, these characters are inevitably disoriented in their attempts to rediscover (and reconstruct) reality. They are attempting to find meaning in meaningless, shattering loss.
Everyday common-sense structures of thinking, of feeling, of relating to others and to the world: these things are neither natural nor inevitable. They are the result of socialisation. Our sociality as a species is a hard-won achievement. It must be reinforced daily, like waves imperceptibly wearing down the crags of a cliff-face. You can choose not to do this work.
I was struck last summer by Mark Fisher’s observation that what distinguishes depression from sadness are the ontological claims that depression makes. One suffers sadness knowing that it will end; one suffers depression certain that it will never end, that if ends it will only be an illusion, that one’s depression is a raw and unfiltered glimpse into the bleakness of the world as it really is. Depression should be understood first and foremost, he argues, as an attack on one’s sense of reality. It seemed to me that the effects of long-term isolation were similarly corrosive.
The neuroticism and distorted thinking and stunted sociality that isolation births: these are not experienced simply as a series of temporary impairments to one’s functioning. How crude. How clinical. Emerging from isolation is not like taking off a blindfold, blinking for a moment, and re-emerging into the world you knew (and knew was there all along). That world has gone, and you have too. The blindfold has fused with your skin.
Dear Esther and Ballard do diverge in a crucial place. Ballard’s dedication to capturing the language of mental illness suggests he thinks there are perspectives worth salvaging from within its rubble. His narration, however, is usually marked by a stark and utilitarian prose. While his protagonists are given free reign to spout their bizarre speculations, Ballard’s framing of them retains a careful ambiguity. Is he taking these speculations seriously, or is this dry ironic humour? The reader is never quite sure what she is supposed to think, or feel.
In Dear Esther, the narrator alludes to pills, painkillers and alcohol, his ramblings progressively deteriorating; towards the latter stages of the game, he audibly struggles to remain conscious. His similes and metaphors are too flowery to inspire the same tentative credulity that Ballard’s jagged and jarring prose does. The game is clear in its diagnosis: this man is grieving; his thoughts are irredeemably mad.
What is striking is that the cold clarity of this diagnosis does not reach the game’s tone. Tonally it is borderline histrionic, full-throatedly emotive. Dear Esther’s narrator is mad; the game wants us to experience this as beautiful.
Nowhere is this clearer than in your final ascent up the island’s peak. The candle-lit calm of the bay is now dizzyingly far below, obscured visually and aurally by a howling wind; the strings sway queasily, piano keys hammering a deliciously delirial atonal dirge. In the depths of the narrator’s suffering, you begin to detect a strange note of pleasure. His clipped, elegant, Radio 4 accent never misses a beat; though his voice surges and strains luxuriantly, his lucidity crumbling exquisitely away, he never wavers in exhibiting a self-consciously literary madness.
The reader of Ballard is caught in an uneasy suspension: half seduced by Ballard’s characters, their warped outlooks and self-destructive spirals; half guarded against them. The player of Dear Esther is carried along rapturously; the game identifies and unrestrainedly capitalises upon the pleasures to be found in confected suffering.
I made my first suicide attempt after sitting alone for eight months, living unemployed in a bedsit in Glasgow. Whenever I left my front door, tried talking to others, I could feel the world judging me as harshly as I judged it. I decided that I had accumulated a cosmic debt that I could never pay off. To stay alive, to spend money or pay tax or be in any way enmeshed into the social fabric of the world, was to be unforgivably complicit in the torture of children and the soon-to-be-born and the yet-to-be. I lived my life by this.
I have seen what psychosis looks like. My brother and my cousin have both suffered it: delusions that terrified them, paranoid ideas that they felt no hesitancy in proclaiming to be true. When the nurse asked me why I had overdosed, I lied to him. I knew how flimsy my logic looked; I would have been far too embarrassed, too self-conscious to share my beliefs.
I refused to let go of them, though.
“Depression, panic, suicide attempts; a machine-gun-fire of nervous tics, mutterings, murmurs and muscle spasms; torn and mismatched clothes, no eye-contact, night buses, no friends. This has been my life for a decade.”
Every item on this list, the composite picture they present of me: all of it is painful, humiliating, and true.
So why did I take such affectionate care in writing this list out?
It is unfair to single out Dear Esther as a lone pedlar in aestheticized suffering. The aesthetics of poverty, of a detachment from the bonds of social life – these have long held a fascination for the comfortable classes. In his book Nightwalking, Matthew Beaumont charts the shifts in London’s nightlife between the 13th and 19th centuries. Under London’s centuries-old curfew, walking after dark was made criminal. A ‘night-walker’ was invariably homeless and hopeless, suffering a total exclusion from security and safety. With the introduction of street lighting (initially in only the most affluent areas) came the rise of a commercial middle-class nightlife. In the process the curfew was de-facto eliminated, but a residual stigma – a sense of night-walking’s deviancy and subversion – still lingered.
The Grub Street poets and Romantic writers of the 18th century came to occupy this space: they could walk the midnight streets at their leisure, and though they had homes and careers to return to, they could enjoy the countercultural frisson of feeling adrift from society. Some – like Wordsworth, Blake – walked the streets to foster a sense of commonality with the oppressed. On the other hand there were men like Thomas De Quincy, writers who walked among the homeless poor to self-pityingly foster and indulge in their own feelings of marginality.
The writer William Pattison is a strange case. Beaumont pauses in the book to dwell on him – not because his work had much merit, but because of the indeterminate position that Pattison occupied. His father’s landlord arranged for him to be sent to school; he later attended Cambridge. He did not graduate, though, instead running off to London in his final year, in pursuit of his dream of writing poetry.
During his childhood he would retreat to caverns and caves, often spending the night there. He luxuriated in what he called their “sadly-pleasing melancholy”. In London as an adult, he slept on park benches. He would stare up at the starless sky, writing rather melodramatic poetry about the bleakness of it all.
It all seemed a little artificial. Forced. Play-acted.
What Pattison came to discover is that it is possible to cultivate and relish in the superficial spectacle of your own suffering, and then find that your suffering has overtaken you. You do not have the agency over it that you think you have. Your fantasies can become real, overwhelm, and then consume you. He died homeless and hungry in the streets of London, aged 21.
I’m doing okay, by the way. I thought that I ought to interrupt this to say that, to stop this sounding like a suicide note. That's not what this is, I promise.
I’m becoming increasingly aware of the role that desire has played in determining the course of my life. Neither my mental health nor my isolation have been uncomplicatedly imposed upon me from somewhere outside. Nor can I be said to have suffered my distorted thought patterns unwillingly: I have long been at least somewhat aware of my stunted thought processes as stunted, embarressingly illogical.
At different stages of this, and to very different degrees, I have been complicit.
I played through the Silent Hill series in the months I stayed home from school. It held me with an intensity that nothing ever had. I was fascinated by its lonely warrens of rain-soaked alleys and blotchy concrete, the fog bleaching everything it touched; by a crumbling architecture abandoned, twisting in on itself, eroded and corroded down to a rusted skeletal wire. I was fascinated by its summer shopping mall just emptied (voices fading and body-heat cooling), the tiles and storefronts and smiling mascots now robbed of all possible meaning or purpose: an alien landscape, bracing itself for impact against a suddenly dead night air.
Silent Hill posited that a more beautiful landscape lies dormant within our architecture. Offices, schools, hospitals: our built environments are grimly functional. Were they to be more ornate they would rarely be appreciated: these buildings are subsumed in a grinding frenzy of work and convalescence, by daily stresses that are unrelenting and unremarkable, quotidian and crushing. By night, these places are different.
Silent Hill showed me how wonderfully strange the most banal of buildings can seem, and how peaceful – how radically different they are when they duck out of the rhythms and logics of everyday life. How haunted and mournful and magnificent.
But only when evacuated of people.
The horror of the series is also its central promise. You are in darkness, and you are alone. The external landscape is merely an extension of your mind. The town is a terrible trap, but it is also a solipsist’s dream. You do not have to share this world with anybody. The world is yours.
The solipsistic logic of Silent Hill is merely an acceleration and distortion of the spatial logic underlying almost all games. Games are designed around me. They place me at the centre of their worlds, and work to construct a running façade of forest and desert and cityscape. They disappear behind me when I turn my back.
These worlds exist only because I desire them to. When I am within them, they meticulously accommodate me and my desires.
My favourite games – Silent Hill, Max Payne; Condemned; Thief – are no different in their priorities, and yet they feign hostility. I am not welcome here, they brag. This offers a seductive fantasy. I can play as a lone man, walking on into an uninhabitably cold and hostile night, suffering heroically. Of course what I am actually doing is embracing my deepest wish: to never be confronted by another person; to never contend with any concerns of empathy or morality that could intrude upon the pathological interests of my self; to never again be confronted by the anxieties of a competing gaze or desire or will.
This, in some sense, is what I want. I have to contend with this.
I want to be left alone, undisturbed, and at the centre of the screen.