Living in the Vacuum

Spoiler Warning for “If Found…” and “Paradise Killer.”

No one can survive without help in a vacuum. An astronaut, out there in the dark, needs so many things just to exist there. They need a suit made of countless machines just to keep them alive, a radio to speak with the others out in the dark with them, and a tether to bring them back home. But whose are the hands that make these machines that allow us to live in this world? Who sends us out here in the first place? And how do we find a place of our own in it?

Paradise Killer places you in the shoes of the so-called “Investigation Freak” Lady Love Dies, brought out of a millennia-long exile for One Last Job: to find the eponymous culprit behind the murder of Paradise, in the form of a council that was slaughtered while attempting to breathe the new world into existence. To do this, you’ll wander around the 24th Iteration of Paradise Island, investigating crime scenes, interviewing suspects, and attempting to put together a case to present at the game-ending trial, like an enormous, sprawling Danganrompa or Ace Attorney investigation.

The vibe of Paradise Killer, of a digital dead mall at the end of the universe, of ostentatious Style and Over-The-Top lore and Proper Nouns worn as capital-A Aesthetic is the most immediately striking thing about the game, and it’d be a fun time if it was just a game about existing in that vibe for the 10ish hours it lasts for. But the wonderful city-pop soundtrack and hashtag Chill Vibes of the game are what weaves the illusion that dulled my senses and lured me into a false sense of security and ease around the game, an illusion that was only shattered at its final hurdle.

Paradise 24 is a world of truly evil and despicable people, but it hides that fact beneath the endless layers of its style. The world in which they live is one built on the routine mass sacrifice of ordinary people and the oppression of undesirables to pursue the dream of perfection for a small handful of elites, but don’t worry about that, because those elites are so damn cool. Colourful cartoon characters like Doctor Doom Jazz and Crimson Acid are fun to be around and to chat with, but their monstrousness, their conscious complicity of the monstrous status quo is there, bubbling just beneath the surface.

Lady Love Dies isn’t any different. There are options for her to express her frustrations and condemnations of the sacrifices needed to maintain Paradise, but these never quite ring true, the hollow words of someone unwilling to challenge a status quo that benefits her in any way beyond lip service. She’s still going to do her job, after all.

It’s a fun job, in fairness, building to a climax as exciting and satisfying as any good mystery. I had scoured the island from top to bottom, found almost every clue, and put together an airtight case. I got it right. I found the murderer, their accomplices, and the other plans and plots conducted on the night of the murder. I got everything right. By the standards of the Investigation Freak, I won. I mercilessly executed each criminal in turn: the mastermind, their accomplice, the attempted murderer…and two people who didn’t want power, or revenge, but merely an escape from their nightmarish world, for a space of their own outside of the Syndicate’s stylish vacuum.

It is possible to save these people, to present evidence carefully to avoid implicating them whilst still catching the masterminds. But I didn’t do this. I didn’t even think about doing it. I just did what I did in Ace Attorney and Danganrompa. I answered all the questions, solved every mystery. By the standards of the investigation freak, I “won”.

And when the trial was over, I stepped out onto Paradise 24, where the same music echoed out of the same speakers onto an island that was crushingly the same, only a little bit emptier. And the epilogue happily informed me that in the next iteration of Paradise Island, the so-called Perfect 25, Lady Love Dies once again took office as an investigator in the police. Nothing changes.

Paradise Killer does not let you forget that other games are so willing to. A trial is not just a puzzle to solve, not just a series of questions and answers. It is a system, one designed to reach a consensus on guilt and innocence. You are not just an investigator. Not just a sleuth. You are a cop, with everything that implies. It sells you on the fantasy of being the investigation freak, on the ostentatious grandeur and style of its world, on the Proper Nouns and Sick Drips and pervasive, all-consuming #Aesthetic so well, so seductively, that it might convince you not to concern yourself with what all this means beneath the systemic suffering and brutality that sustains it all.

But if you are aware of this illusion, if you can see what lies beneath the aesthetic, and to the true nature of your assigned role in this world, then there is a little thing you can do. There is no option to start a revolution at the end of Paradise Killer. You cannot make the systemic change this world so desperately needs. But by saving those two people, caught up in schemes they don’t understand out of a genuine desire to escape their nightmarish existence, you can accomplish some small thing within the small possibility space granted to you.

It’s not defeating the villain, or saving the day. But it is something. And I think that matters. When we’re surrounded every day by a cold, dark vacuum devoid of empathy or kindness, there is power in making something out of that nothing.

In some ways, how I feel about Paradise Killer is how I feel about video games in 2020, and how I feel about video games is how I feel about living in 2020. We live in such a terrible world, full of injustice and inequality, without even mentioning the deadly viruses that are frighteningly mismanaged by callous governments more concerned with maintaining share prices than with human lives, that it is understandable and natural to seek comfort in things we enjoy, and the feelings of escape, relief, and enjoyment we get from these things remains valid even when they are inherently tied to the systems that cause widespread misery.

Crunch was the hot-topic issue of discussion in games this year, with the two biggest releases being products of genuinely appalling worker abuse. And while it was gratifying to see the issue discussed so fervently (and equally disheartening to see it ultimately sidelined when the games released), it’s important to be aware that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Exploitation is pervasive on every possible level of the video game industry, and, indeed, in the mechanics of all production under capitalism. Conflict minerals are involved in the construction of both the consoles that sit under your TV and in the gaming PC on which I write this. There is, to belabour an old point, no ethical consumption under capitalism. But not all the things we make out of an inherently exploitative system are without merit.

This year, I got back into playing Tabletop RPGs for the first time in around half a decade with a group of people who are very dear to me, and mainly through the inertia of it being the game everyone was most familiar with, we played Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

5E is not a great game. It sits in an uncomfortable middle ground in TTRPG design, too crunchy for those invested most in narrative and too fluffy for those most interested in combat. In addition to that, although less restrictive than any edition before it, 5E still carries the fundamentally racist attitudes of D&D, of Orcs being less intelligent than Humans, and all the uncomfortable suggestions found within. Both in terms of its design and its attitudes, Dungeons and Dragons is simply not a game I would leap at the opportunity to play if asked.

And yet, playing it almost every weekend has been one of the highlights of 2020 for me. Because despite the less-than-stellar system we operate in, despite the inherent attitudes of the Monster Manual, the five of us have managed to create a world and cast of characters that I have come to care deeply about. We’ve tried to make nuanced characters from myriad races and backgrounds and attempted to wrestle critically with standard fantasy tropes and how they come up against their real-world equivalents. We’ve tweaked and added rules to create a system that is more fun and impactful than the standard 5E D&D experience. 5th Edition doesn’t become devoid of racism or frustrating design decisions when we play it, but we can use our creativity and the possibility space we have within the game to create an experience that makes some effort to avoid these pitfalls and a story that has meaning to us as we tell it.

If you had asked me if I wanted to play a TTRPG, I would not pick Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. But if you asked me to play it with people who I trust and care about? Then yeah, I think I’d do that. Because I know we’d be able to make something out of it. But we’re only able to do that if we acknowledge how the game falters. If we close our eyes and pretend that 5E isn’t laden with racism, then we can’t do anything but wallow in it.

Dungeons and Dragons, the computers we play it on, and the phones we use to organize it, are all products of human suffering and exploited labour. But at the same time, these computers and consoles and phones genuinely give us respite and relief in a world that offers little. They allow us to connect in a world where we can’t make physical connections. Phones are things made with exploited hands that let us reach our own hands out, beyond ourselves, to come together when normally we would not. To organize, when normally, we could not.

This is not to forget what was done to make these things or absolve us of our complicity in their production. To paraphrase the game of 2020 that affected me most deeply, we must recognize and accept our complicity in these things. We have to be able to say that if it meant that no one had to suffer or be exploited to make them anymore, then these things should go. But with that acknowledgement comes a kind of freedom. Being aware of the bars that make up the cage around us lets us push back against them, to make something out of the bends we make in them.

Yes, so many things about our world are wrong and broken. So many people suffer to make the things we use every day. But that doesn’t mean that the light we’re able to claw out of the darkness doesn’t matter. For most of us, life has always about making the best of a bad deal, about finding the spaces in the cracks between, places where we can express ourselves, be ourselves.

It’s something I learned at a young age. I grew up in a part of Ireland where families that considered themselves Irish, like the one I was born into, were in the vast minority. I have distinct memories of my parents telling me that because of this, there were certain things that I couldn’t do outside our home. I couldn’t say certain things, wear certain things in front of others. It was dangerous, you see. People out there, they don’t like hearing that sort of thing. They don’t like seeing that sort of thing. If you stay private, if you don’t rock the boat, then you’ll stay safe. You’ll stay unseen.

In the county where I grew up, Irishness was a precious ritual that had to be conducted behind closed doors, or in other parts of the island, with safer relatives in safer spaces. It was something that had to be kept away from the people I saw every day. For my own sake. I only had that small space to express that part of myself. Outside, I felt untrue. Like someone else. But inside that space, I didn’t feel any less untrue. Because there were other parts of myself, parts that I wasn’t even fully aware of, that were not allowed to exist there. Even though that space is called Home. Even though it’s called Family.

If Found… could scarcely have chosen a more powerful place to tell its story. Its story of someone attempting to find a space for herself resonates deeply with how I have experienced Irishness in the part of Ireland I come from, of how people practice it where and when they feel comfortable doing so, of using the few words we know from a largely unspoken language to express ourselves. The Irishness of If Found… only makes its trans story all the more profound, and vice versa. In every way possible, it succeeds in telling the story of how people find spaces for themselves in the cold, bleak vacuum that surrounds them.

When Kasio returns home to County Mayo, she faces with the same obstacle time and time again, the same words thrown at her, sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly, sometimes the fumbled words of those attempting to be polite but unable to conceal their feelings, and sometimes the snarling words of those who see no reason to.

“You shouldn’t be this. You should go back to the old you. This is strange, this is wrong. You can’t be who you are here.”

When faced with a world that offers her no space to be, a world that wants us to forget her suffering, her euphoria, and herself, it’s no wonder Kasio wants to erase it all.

If Found… is a game about erasing things. It’s played by moving through the pages of Kasio’s notebook, erasing words, drawings, and entire pages, until nothing is left but a blank page, and what little scribbles remain of the merciless touch of your eraser. Over the course of the game, you’ll erase pain and guilt, smiles and warmth, happy and sad memories alike. And there’s a pleasure in that. But not everything should be erased. Not everything should be forgotten.

Normalcy is seductive to other characters in If Found…. Anu, a character on the cusp of finding themselves and filled with the roughness and imperfections that define someone in that space, tells Kasio that they just want to be normal. To close our eyes to ourselves, to be the person we are told we are, and turn away from the difficult truths about the world is so easy, even though it’s so painful. It’s what Capitalism wants for us, what it needs us to be. At the moment Anu tells Kasio that they’ll never be normal with her, they turn their back on things they fundamentally know, because the cage is so seductive, so comforting.

I know how this feels all too well.

I’m trans, and I’ve known I was trans for a long time. But so much of that living was done in places where there was no space for me to be trans. Even now, where I live with someone when I go to answer the door, I change my clothes. When I walk to the shops, I wear the biggest, baggiest hoodies and coats I can find. In the moment, wearing these clothes and hiding myself the way do feels…fine. Just fine. It’s easy. It’s safe. People out there, they don’t like seeing that sort of thing. I don’t have to come out to these people. I don’t have to come out to my family. If I stay private, I’ll stay safe.

But this isn’t who I am. And while it lets me survive, it doesn’t let me live. I live when I’m at home. With my roommate, playing card games made by bad companies, or with friends and partners seen only through text or video on a computer screen doubtlessly made with exploited labour. It’s here where I can be myself. I can wear whatever I want and be whatever I want. I can be myself, and not the other person. And though all these are flawed products of a flawed system, they still have value and importance to me. The moments of euphoria I can claw out of a system so keen to deny them are no less meaningful for how small they may be.

At the end of If Found…, once everything is erased and gone, you start over. You write your own story, in your own name, in your own image. You choose the people you want to be in your life, who they are to you, and the life you want to live. You don’t have an infinite number of choices, but in the small space you have, you can make it yours. There is a place for you. A place for you to make the things you want, and to make them matter.

This is the space Kasio carved out for herself, by never forgetting who she really was, by not allowing anyone to erase her, by hammering her hands against the stone walls around her until her hands bled until she made a crack large enough for her to be herself in. And, who knows. Maybe with enough cracks, the whole wall could come tumbling down.

I hope that in 2020, you were able to find some small space for yourself, in the cold dark blackness around us. Something good, something yours, in all the horror surrounding us. And I hope, in 2021, you can make that space just a little bit bigger. A little bit better. I want to do the same. I want to keep learning, keep growing. To keep trying to be the good person I want to be.

This is what it means to live in the vacuum. Not just survive, but live. To be continually pushing against the walls around us, to challenge a world that wants us to forget, to close our eyes to who we really are, what the world really is, and the things that are done in it. It’s never easy, and it’s always painful. But it’s worth it, in the end. Because the world can be so much more than what they say it can be.

Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís.

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