I’ve been reading a lot about suicide lately.
Mostly, it’s because I’ve been a bit obsessed with Life Is Strange these past few months. If you haven’t played Life Is Strange, and you intend to, there are spoilers below.
In the game, one of the secondary characters – Kate Marsh – kills herself by jumping off the roof of a school, with her fellow students watching. It’s her choice. You watch her jump, and it is terrifying.
One of the game’s dynamics allows the player to rewind time to make different decisions or use the knowledge you have about the very near future to go back and do things differently. Here, the game allows you to rewind and then essentially stop time so that you can get to the roof and intervene in the suicide. Once there, it becomes clear that you have exhausted your power, and whatever decisions you make, you’ll have to live with. There’s no going back, and since you know what’s about to happen because you witnessed it, the emotional tension is heightened.
Depending on choices you’ve made previously, how much you’ve payed attention to the details about Kate’s life, and the things that you say on the roof, Kate will either go through with her suicide or decide against it.
When I played it originally, I saved Kate. I felt great for it.
My wife played through the game recently, and she wasn’t able to save Kate. She felt terrible.
A few minutes later, as the episode ends, statistics are displayed showing what percentage of players managed to “save” Kate and what percentage were not. For a game as emotionally charged as Life Is Strange, it’s like an extra punch in the gut. Not only were you unable to save her, but others were, meaning, you are somehow shittier as a person.
It’s suicide as a game mechanic. It’s emotional, tense, and a little strange. It also puts the player in the unfair position of being responsible for Kate’s suicide.
For anyone who has been around suicide, the emotional toll that remains for the family and friends left behind is incredible, and they will forever wonder if there was something they could have done. Laura Dale tackled this exact topic in Polygon back in April.
All that said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with suicide as a game mechanic. It was part of the story, and it was handled in a delicate, but realistic way. It’s been done in other games, as well. And it is certainly better than “Press X to Pay Respects.”
More importantly, it has people talking about suicide.
For members of the military and veterans, it couldn’t be more relevant. While we are still a nation at war, suicide ranks as the top cause of death for members of the military by a wide margin. And it’s estimated that some 22 veterans die every day by suicide.
Barely a week goes by where I don’t hear about an old Army buddy who took his own life or another Army buddy asks for prayers for the loss of one of his.
Over the past few weeks, probably because of Life Is Strange, I’ve been reading through a lot of the suicide articles that maybe I’d normally scroll past.
It started with a front-page look at campus suicide in the New York Times which eventually led me to this longer piece about Madison Holleran, whose seemingly Instagram-idyllic life ended dramatically with a rooftop leap.
Last week I read about Stephen Akins, an Army veteran who killed himself in an apparent overdose.
Just a couple of days ago I read about the family of 24-year-old Army veteran Ian Michael Curtis who killed himself last year. They are still trying to figure out why he did it. His wife thinks it was simply a chaotic moment of darkness, a spasm of anger.
There’s the dark story of Marine veteran Daniel Rey Wolfe who killed himself and posted the pictures to Facebook as he bled out. The gruesome photos were left online for two days while the family struggled with Facebook to have them removed.
Related is this article in Vice that chronicles the intersection between suicide and the internet – something that is likely to become more important in attempting to get help to those who need it.
Normally this would be the part of the article where I attempt to tie everything up neatly and provide some sort of synthesis, some greater idea that puts everything together neatly. After reading through all of these pieces, there really isn’t much for me to offer. As much as we know about suicide, it’s still a personal mystery, unique and difficult to understand.
The only thing I would add is I’m starting to think there is a greater role that youth plays in all of this. If you read through these articles, the underlying symptom is depression – mostly gone untreated, or at best, self-treated through drugs and alcohol.
Something I’ve recently begun to notice – and this might be one of the benefits of being the oldest platoon leader around – is my junior soldiers (~25 and younger) tend to fluctuate wildly in their moods. That is, one day they may seem happy, jovial, energetic. The next day they look down in the dumps and bummed out. My senior NCOs (~25 and older) tend to be more consistent in their mood. External pressure doesn’t push them too hard in one direction or the other. I think it’s easy to dismiss this as simply an effect of training and experience, but we now know that the brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s. Yes, it’s true that at 18 a young man or woman can join the Army and go fight, but that doesn’t mean that everything is settled internally.
Thinking back to when I was a junior soldier, I could fluctuate wildly as well.
While I’m not offering anything here but anecdotal conjecture, I think there is a lot more we can learn about depression and suicide, especially as it relates to the military community, if we take a harder look at youth and emotion. While simply getting older doesn’t eliminate the risk of suicide, there is evidence that shows it is a major youth problem.
Add the risk of youth suicide (of which young military men and women fall into) with a generally pro-firearm environment (firearms are the most common method of suicide for American men) and an “accomplish the mission” attitude likely instilled through the process of militarization, and the problem of military suicide becomes more apparent.
If video game developers can integrate suicide as a game mechanic, and do it in a way that treats it seriously, then we can at the very least talk about it seriously, understanding that it is not simply a thing that happens to other people. It happens to us.