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Presentable Liberty – isolation & meaning

Around 2014, I was an avid consumer of YouTube videos. I still am, in some ways, but my taste in channels has shifted, and I no longer binge like I used to. However, back in those days, I was really into gamers and “let’s play” videos. There is something fascinating about watching someone who is an expert take you through a game, especially if it’s a game you cannot get access to or have no intention of playing yourself. Of course, nowadays, many games are more like extended movies anyway, so there’s a lot story-wise to learn from and absorb. Anyway, you all know I’m an aficionado of games, so I don’t need to justify myself! 

At the time, I was subscribed to Markiplier, who is still one of the world’s biggest YouTubers and gamers. He put out a video that had a clickbait title: THIS GAME WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE. I clicked on it begrudgingly, expecting nothing remotely life-changing and a little annoyed at being caralled into investigating this, but unable to repress my human curiosity. 

But, unbelievably, the title proved true, both for me and Markiplier himself. The clickbait video was for a game called Presentable Liberty, by an indie game developer known only as Wertpol. Markiplier’s video was a one-hour playthrough of Presentable Liberty.

At first, Markiplier was mocking. The game seemed ludicrously basic. Its graphics were primitive polygons. And, on top of that, the gameplay was limited: the premise of the game being that you were stuck in a cell somewhere high up, unable to escape, with the world around you slowly succumbing to a virus… (and yes, there are spooky parallels with today). The only way you can interact with the outside world is by (a) reading letters and (b) playing on your Portable Entertainment Product™ (essentially a parody of a GameBoy).

But the story that unfolds from this point on is nothing short of breathtaking and spellbinding, as well as a frightening allegory for our modern times and the corrupting power of money. The game’s pace is like a train leaving the station. At first, all seems pretty safe and predictable, but then with each new revelation, the train picks up speed, until we’re biting our nails with fear at this 150 mile-per-hour rollercoaster.

Markiplier himself became completely immersed in the game, to the point where he says, “Halfway through I stopped playing it and started living it.” In an hour or two, Presentable Liberty takes you on a journey to the very depths of despair and beyond. It forces you to experience an isolation that I have never known any other book, play, film, or game to convey. The letters – your vital line to reality – bring tidings from four key individuals in your life. Over the course of the game (which spans five “days” in the prisoner’s life) you get to know these people intimately, to care about them, and to desperately long to hear from them again. The effect of this game had on me was so profound it caused me to write The Meaning of the Dark, which was my own attempt at an isolation narrative. There is an epigraph from Wertpol, the creator, at the start of the novel. 

Towards the end of the game, there is a moment of hope that breaks through the despair that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. 

Earlier this month, myself and my wife sat down to re-watch Markiplier’s 2014 play-through of Presentable Liberty. I’m not entirely sure what compelled us to do this. Perhaps the lockdown? Perhaps general conversations about “great video-game stories”? I’m not sure. However, we watched it together, and both of us were reduced to floods by the end of it. It’s work of profound genius, and has taught me so much about storytelling. It’s then my wife asked me a question about the creator, Wertpol. I went to look up Wertpol on my phone, and found to my surprise and shock that, sadly, he had committed suicide in 2018.

Wertpol’s real name was Robert Brock. I never met him. I only interacted with him once, where I asked if it would be okay on Twitter to use a quote from Presentable Liberty in The Meaning of the Dark and he said “yes”. I never told him, fully, how much his games meant to me. I never told him that Presentable Liberty had helped me in my own battle with depression and loneliness. I never told him that I thought he was a genius. So (and I recognise I am perhaps assigning myself too much importance and agency) I could not help but feel a little bit responsible. All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. I hadn’t done anything. To quote True Detective: “My true failing was inattention.”

The hammer-blow of that revelation shook me to my core. It was like I’d lost a dear friend, someone I knew, yet he had been dead two years and I hadn’t even known it. The shock, which left me numb for several days, led to anger. Why hadn’t there been news reports? Why hadn’t there been conversations about this tragedy, the awfulness that someone as talented as Robert Brock had killed themselves because they felt so unrecognised? How had he died with hardly any press?

I was lost and speechless. And, I admit, there was a strange feeling of a “road not taken”, that our lives had run so in parallel, both battling toxic despair in the same year, yet his life had ended, and mine had not. I had come out of my depressive slump in 2018, just as he had gone into his final downer. 

The isolating effects of COVID-19 now mean that we are all, to a degree, like Presentable Liberty’s nameless protagonist, trapped in cells, surrounded by a changing civilisation morphed by a virus. We need to look after ourselves, and our mental wellbeing in this time, more than ever. Things are beginning to open up here in the UK. Whether that’s sensible or not, I can’t say. But we must not underestimate how important human connection is, virus or no. Presentable Liberty illustrates that like nothing else I’ve encountered.

I don’t know enough, really, to say any more than I have said. All I can add, is that Presentable Liberty moved me in ways very few other games or even books or films have done. We cannot change the past. What’s done is done. And maybe, Robert Brock was always going to commit suicide. But, I won’t avert my eyes, and I won’t forget to say how much I value a creator ever again. We can’t give him back life, but we can ensure all he created and achieved lives on. Robert Brock created a masterpiece, and one that, strangely, had the power to save someone else from the very darkness that consumed him. Whether he meant to or not, Robert Brock gave his life to save mine.

Love yourself, and always reach out if you need me. 

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The genius of Jordan Peele’s Get Out revisited

When I first saw Get Out, there was a lot of hype surrounding the film. I’m always sceptical of “hyped” films as they tend to be puffed up by their relationship to some kind of zeitgeist. But I was a big fan of Key & Peele and the trailer was brilliant, so I thought I’d give it a go. Within two minutes of having sat down in the Odeon, and the film starting, I realised I was watching a genius piece of cinema. There are so many things I loved about Get Out; the way that the film operates on three levels: sociological (the allegory of racism), spiritual (Chris’ journey to overcoming being paralysed by fear), and literal / physical (a lock-in horror movie). I loved the phenomenal acting. I loved the elements of hypnotism and concept of “The Sunken Place”. I loved the camerawork and colour palette. I loved the references to other horror classics, including Night of the Living Dead. I loved the sometimes unnerving interspersions of humour amidst the horror.

But the thing I loved most about it is the subject of today’s article, and is also why I think it’s more important than ever to revisit this piece of cinema. This blog is going to contain some spoilers, so if you still haven’t seen Get Out, please go and buy it and watch it now!

Okay.

Get Out uses several clever cinematic techniques to put us in Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) shoes. Chris is a photographer; he is “an eye”. We frequently focus in on Chris’s eyes (in fact, the iconic poster-image for the movie is of Chris weeping with his eyes wide open). This shows that, to some degree, we’re seeing this world through Chris’s perspective. We’re looking through him.

Chris has to come to Rose’s (Allison Williams) family home to meet her parents. He’s nervous about it, and soon he finds his nerves are not unfounded; Rose’s parents and brother give off a weird vibe. Chris begins to experience racism from the family and the guests. When I watched Get Out in the cinema, there was nervous laughter when Dean Armitage (the father, played by Bradley Whitford) says, “I would have voted for Obama three times if I could”. It’s funny, because we know what he’s doing, he’s overcompensating. In the same vein, another guest at the Armitage’s party immediately starts talking about Tiger Woods as soon as Chris shows up. We don’t know whether we’re allowed or supposed to laugh at this, but after a while, of course, we can’t help it.

As Get Out progresses, it wears down our defences until we’re laughing openly at the insanity of Chris’s situation (as well as feeling an almost nausea-level tension building). Because it’s a horror film, we feel the threat to him more profoundly than in a thriller – we know horror movies can go super-dark. By the time we near the end, and Chris is being hypnotised in preparation for an operation that will destroy his brain and personality forever, we’re biting our nails with fear and anxiety. Get Out is about white people stealing and appropriating black bodies – for their own often twisted ends. Ironically, the film achieves this very feat, placing us inside of Chris’s head. Or perhaps it actually achieves the reverse? Chris gets into us. Whatever the case, it’s rare that I feel such intense empathy for a character.

And here’s where that empathy achieves its transcendental peak.

At the end of Get Out, Chris is finally giving his fake girlfriend Rose the strangling she deserves, when suddenly, we see a bloom of blue and red lights. It is at this moment that my heart plummeted out of my chest into my stomach. I didn’t have to make any logical leaps. I didn’t have to think. I knew instantly what Chris knew: Those cops are going to arrest me.

In that split second, I felt something of what it might be like to be Chris. I will never know what it’s like to be black, of course. I would never claim that. But, Jordan Peele manages to get his audience to a point where they can see a tiny glimpse. The cops showing up at the end wasn’t delivery and salvation – like it is in so many movies. It was the final lowest point. The cinema audience audibly groaned with sympathy and despair as the lights drew nearer and Chris stood up, holding his hands over his head.

When I left the cinema, I remember using the word “Shakespearean” to describe Get Out, and among other stylistic elements (people who are not themselves, for a start) I think that’s what I meant. Whatever you think of The Bard, I believe he had an uncanny knack for allowing his audiences glimpses of what it might feel like to be someone else: whether it’s Beatrice or Caliban or Macbeth. Shakespeare’s gift was empathy.

Jordan Peele follows in those footsteps. He gives us empathy into Chris’s plight. And that makes the ending so powerful.

Of course, as it happens, it isn’t the cops arriving, but actually Chris’s friend Rod. There’s a message in that too, which is perhaps best saved for another article.

In our current climate, where it’s clearer than ever that the police are not the solution, but the problem, I thought it would be good to meditate again on why Get Out struck such a chord.