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.