Editor's Note: This article has references to, but not imagery of, suicide and sexual violence. Few games unnerved me in the record time it took for me to audibly gasp while playing The Static Speaks My Name, which takes less than 10 minutes to finish. You wake up in an apartment filled with colorful paintings of an island, TVs blaring static, and a note that says you must "decide what to do with the man in the cage." You can clean the microwave, try (and fail) to talk with people online, and read an apology note to your mother. After finding an actual man in the cage, the player finds a noose and, surrounded by silence, hangs themselves.
The Static Speaks My Name was one of the few times I found myself physically speechless after beating a game, and its creator was cautious when I once asked him about his intentions.
"My intention was to create an experience with an emphasis on story, character and emotion, not gameplay," designer Jesse Barksdale told me in 2015. "Kind of a right-brain game. To create something that made you feel like you were someone else, but not as an escape. Most games are kind of escapes from reality and I feel like this is maybe the opposite? Like it's an attempt to replicate that rawness that we all sometimes experience. I honestly am not sure if I accomplished that, but that was my intention. As for a message, there is definitely meaning for me but part of the game is about deciphering the meaning behind this character's world."
Ever since, I've been curious what designer Barksdale would work on next, and a few weeks back, he sent me a Steam key to download a mysterious game called Bucket Detective.
"After The Static Speaks My Name," said Barksdale, "I experimented in a variety of genres (platformers, puzzle games, etc.) but I kept coming back to the idea of doing another game in the weird, moody, first-person narrative genre—whatever you call that. The Static Speaks My Name was so short that I felt like there were a lot more ideas to explore in that style."
In Bucket Detective, players become David, a narcissistic middle-aged man whose idea of fulfillment is his wife submissively adhering to every sexual whim of his own and none of hers. Bored with his situation, he figures writing a hit book is a path to sexual freedom—but he's a terrible writer. Over dinner, a buddy says there's a solution, if he's willing to sacrifice a little bit. The friend hands him a card with a time and a place but not much else. When he shows up to the place in question, he finds a mansion run by a cult dedicated to resurrecting an ancient being.
The cult isn't based on any specific one from history, instead pulling from Barksdale's education in religious schools, where he learned cult archetypes, aka "charismatic leader, salvation comes to those who sacrifice, a day of rebirth/judgement which is coming soon."
David, it becomes clear, is an irredeemable piece of shit, and his time within the cult's walls don't serve as a path back to the light. He willingly chops off his own body parts in service of a god-like creature he's never met—or possibly doesn't exist. There are a handful of endings for him, but each one results in something equally awful scenario. There's one "exception," wherein he manages to write the book, thereby achieving fame and sexual prowess, but the world ends up taken over and enslaved by said god-like creature.
"The game is, more broadly, about the misguided pursuit of desire," he said. "I think that each of us has the ability to destroy ourselves in the pursuit of things we think will make us happy."
"I think that each of us has the ability to destroy ourselves in the pursuit of things we think will make us happy."
He also agrees that David is an irredeemable piece of shit.
"I don't think David actually wants to escape the gravitational pull of his own narcissism, so in a way he gets what he wants," he said. "I have hope for most people, but I think David is one of those few people for whom there's no saving."
After his last game, Barksdale found himself creatively frustrated. He was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix, resulting in several additional months of hospital visits and, ultimately, "having some of my insides removed." It didn't help that he was 30-years-old and basically broke.
"I've dealt with depression, anxiety, and obsession my whole life," he said, "and that definitely makes its way into my games."
A throughline between the two games are the upsetting themes: suicide, kidnapping, mental illness, allusions to sexual violence. Horror media has a toxic history with exploiting those themes, especially sexual violence towards women, for shock value. In the case of Bucket Detective, allusions to sexual abuse are implied for two characters—one man, one woman—but it's made clear the cult's core ideas are built on its founders sexual narcissism.
At one point, you find the offices of the two founders, which includes the books they wrote, such as "A Brief History of the Vagina (A Man's Perspective)." There are, uh, many others like it.
Barksdale told me he doesn't invoke those subjects lightly, and took the personal responses to The Static Speaks My Name, which invoked suicide, to indicate he was on the right track.
Here's a review on The Static Speaks My Name's Steam page, for example:
Personally, having had suicidal thoughts, and still having these thoughts, I can relate to this game very much. I have thought of hanging myself, as I was so close as to standing with my head in a tied noose, where I would die if I stepped off the ladder I was up on. This game is an accurate representation of how you just stop caring about what to some would be their whole world. When you're in this state of mind, you lose your ability to think straight, so you just don't think. You just do what you feel is needed to be done (killing yourself). This game is short, but it gets to the point. The controls are as you would expect (pretty much as any other game), and the art style isn't top notch, but it's not stick figures. It's unsettling, like you'd expect from a game like this. I would recommend this game for you.
"I'm just making whatever thing feels authentic in a given moment," said Barksdale. "I never say 'OK, it's time to deal with some dark themes!' Instead, I listen to the quiet churning of ideas in my head and try to represent them honestly. I think that for any artist, being honest to the ideas, even when they're difficult, is your number one job."
Bucket Detective isn't as abjectly disturbing as The Static Speaks My Name, but you don't exactly feel great while playing it, either. It's not a game about winning, it's about inhabiting someone's world. How you feel about your time in that world is up to you.