Detestable Presentable Liberty

Detestable Presentable Liberty

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded – if you enjoyed this article and would like the header image for a wallpaper, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Spoilers for Presentable Liberty, a game by Wertpol. You don’t have to have played it before reading on but it’s well worth your time.

Speaking to Abnormal Mapping on the devastation capitalism wrecks on labourers forced to exist in its spaces, Lana Polansky says of a friend working in the games industry:

“He said to me verbatim, ‘I know I sold my soul to the devil for a decent paycheque.’ […] I said to him, you know, I have no job stability and I had to fight tooth and nail to get a decent income. After four or three years of working I had to fight for an additional year to busk for the money I have now. But at least I have my freedom. I have no stability and no benefits.”

This came in context of, among many things, the banjaxed atrocity that was Assassin’s Creed Unity, and its predecessor Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag’s modern day setting of Abstergo Entertainment, alluding to Ubisoft as a soulless totalitarian videogame company. Both were regarded by the larger games press with all the detachment of a contented dilettante, unable to connect their subtext and inoperability with the working conditions that inspired the end result.

On Unity’s release, many folks were more interested in lamenting ‘patch culture’ than in calling for labour unionization, despite the clue being in the title. As examples go, it is just one raindrop in a torrent. I have to indict myself in this too, because we are a culture bred to consume simply in order to fulfil ideals of consumerism. There’s no time to consider the human cost of our purchases; we must feast.

This emerges a fair bit in some overtly player-centric game design. You are the controller. You are the hero. Only you can save the world. Only you matter. Only you exist. It’s tangible in Presentable Liberty, a game where you as a prisoner receive letters from your penpals.

Initially there’s not much to do but listen to the steady tik of your clock while post from your correspondents gradually flutters in. They lavish you with their attention, sending gifts and postcards and gossip, while each relationship asks no effort from you in return—no reply, no reciprocated gift, no self-expression. Though they begin to question your presence at the other end of the line, their letters flow regardless. Your prison cell flourishes through their presents of artwork and furniture and videogames and a little bug friend, which together with the perpetuity of your imprisonment alters the space, making it familiar, cosy, homely.

You come to learn 98% of the population has fallen to a plague, and, of course, you are arbitrarily everyone’s last hope. Incarcerated by Money, your cell becomes a shield against the outside world; its walls are your comfort, its locks your good luck. Such fortune to be captive here and preserved from the chaos beyond, in these stable, familiar surroundings. Such joy to be important, to be entreated, to be the centre of this new little world.

Each penpal already knows this in the gutters of their subconscious. Their extensive efforts to validate your life grow increasingly intolerable and frustrate your inability to communicate with them. Though they act out to please you, to assuage your loneliness, to console you with memorabilia of the world, they contribute to an environment that strips you of autonomy and covers its horrors through facile decadence and dependency on mind-numbing menial labour, epitomised through escapist entertainment.

When the letters stop and the door opens, we can choose where our liberty lies: in the hollow dead home presented us, or the hollow dead world without.

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