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Dead Man Shuffle

Recently, for a bunch of reasons which probably all have to do with barreling headlong into the uncertainty of moving across the globe for work and adventure and a couple other dumb reasons that I promise I’m okay with having as reasons even if they are dumb, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own inevitable demise and what precisely it is I will leave behind when I go--if indeed I leave behind anything of value at all. The sudden demise of a dude I used to give rides to/play football with in high school over the Christmas holiday combined with the the passing of (David Bowie/Alan Rickman/pick a celebrity they’re fucking dropping like flies this year (but let’s be honest it was David Bowie)) probably contributed a little to it as well, plus it’s winter and everything is kind of dead anyway.

I think the idea of death is damn near impossible to get my head around. The mind rebels at the very idea that this could stop at any moment and then there’s nothing else--like I will cease to be and might not even be aware that I’ve ceased to be, because I won’t be aware of anything ever again, because I’ll be dead and the dead lack awareness. Whatever quirk that gives me consciousness will cease to be, and that will be that. The only thing that will remotely remain of me would be a sprawling online footprint, a couple blogs, some poems and a short story that got published in a college literary magazine once, oh and that porn game I helped write that one time. It’s made me want to have the last word, somehow.

It doesn’t help (or does help) that everything I’ve been playing recently has been super concerned with death, or getting over death, or saying goodbye, or ripping apart time and space to escape death or outrun it just a little longer. Namely, I’ve been playing Life is Strange--sure, I watched a playthrough of it but there’s enough choice in there that I want to experience it for myself--and Oxenfree (have you played Oxenfree? You probably should). I also finally sat down and finished up D4*, which is literally about jumping through time in an effort to bring your dead wife back (as opposed to Life is Strange, which is about jumping through time to keep your (girl)friend alive, or Oxenfree, which teases you with the ability to maybe prevent your brother’s death by jumping through time (also let’s just mention Kentucky Route Zero here, which I haven’t played recently but is very much about loss and regret (which I’ve written about before), and Pathologic, which is about people dying that you simply cannot save)). The game that really started this whole train of thought, however, was Hacknet. You know, the game about Hollywood-style hacking? You against the vast corporate conspiracy, or something like that? Solving a mystery by committing crimes?


See, Hacknet starts with you getting an email from a dead man. The man knows he is dead, because he set up a dead man’s switch--and it’s that mechanism that fascinates me. The Shadowrun reboot’s first campaign begins with the activation of a dead man’s switch, as do probably a million other games and stories set in a cyberpunk future. It’s an easy trope to lean into, and an easy way to give your investigator something to investigate. It also perfectly lines up with the very human desire to want to say goodbye properly, to leave some mark that says we were here--and say the million things we want to say and never get around to saying, of course.

Here’s a true story about me: I got my Master’s degree in Wales, which meant that I did a not-insignificant amount of flying to and from the US for various vacations. I love flying--it’s doing something that should be impossible and I find every takeoff to be exhilarating, even on shitty fucking airlines in shitty fucking uncomfortable airline seats. At the same time, part of me is absolutely fucking terrified every time I fly because it feels like if something goes wrong during a transatlantic flight you’re basically dead, and by “basically” I mean that shit is like guaranteed because who’s going to find your ass in the middle of the goddamn ocean? And yeah, I know all the statistics and it’s super-unlikely and all that but tell that to my irrational anxieties and they’ll tell you to go fuck yourself and then concoct a doomsday scenario.

Anyway in order to make it so I could relax on flights I started to leave an external hard drive with a letter to be read in the event of my demise. Said letter would essentially be an opportunity for me to leave a sort of farewell to the people I most needed to say some kind of final farewell to, and so I was able to relax on flights. Obviously, however, this plan had some flaws--namely there was no guarantee anyone would think to look on my hard drive (a problem solved by hiding a note with instructions in my room). The worse flaw, really, was that I sometimes needed that hard drive with me which defeated the whole damn purpose of the exercise.

Of course now there are services that just do it for you. Some will even do it for free--or at least free for the first two recipients. That obliges you to whittle down the list of people you absolutely must have the last word with to a mere two (I have my two people already in mind, obviously, because I live in the US and so obviously I need to know who to call/text in the event someone decides to try shooting up the office/shopping center/movie theater and I’m barricaded in somewhere waiting to die). These services will email you every month or so, like a worried aunt, until you stop responding. At that point they’ll wait a few more days/weeks and finally assume you’re dead, releasing the email. Google also lets you will your account data to trustees after a set period of inactivity, which is like a dead man’s switch only you’re releasing everything and not just a message (or maybe not? I haven’t looked into it yet myself).

It’s an immensely selfish thing to do, of course. You’re talking about activating something which will go out a solid month after death, when the wound of your absence is just starting to heal up. I think maybe the last thing I’d do, were I near death, would be to turn the damn thing off. But there’s always the urge to say more, and my own anxiety over not having the time to say what I need to say before I disappear from the human experience is, to say the least, sufficient to make the idea of having such a dead man’s switch set up an attractive proposition. It’s the one bit of the future promised in the books I read as a kid that actually exists now (well, also we’re in a terrible cyberpunk surveillance state). A chance to have the last word--and as I’m a chatty bastard, at least to the people I’m close with--isn’t a bad idea.

*IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Please god let there be another season of D4. I don’t know how it would possibly ever happen, but please.

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