Jason Nelson’s “This is How You Will Die” is described as digital fiction and poetry, but I found that the imagery and the sounds are just as responsible for the haunting and confusing aura around this piece. I agree that it can be considered e-lit as the prose and poetry inform the experience that we are having (which is all about death, dying and how we treat the subject), but the text to me was often confusing and was displayed in such a way that made it hard to read and absorb. More on that in a bit. The sounds and imagery are bizarre. The sounds are like a slow heartbeat with an electronic chord that may sound like the wind or a voice depending on how you hear it. The imagery is crude – the frame pixilated which what looks like frayed wires sticking out of it. It all feels very rough. There are only two real choices. One is to “explain death”. In doing so, the author puts text on essentially a blank screen, describing human beings like animals, referring to them as bovines that are just going through the motions of living like a mindless creature (styling your hair, adjusting your clothes). The idea of your career as a “gulley” makes life seem predictable and predetermined – all of our days running in the same direction toward death, which the author calls “the last doorway”. The whole tone of this reading is that life is essentially pointless – that you will be unknown and your life will make little to no distance (he says your “brief bell” which I took as a metaphor for life will swing the herd three steps – in other words, move the needle very very little). I found it interesting that he describes the “game” as having a way to win. This message never changes throughout the game. The only other real option is to hit “death spin”, so I did.
The text that appears on the one-armed bandit style strip across the middle is a somewhat absurd, bizarre accounting of possible deaths.. My rough break down is as follows: So first column of the spin is when – then the second column is what happens to you to kill you – the third is the moment of your death – the fourth is the moments immediately after your death and what happens to your spirit/soul/remains…..The real action is in the clips that appear as numbers on crudely drawn colored doorways.
It was hard for me to get a read on the meaning of the text that popped up in the Death spin – nonsensical in a sense – a “box knife used to restock your face”? “The cab driver hides your body in an off season amusement park”? I guess the whole thing points to the absurdity of death – that basically, sh*t happens and it happens for ridiculous reasons and in ridiculous ways and that death has no more meaning than life does. As for the numbered doorways, I found those videos and clips to be much more interesting. These seem to be where the real meaning of the piece lies – thoughtful little audio plays that underscore the ways people see the juxtaposition of life and death – some light-heartedly, others more somberly… Some of them are positively haunting and morbid. For instance the clip about dying while driving – the line “their heads were wrecked, everything around them was wrecked” is disturbing. I thought the line that “Some cars don’t have drivers that don’t die” was particularly thought-provoking.
There is a clip about birds – the voice is flat and lifeless – talking about birds and the forest being burned i think – says things dont really die, or maybe they do. All we see are images of nature – grasses and birds. One problem I have with a number of these clips is that the words are hard to read – they change quickly and have a shadow on them that makes them difficult to make out. In addition, the poems don’t really have a beginning or an end. Both the poems in print and the audio readings continue to loop – they circle around unendingly. Perhaps, I thought it is something to do with the circle of life, or the way you can’t get a thought – particularly a notion of death – out of your head. In clip 6, the reading is about how its an effort to die, a hassle, an obstacle and the girl ends up comparing it to a playground with slides – a take that I found to be somewhat nonsensical, but also demonstrating the way some people may want to view death – as something that simply gets in the way of having a good time. The poem has a little more meaning – it points out the chain of killing, leading from soap killing germs to germs killing cells to cells killing organs to organs killing us to “we kill others. others kill us.” That seemed more like a statement about man’s inhumanity to man and, frankly, seemed a little jarring when juxtaposed with the audio clip I just mentioned. Other clips show trees and tombstones. One shows a figure in white near what could be cemetery gates. This is another light-hearted (?) exchange about death in which a girl tells a man that her death will be fun for him because it will be a surprise. She also points out that when she dies he will get her material things…
I wanted to point out something that struck me in clip 7 because it was the only one that seemed to reference religion or God . In the audio clip, the man is talking about people that “like to die” – and says the only people that like to die hold flashlights over others who are dying to confuse them. So he is referring to people in the afterlife perhaps – that are trapped in this world playing a joke on people dying to make them think they are seeing God’s light? There’s an allusion to this in the poetry in which is says some deities hold flashlights on bitter dead, on richly worn.. That’s another allusion to God (or gods). And it also makes the point that the people that will be disappointed by their final destination are those that are bitter or unhappy anyway or those that are rich (which sounds Biblical to me – like the rich man has a better chance of passing through the eye of a needle rather than enter the kingdom of heaven).
The actual idea of getting or losing spins seemed all beside the point, but enjoyable nonetheless. The first time I plated the game I kept “winning” additional “demise credits” by getting blood diseases, etc. It doesn’t seem so much like “gambling” as the opening scene makes it sound. This time I got 443 demise credits and its singing (when you die, you die) which I guess is the point here, as it is putting an absurd spin on death and also seeming to poke a little fun at those expecting God or some great answer to be revealed. Here it says that although I have won extra death spins, parts of me are erased. Erased from others’ memories? Erased from the game? No I continue to get additional spins every time, but the warnings are getting more dire. The music is speeding up and becoming more chaotic, including organ chords. It predicts that I will do something in 72 hours to lead to my death.
I notice that as I spin, little facts about death appear on the center strip behind the main text – like the increasing method of death is blunt trauma. The markings on the side of the frame look like frayed wires, and when you spin it looks like veins or blood or wires… with some splotches of blood. I cant tell whats behind the bottom of the page – maybe two eyes, make two zeros…. Despite all of this, there doesn’t seem to be anything to learn and the tab that says “explain death” never reveals a different message. So looking at another link, it says that the more death credits you have, the further away your death is. But when I get bad news like I have a blood disease or something, it adds death credits meaning my death gets =further= away. That doesn’t make sense. Finally, I decided to start over to see if I could deliberately run my number of death credits down to zero but I got as low as 6 and it wouldn’t let me spin anymore. At that point, the game didn’t appear to be over, but there was nothing more that I was able to do.
In conclusion, I found the game to be an interesting commentary on death, dying and how as humans cope with how we will die. Nelson clearly sees an element of absurdity here and I think he shares it. The game idea just seems to be a platform for the audio commentary and poetry, but it works well. It definitely qualifies as e-lit, although I think it was somewhat disappointing in that there was no end to the game. In a game about death, shouldn’t there be some finality?