“You can’t practice dying.
“There’s no test run for that.”
—Maddy Xiao, Necrobarista
[CW: Story spoilers; sex, illness, abuse, eating disorders/weight loss.]
I came down with COVID-19 for the first time in late March. First as a tugging pain behind my eyes, as if I’d been reading without my glasses. Then a stabbing ache in one leg, and then a steady dropoff of smell and taste until, on the 22nd, my temperature shot up to at least 103° F. And I realized I’d been burning up before then—I had allowed myself the space not to notice, to keep living, as if nothing was wrong.
“It’s very weird looking back through my camera roll now,” I told my friend Ana Valens, three weeks later. “Because I have all these topless pics with my face in them, and I’m like, visibly flushed red.”
II. crabs and dead birds.
Necrobarista is the type of game in which play and narrative are interdependent, each folded neatly into the other—its visual language is distinctly filmlike, but something would be lost if it were pre-rendered and unreactive. Traditional cinematic language is necessarily two-dimensional; imagelike, rather than spacelike. Even if the lens is compactifying a real space, the image is that space flattened, often with depth, but made with a painter’s eye for composition.
Real-time 3D, on the other hand, remains somewhat spacelike, even projected to a screen. And I think this is a strength of the medium that’s only now being understood as such: there’s an inherent, living tactility to real-time images. Jacob Geller wrote about this recently in relation to Valve’s Half-Life: Alyx and Mountains’ Florence.
“Florence’s items become our items,” says Geller, of Mountains’ touchscreen still lifes. “Toothbrushes and food and phones which we absentmindedly swipe through. These are of no particular importance to Florence herself, but their presence, gamified, makes us examine them anew, in the same way a painting of fruit does.”
Necrobarista has this still life-ness from its title screen (a shot of a lone espresso service), and it persists. Each frame is a delicate, intimate arrangement of parts, perfectly still, but always breathing with perspective and slight motion. In this way (and in others), it blurs the distinction between space and body and object—a crooked elbow against a wall, a knife buried between two fingers, a Greek chorus of robot-legged milk jugs imbued with the souls of crabs and dead birds.
The text itself embodies this, too, with its gamified carrier bag of associating word pairs: blood (MAGIC); sadist (MADDY); bittersweet (DEATH). There’s a compelling slipperiness to this mechanic, because we don’t know where the associations come from. They could be quantum truths about the game’s world, or they could only be true from the vantage of the character who thought to say suplex or power imbalance or gambling.
The story isn’t interactive, but it makes itself touchable.
“The other thing is like, there’s a personal voice, a personal authorship that comes out in these things, and, you know, it’s so hard to make a video game,” says journalist and composer Liz Ryerson, in a recent episode of DOOM MIXTAPE REDUX. “So it’s that you can really see somebody’s personal voice, personal, like,”—a pause as she lines up a shot on a cyberdemon—“flair coming out in this game—in just the design of the space.”
Ryerson has published a lot of work around user-created DOOM levels—most famously the Russian arthouse .WAD Absolute Life Transformation (or A.L.T.), which she covered for VICE in 2018.
“[A.L.T. is] about traumas of the past,” Ryerson explains, “a personal subjective lens on larger historical tragedy. Despite evoking Nazis and WWII, it doesn’t seem particularly rooted in any temporal period. It exists outside of time, jumping around to many different ideas and places.”
At every level, Necrobarista has a comforting fragmentariness. Its visual episodes meander back and forth in time, and its text vignettes are even more broad.
In terms of its larger narrative, the game is (mostly) a handful of stuff: a largely arbitrary set of moments, and thoughts, and perspectives. “[...]by gamifying the interpretation of its story,” I wrote in my review for Unwinnable, “Necrobarista allows itself to be winding, poetic and meticulous, without becoming alien or overwhelming. Instead of making you an agent within its story, it only asks you to take what you need from it.”
The tactility of its story is less like one actor’s part in a play, and more like messages on a wall, written by seven different people.
Necrobarista doesn’t have a single lesson. It would lose its identity if it did.
“I feel COMPLETELY empty inside!” says a bunny-eared marshmallow creature in Nathalie Lawhead’s EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK.
“WOW!” replies the other. “You are such an INSPIRATION…”
EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK isn’t a single story. Like Necrobarista, it’s a handful of stuff, placed in a framework that echoes it—loose electronic pages, scattered in a broken, multifaceted, OS-like world, arbitrary in arrangement but deliberate in association.
The format itself suggests an unsettling, voyeuristic degree of intimacy. You aren’t exploring a topology or reading a zine, you’re using someone else’s PC; opening their files, playing their games, reading their messages, entering your secrets as passwords in exchange for theirs.
Each fragment means little on its own.
“I DON’T THINK I’m going to SURVIVE THIS” says a marshmallow creature, elsewhere in EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK.
“You don’t have to SURVIVE,” says another. “Just pretend you did, until you are old enough to die!”
To draw a theme, Necrobarista’s story is (narrowly) about death. Broadly, it’s about trauma, and trauma’s incidence. In games, trauma is often a single event with a definite end. It’s transient—a gunshot, or a stab wound, or a heartbreak, and it ends in restoration or physical death.
Necrobarista’s trauma isn’t this. It’s not about death in its simple, lights-out sense, or in the repetitious, metanarrative sense of Dark Souls or Planescape: Torment—in fact, no one dies on screen at all.
The transients of Necrobarista’s deaths are far outside the scope of the story. We only see their reverberating tails, lingering. Often, rather than showing us violence, it depicts its spatial and emotional echoes, and the voiceless flesh-memory of it.
I seemed (to myself) to evaporate. I couldn’t eat for days at a stretch. My throat was too raw, too choked. I could feel myself melting out of my clothes; sense them becoming loose as time passed. I could see my ribs, feel my breasts shrink and the elastics in my bra slacken in real time.
In 2018 and 2019 (long before the coronavirus emerged), I spent around 18 months starving myself on and off. “You reach your goal BMI,” I wrote in February, on a goal card for a homebrew tabletop game. “You now get a massive headrush every time you stand up, but that’s probably unrelated.”
The Terminal (Necrobarista’s café and sole setting) is established as a place where the recently dead go to rest, before they move on. The Council (this world’s mundane celestial bureaucracy) grants each newly departed soul a 24-hour grace period before they’re required to pass on.
Maddy Xiao, the Terminal’s owner, describes passing on to the recently dead Kishan as an unknown. Once someone leaves the Terminal, they’re unknowable and recoverable.
Necrobarista’s undeath, then, is liminal—a state of lingering, but not a state of being. It can't be sustained. The physical effects of overstaying one’s welcome are described as a dysphoric, flu-like sickness: “Headaches. Memory loss.” With time, it becomes unbearable.
Partway through the story, it’s revealed that Chay Wu, the Terminal’s previous owner, is already long dead. We’ve never seen him alive—he’s been lingering for weeks, and Maddy’s been holding him back from passing on.
She hopes to revive him.
Lacking intentionality, I still felt it. My clothes were too big, someone else’s. If I stood up for too long, the edges of my vision blackened. I fainted again, three times. And for months, I stayed thin.
Once, while I was recovering, a girlfriend (now estranged) told me how fragile my arms looked. She wondered what my wrist would feel like if she wrapped her hand around it and squeezed; if she would feel my bones grind together, if they would snap.
If she would cut her palm on the splintered ends.
V. —real, outside me.
Twelve days after my fever broke, and nine after the end of my quarantine, I took a selfie in a park, with a bandana around my face. I silhouetted myself against the blue sky, and a flock of starlings flew through the camera’s view, and I let the brittle April daylight catch on the frames of my glasses.
I kept my eyes shaded, so they’d stay brown.
The sun always makes them green.
“It’s a nice day out,” says Chay to Kishan, near the end of Necrobarista. “The weather here can be a pain in the arse, but days like this …
“they make it worth it, y’know?
“I love to just sit and let the sun warm me.
“It’s been a couple of weeks since it happened, now. And I feel like the sun’s warmth is the only thing that really helps me pull myself together.
“Yeah, what you’re feeling? I’m feeling it too, pretty intensely.
“Don’t worry. It’s gonna be okay.
“A few times a day, I totally lose myself.”
“Writing, I hope, I shrink these feelings,” I wrote in late June, in the notes section of a day-planner, “and I trap them on the page, and make them harmless. Like deleting blocks of hex from a ROM until it doesn’t load.
“It’s healing, especially on paper.
“The tactility makes it feel true—real, outside me.”
In a way, my constant writing has stripped my emotional life of its ephemerality, and its mutability. Each gesture at grieving falls out of me as a string of words: a description, an intimacy of parts, to be preserved and reiterated.
In April, I had left my apartment for the laundromat one neighborhood over, with most of my clothes shoved into a backpack I’ve had since before my transition. Its size and weight now seemed to dwarf me.
My breath rustled in my chest, papery. The air from a heater, the water in my shower, the wind— their motion and heat could fall over me like salt in a burn, still; I’d feel stabs of nausea, deep inside my lungs. As if my body was trying to escape itself.
The air moved, damp and thin and warm. Leaves and flowers were blossoming in the grass, and on the trees.
If I inhaled slowly enough, I could smell them.
“People don’t tend to last as long as you or I,” says Chay.
Ned replies: “And even when they do—”
“—It hurts like hell, yeah.”
Violet is a hapless arts journalist and epidemiology undergrad. Her work emphasizes storytelling and confessionalism, and it often deals with ideology, identity, and queer sexuality. You can find her tweeting about stars, cats, and girls @violet_bloch, and you can read her least timely hot takes in her newsletter astronautics.
Thanks to Diego Argüello for giving notes during the drafting process.