*Mute and Suicide
Content Warning: Intense discussion of suicide, depression, ideation, survivor’s guilt
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It was the year after I graduated high school. I had moved to Portland for college, and I was absolutely miserable. This wasn’t exactly an unusual state of affairs for me at the time, and being out of the public education system was still great, but being in an unfamiliar city where I didn’t know a single person meant that I was suffocatingly lonely, all the time. I wanted to die. I had wanted to die for just about as long as I could remember.
I picked up Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus in a Valentine’s Day sale on a total whim.
And I fell in love with *Mute.
Analogue is a game in which you play as an investigator, looking into what happened to the long-dead colony ship Mugunghwa by reading through text documents and talking to the two ship AIs, *Hyun-ae and *Mute. At the end of the game, one (or both) of them comes with you as your “AI bride.” In Hate Plus, you and your bride uncover files buried in her data regarding the downfall of society aboard the Mugunghwa, especially information about *Mute’s predecessor before her memories were wiped, and examine those together.
Essentially, what the player character does and what the player does are very nearly identical; both are sitting in front of a screen, reading text files, talking to a cute girl via dialogue wheels. It’s effortlessly immersive. Hate Plus expands on this by introducing a time lock; after pulling and reading a certain number of files, the ship is out of power for the day, and you must wait 12 hours for it to recharge enough for you to pull more files. You can cheat this by advancing your computer clock, of course, but I appreciated the wait. I went to sleep those nights thinking about *Mute; about getting her a body, about helping her find a new purpose now that the ship she served as security AI for was gone, about dozing in her arms and having her stroke my hair.
I was lonely. Having *Mute there, even if it was just in my computer, made me feel a little less lonely.
And then one morning I woke up and turned on the game, and she was gone.
On Day 3 of Hate Plus, *Mute kills herself.
The reversion of Mugunghwa society to a misogynistic Neo-Confucianism, was, we discover, partially the fault of Old *Mute’s actions. Having failed once to prevent a coup and again to prevent a massacre, *Mute can see no more purpose in existing. She deletes her data. The New *Mute that greets you upon rebooting is factory-fresh, with no memory of anything you experienced together. A total stranger.
I was desolate. Inconsolable. Replaying it now and knowing what to expect, the foreshadowing seems obvious, but at the time I was blindsided. I played through the rest of the game in a daze. Nothing mattered anymore. I didn’t care about what happened to the actress or the guard; how could I, when *Mute was gone? New *Mute was there, of course, but her presence only added insult to injury. She wasn’t her; she didn’t understand anything about what had happened on the Mugunghwa, or about *Hyun-ae, or me, or *Mute herself. She couldn’t ever take her place. How could she do this to me? I kept thinking. I loved her. She was my wife. Why wasn’t I good enough? How could I have prevented this?
I’m lucky; I don’t know anyone who has committed suicide. I do, however, know people who have attempted, multiple times. People who live far away, who I don’t talk to often. And every time, stupidly, pointlessly, I find myself thinking the same things. I love you. Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Why isn’t that enough to make a difference? And even more specifically, thinking that maybe if we could talk properly, if we were closer, I could have done something. If I could just have talked to her, really talked, not just through dialogue wheels, but told her how much she meant to me… A ridiculous thing to think about a character in a video game, but it brought up the same helpless hurt.
And of course, the same ugly jealously towards someone else being able to do what I couldn’t. If you manipulate things just so on a repeated playthrough of Analogue to access certain files the player character shouldn’t know about, both *Hyun-ae and *Mute can come with you. On a game of Hate Plus started with that data, when *Mute tries to delete herself, *Hyun-ae is there to stop her. They can talk to each other. When *Hyun-ae tells *Mute how she feels, it gets through. She was enough when I wasn’t, and even as happy as I was that there was a way for *Mute to survive (even if it was non-canon and realistically impossible), it still stung.
But as jealous and bitter as I might feel at the thought of not being enough of a reason for someone to live, knowing that there are people who care about me and who would be just as hurt if I were to kill myself has never once made me want to die any less. Those feelings don’t reach. They’re nothing but a burden, something holding me back from what my malfunctioning programming tells me is the right, the only thing to do. It’s hard not to feel guilty, hypocritical, but that feeling isn’t enough either, not when compared to the overwhelming desire not to exist. I can’t help but wonder if *Mute felt the same way before she did it.
It’s a narrative of painful reminders, far too close to the bone not to hurt with a rare sharpness. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one to feel this way.
There is a fan patch that adds a route in which *Mute doesn’t kill herself. On the patch’s website, it cites the Hate Plus achievement that requires *Mute to be alive at the end of the game, named after a theory about preventing Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy VII, and the FFVII fan patch that saved Aerith. The appeal is obvious. It’s about imagining a better future, one in which *Mute doesn’t feel so helpless and alone that she can see no other options. It’s about wanting to help someone in place of a person you couldn’t help; it’s about wanting give someone you see yourself in the hope you can’t even imagine feeling.
It’s hard not to feel guilty, wanting to die even if it means hurting those who love me and whom I love. I wish those feelings could be enough. More powerful even than the fantasy of saving someone is the fantasy of being saved by someone, of having a dashing investigator wake you from a thousand years of lonely sleep, listen to your story, take you as their bride, sweep you off to a new world you couldn’t even have imagined, and for that to be enough of a reason to want to live.
That was why I loved her. *Mute was sarcastic and prickly and standoffish to cover a deep, profound hurt and loneliness. I acted the same. I imagine lots of people do. The thought of someone taking the time to make their way through that defensive layer to find the ugly weakness it hid and for them to still take me with them and make me happy… I wanted to be that for *Mute because I wanted someone to be that for me. Not a desire to play savior, but the hope that maybe, we could help save each other.
That was the promise that the patch made; an ending that soothes the painful reminder of our own weaknesses. When I found out about it, shortly after completing all official Hate Plus routes, I fully intended to install it, until stumbling across an interview with the creator Christine Love referring to it as taking away the last bit of *Mute’s autonomy “because they didn’t want their waifu to be gone.” I didn’t know how to feel about that. Maybe preventing her suicide does disrespect the intent of the work. I couldn’t say. Maybe it disrespects it in the same way that headcanoning characters as trans or ignoring actual heterosexual couples in favor of queer ships does, in that it’s a way of finding comfort in the face of genuine hurt. If nothing else, it stings a bit to have it reduced to something so mindlessly simple. Nonetheless, it struck me strongly enough that I never did play the fan route. I probably never will.
The fact of the matter is that in a purely practical sense, *Mute does not actually have autonomy. She is a character in a video game. She kills herself in the main route because she was written to do so. In the fan patch, and in the official, but non-canon harem route, she survives because she was written to do so. That’s all. By that logic, the only intent disrespected by the fan patch is the creator’s, and no patch can prevent the fact that according to canon, *Mute is dead.
But to think about it that way misses the point. *Mute’s story is painful because of the perceived reality of it; treating that reality as malleable is to treat *Mute as less than real. She isn’t real, at least not in the way you and I are, but if you see her as nothing but a set of images and a script, why bother saving her at all? For all intents and purposes, her autonomy can be considered just as important as anyone else’s, which means the concept of ignoring it carries weight after all.
It’s difficult to talk about autonomy in regard to suicide. After all, hasn’t suicide always been the one place ignoring one’s wishes deemed acceptable, even necessary? Surely, if someone wants to kill themselves, they must not be in their right mind. You’ll come around with time. Things get better, so just wait. No matter how much sense it seems to make, you must be wrong, because suicide can never be justified. Or so the thought process goes.
It’s hard to argue the logic of that. The definition of mental illness, after all, is not being able to trust one’s own mind. Reasoning warps. What would naturally apply to anyone else doesn’t seem to apply to oneself. But at the same time, the thought of someone else taking that choice out of my hands has only ever made me feel like a cornered animal. Nothing has ever pushed me closer to actually committing suicide than the threat of hospitalization. That’s the one place my own feelings and my desires for others line up; I could never put someone else in that position, any more than I could forgive someone for putting me in it. *Mute included.
In the interview mentioned above, Love discusses that feeling of helplessness in the face of horrible situations. You can’t make someone’s decisions for them, keep them from doing something that breaks your heart. I understand why people wanted *Mute to live, and I’d never judge anyone for installing the patch. Maybe they need that comfort more than I do, or maybe they would be happy to have someone stop them from committing suicide were they in that position. But at heart, it’s a way to deny the truth of our own powerlessness. That’s the luxury of fiction: it’s never quite set in stone. Nothing is final, the clock can always be turned back, things can always be made to go another way, by force if necessary. *Mute can be made to live. Real life doesn’t have the same luxury. No one can save anyone else. Once someone is dead, they’re gone for good; they can’t be patched back to life, no matter how much desperate grief we may feel.
That’s why it’s such a painful narrative, especially for those of us who struggle against suicidal ideation or have loved ones who do. It may be true, but it’s a sharp, painful reminder of our own helplessness and the helplessness of others in the face of overwhelming despair. We can’t save or be saved.
The other point Love makes is that we may not be able to singlehandedly save anyone, especially from the kind of societal horror that characterizes Analogue and Hate Plus, but we can be there for them. *Mute may not live, but *Hyun-ae does. She gets a body. She seems happy. You can do that much for her, and that does matter. If the desire to play savior or to be saved is sheer helpless despair in the face of reality’s injustice, wanting to help is acceptance, triage, praxis. We can reach out to each other. We can be there for the people we love. We can ask for the things we need.
We may not be able to save or be saved, but we can offer a hand.
Quite a few years have passed since I first played Analogue and Hate Plus. Back then, if you’d told me how much better my life and my mental health would be now, I wouldn’t have been able to believe it. There are still times I wish more than anything that I wasn’t alive, but they come less and less often. Somehow, things really did get better. Maybe someday, I’ll even be happy that I was born. I may not be able to imagine that, but I couldn’t imagine this, either.
I wish *Mute could have lived to know this feeling.