I suffer from paranoia. I’m not talking about a tendency to just worry a lot, as the term is typically misused – I’m talking about full-blown paranoid delusions. I’ve suffered from these for most of my life. This is what you have to understand going in to this article, or it’ll seem ridiculous. For those who haven’t experienced real paranoia for themselves, it’s liable to seem ridiculous anyway. Because that’s what paranoia is: a condition that convinces the sufferer of ridiculous notions based on little or no evidence. There’s a rabbit hole involved here, and you’re going to have to be willing to come with me right to the bottom if you’re going to get anything of consequence from reading this.

It’s difficult, all told, to know where to begin this discussion. That being the case, and this being IndieHaven, I think I shall begin with a video game:

Calendula is a 30-40 minute puzzle game that sells itself as “meta”, but fails to be so in any meaningful way. Its central premise is that the game does not want to be played and will do everything it can to stop you from getting past the main menu, but the fact that the game is set in a video game menu screen quickly starts to feel incidental as Calendula provides no commentary on video games and puts forth no effort to create any illusion of a game existing beyond the main menu. What it does instead is provide an absolute masterclass in feigning artistic depth by pulling random shite out of your arse.

Let’s talk for a moment about the bizarre visual imagery Calendula bombards the player with between puzzles: occasionally there will be a brief moment of “gameplay” where the player walks slowly through red corridors full of floating geometric shapes, only for that to suddenly be replaced by live-action footage of yoghurt being poured over raw meat in a sink. That’s not me making something up as a hyperbolic example; that literally happens. A sink full of raw meat is covered in yoghurt, someone runs through a tunnel, an eye comes out of a flower, a candle in the shape of a frigging question mark is held in front of the camera…all nonsensical asides with seemingly no connection to the game or each other, and yet even stranger than the images themselves is the fact they are presented with a completely straight face. Can’t stress that enough: nothing I’ve just described is presented as a joke at any point.

A candle in the shape of a question mark!

I want to give Calendula the benefit of the doubt and say that these nonsensical sequences were meant as a joke. The question mark candle felt like a punchline. I certainly can’t think of any other reason for it to be there. But that’s just it; I know that I’m only thinking this because I can’t believe someone would make their game this way for any reason other than taking the piss. There’s no actual evidence within the game that it’s all a goof, and as such it doesn’t deserve for me to let it have that excuse. Not that it would really matter: even if Calendula were meant as a satire of artists presenting nonsensical half-thoughts as being deep artistic statements, its creators would still have had to believe that an audience of complete strangers would know that they were joking without them making it clear. As those familiar with Poe’s law will know, satire needs to contain explicit acknowledgement of the absurdity of its premise or it risks simply being an extension of that which it was meant to satirise – especially when the satirist creates such an extreme portrayal of their target that it risks ironically becoming the very worst example of that which it was trying to mock. Whether Calendula’s imagery was meant as satire or genuine artistic direction doesn’t matter; it hasn’t demonstrated enough awareness to be either.

Calendula is easily the most blatant example of white noise masquerading as symbolism I have ever encountered. Every critical metric that has been built into me over the years  – from arguments put forward by critics today, going all the way back to stuff I learned in high-school drama class – tells me that Calendula is nonsense. It is the most certain I have ever been in an assessment of a video game. Unshakeably so.

At least…I think I’m certain.

…aren’t I?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the fact is that video game criticism is subjective. That means someone out there will have looked at Calendula and extracted some sort of meaning from it. Someone looked at that sink full of raw meat and thought “wow, that’s some really clever imagery”. In case you couldn’t tell, I can’t comprehend how such people can exist. But they always do. No matter how meaningless something appears, there will always be someone who draws meaning from it like blood from a stone.

Here’s where the rabbit hole begins: how do I know that person isn’t me?

Look at it. LOOK AT IT!

Whenever I write, 40 minutes out of every hour is spent doubling back over everything I’ve written to make sure I’ve explained my argument well enough. That might just sound like I’m doing my job as a critic, but sadly it goes beyond rigorous editing. The truth is that I will never be sure. Not even if I go over the article a hundred times will I ever be completely satisfied that it makes sense. I will eventually reach a point where I feel I’ve hit the limit of how well I personally can explain something, but even then I’m plagued by the notion that it’ll all be gibberish to everyone else. Many games critics suffer from something called “Imposter Syndrome” – the belief that their work has no value and everyone is going to notice that at any moment. But I know what it’s like to feel like a sham, and this isn’t that. In fact talking about games has been one of the rare moments when I’ve felt like my input is actually worth something. No, there’s something else. Something that goes beyond the sense of worthlessness and fraudulence that characterises imposter syndrome. Something urgent.

That “something” is a pang of genuine fear. I need what I’m writing to make sense. I need to know other people can understand and agree with my train of thought. I need proof that I’m not the written equivalent of a sink full of raw meat. I need all of these things to happen because of what I know the result will be if they don’t. It is at this point that I must ask you to recall that I’m prone to paranoid delusions…for if it comes to pass that no one understands my line of thinking – if it transpires that I am the one reading meaning into the meaningless – then I am exposed to a postmodern hellscape of deeply terrifying possibilities.

It’s finally time for me to explain the nature of the paranoid delusion I suffer from. It is a delusion I have actually touched on before – an almost throwaway statement in a previous article here on IndieHaven about the subjectivity of criticism. The paranoid delusion I suffer from is the inescapable notion that nothing I perceive is real. The nagging fear that there is a discrepancy between the reality I experience and the reality I exist within. I fear this because I fear myself – my undeniable anger issues and history of abusive behaviours – and I fear what damage I may wreak in this other reality hidden from my view. Sometimes it’s a petty fear, like the fear that I’ve misread a social situation and upset someone. Other times I find myself earnestly considering the possibility that I’m in the midst of a murderous rampage, my whole life as I know it merely being an elaborate hallucination meant to protect my fragile consciousness from the dire, horrifying reality of the atrocities I am committing.

I know, right? And we’re not even at the bottom of the rabbit hole yet.

How can I believe for even a moment that any of this is true when even I have admitted that it’s a delusion, you ask? Wrong question. Paranoia doesn’t need reason. It is irrational by nature. It is a mechanism that will continue to exist within my mind completely irrespective of anything evidence and logical thought tell me. Knowing the staggering unlikelihood of what my delusion is claiming will never banish it from my mind, because paranoia has an impeccable, utterly ingenious survival strategy: it is always a fear of something unseen – something that the sufferer cannot perceive but still somehow infers to exist – and by baking this inability to perceive the threat into the premise of the fear itself, it causes the sufferer to doubt their own judgement. Paranoia makes the sufferer view themselves as an unreliable source, and while this isn’t enough to convince them that their delusions are definitely true, it does prevent them from ever conclusively dismissing them as false. It allows the delusion to persist until the sufferer can observe such information as can be bent in order to finally convince them of their paranoid beliefs.

Put simply: I know that my fears of perceiving a false reality are based in paranoia and not fact, but if my fears were real then I would have to believe they weren’t anyway. Paranoia is the one thought that cannot be disproven by disproving it. It will persist all the same. It is highly unlikely that anything will ever convince me that these paranoid notions are anything other than delusions, but I know that the thought will still linger in the back of my mind – a malicious spectre that will likely be with me until the day I die.

Ground floor: perpetual existential nightmares.

This admittedly seems like a long way to go to explain why it takes me so bloody long to write anything. It’s a bit of a leap to get from “someone might disagree with me about Calendula” to “I might be a genocidal hell-beast shielded from my own cruelty by a prettier facsimile of existence”, and I’m certainly not far-gone enough to make the whole leap in one go. I still recognise that differences of opinion are to be expected, and most disagreements are too minor to even be noticed by the paranoid part of my psyche. In fact, for something that sounds so horrifying it actually has a surprisingly small effect on me day-to-day.

But the progression of thought – that dizzying downward spiral we just went through together – remains neatly laid out in my head, ready to turn any significant difference in worldview into a glitch in the matrix that reinforces an underlying fear that there’s something off about the version of existence I’m seeing. Even though I have a handle on my paranoia, it can still paralyse me from time to time. I’ve scrapped more than a few articles out of the fear that I might be churning out senseless babble. I’ve thought about scrapping this very article multiple times. I mean Christ, can you imagine if this was the one where it turned out I had lost my grip on reality? Perhaps it’d be better if I spared myself having to confront that possibility at all. At least if the articles never come out, I’ll never have to know that they made no sense to people. I’ll never have to face that insidious little question:

What if the world I’m seeing isn’t there? What if it’s all just a sink full of raw meat?


“Come in under the shadow of this red rock

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

–   The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot                              

  • MM

    Cogito ergo sum.

  • Your article is immaculately coherent. At least you have that going for you.

    The trouble with people I find, is that they tend not to possess any self doubt. That can be more destructive than a pinch of the stuff. It’s easy to mistake normative behavior for empathy, understanding. I think most people are rightly mad. We are all technically insane; born often at the height of insanity (left to put the pieces together; this process takes decades.)

    Most people strike me as outright crazy. So I am not dismissive of anyone. We are a zoo of malfunctioning computers; our most damning delusion is automatic belief in the wholesale integrity of a thought.

    ANYWAY, This was more entertaining than Calendula I am certain. Now fix your author avatar!