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“Go to hell!” was a popular phrase during my parents’ generation. The concept is pretty straightforward—Hell, a place of eternal torture and torment, is somewhere you’d want to send your enemies.
I never grew up with any form of spirituality, but Hell or the idea of an underworld always caught my attention. It’s not that I was afraid of it, but fascinated by the mythologies that surrounded it. As a teenager, I became interested in Christianity and was confronted by terms like “lake of fire” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” However, as I continued to mature, that concept of Hell didn’t match up with with what I was learning about a loving God. The definition of Hell was too simplistic. Why would a God who cared let anyone go to such a horrifying place? It’s a question that I’ve wrestled with over the years.
So when I stumbled upon an indie video game called Pinstripe, which featured an ex-minister who journeyed to the depths of Hell to retrieve his kidnapped daughter, I couldn’t click “Back this project” on Kickstarter fast enough. As a father myself, it was like this game was made specifically for me, engaging with this idea of Hell and punishment.
Before Pinstripe was released, Thomas Brush (the game’s creator) asked followers to complete the following sentence in a tweet: “Hell is a place where…” Most, if not all, of the responses referenced some form of external punishment imposed upon people who deserved it. Hell is where “every step is torture and pain,” “your deepest fears live,” “you are eternally falling,” or “the game Pinstripe never got funded”… You get the idea. However, the game’s interpretation of Hell turned out to be quite different.
As you play ex-minister Ted, who follows Mr. Pinstripe, the villain, into his dark domain, you’re welcomed into a world of depression and addiction. Pinstripe’s ice-capped Hell, with its gorgeous art style and haunting soundtrack, is beautiful, but the beauty is missed by its denizens because they’re full of despair. Rather than being eternally tortured, the inhabitants of Hell are addicted to Sack Juice—a substance that puts users into a euphoric state, but once they’ve run out of it, life seems even more hopeless than before. It’s a drug that insists the only cure to its side-effects is more of the drug itself.
I suspect that this portrayal of the underworld reflects Ted’s personal Hell, because as the game progresses, you learn he was an alcoholic in his old life and was driving drunk when he and his daughter died in a car accident. To me, it highlights what Hell could be for each of us. Many of us are trapped in our own personal Hells, even in life.
The addicts in Pinstripe bury themselves deep under levels of isolation, depression, compliance, and ultimately hopelessness, not because they want to, but because they feel they have to in order to survive. It’s the only way they know how to keep moving forward. Ted meets characters who are oblivious to his desperate search for his daughter, only focused on waiting for their next delivery of Sack Juice.
These characters remind me of a homeless man named Richard. When I was 19, I sat on a Montreal sidewalk next to him. He was drinking rubbing alcohol from an old plastic water bottle, and we talked for hours about life, the homemade tattoos on his arm, and his dreams of becoming a musician. During the hours of walking and talking, we stopped by one of the many Catholic churches with their doors open for tourists to visit. Richard suggested we go inside and pray, so we did—he fought against his frail body to kneel at the front.
Richard’s prayer was half spoken towards a higher power and half a conversation to me kneeling beside him. He was hungry. He begged for money to rain down from the heavens so he could eat. He pleaded for the strength to hold onto that money and buy food before his addiction betrayed him yet again. When he had finished, he look at me in tears and said, “I’m so hungry.”
“Do you want McDonald’s?” I asked, as it was the first place I could think of. Richard nodded and we headed out of the church. We didn’t get very far. Waiting for us in the open doorway to the church was Richard’s Mr. Pinstripe—his dealer. Beside him was a large man who silently watched over the proceedings.
In that instant, Richard changed from a hungry friend to someone who would do anything his dealer told him to. The dealer did not have to say anything to Richard. Richard just fell in line, slunk behind the dealer and looked at the ground. The dealer eyed me, boasting, “He’s mine.” I exchanged a few words with the dealer, trying to verbally pry Richard away, but to no avail. I was politely informed that Richard was in debt, and the moment he paid it off, the dealer would give him more and Richard would just owe him later. This Pinstripe knew how to manipulate addiction. It was like he had pushed a button that swapped Richard for someone else; Richard swore at me, told me to leave and not bother him any more. Seeing the large man clench his fist, I left, angry and frustrated.
As I walked around the corner, I loudly demanded that God do something. I even kicked a construction sign out of the way in frustration. Clearly this man needed help, and what was God doing about it? When I finished pleading, I heard a still, small voice: “Didn’t you say you were going to feed him?”
Reluctantly, I picked up the largest McDonald’s meal I could afford, and set out in search of Richard. It took me about an hour to find him again. The scene had reset. There he was, sitting on the sidewalk sipping from the same plastic bottle. His eyes were far more glassy than before and when I sat down next to him, he had no recollection of who I was. We shared a meal and parted ways. I was wrecked at seeing this cycle of addiction, a circle that seemed unbreakable.
Like Pinstripe suggests, perhaps Hell is not a place we are sent to, but rather something, out of desperation and hopelessness, we choose for ourselves. An easy response would be, “Don’t choose Hell!” and everything will come up rainbows. But I think the message of Pinstripe reflects the Hells we experience in this life, situations that require great strength, determination, discipline, and the help of others to choose the alternative.