How Indie Video Games Depict Depression, Anxiety, and Grief

Links and videos of several indie games are posted below the article.

elude

Consider author Tom Bissell’s experience with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion as described in his book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter:

Oblivion is less a game than a world that best rewards full citizenship, and for a while I lived there and claimed it. At the time I was residing in Rome on a highly coveted literary fellowship, surrounded by interesting and brilliant people, and quite naturally mired in a lagoon of depression more dreadfully lush than any before or since. I would be lying if I said Oblivion did not, in some ways, aggravate my depression, but it also gave me something with which to fill my days other than piranhic self-hatred. It was an extra life; I am grateful to have it.

I read those words years ago while eating subpar noodles in a building that used to be a Blockbuster Video. The dim restaurant lights shielded me well enough from the gaggle of suburban families that surrounded me, so I hunched my back and unashamedly swallowed Bissell’s words. As a post-college, pre-career teacher wannabe, the 200-plus-page book about the artistry of video games perfectly quenched both my thirst for entertainment and my need to be perceived as an intellectual. But, more importantly, Bissell’s novel, including the excerpt above, connected with a part of me that I did not yet acknowledge: my depression and my (sometimes subconscious) attempts to deal with it.

All art forms can provide relief and insight to victims of mental illness (check out Matchbox Twenty’s “Unwell,” Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, or Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings), but the immersive nature of video games provides something else: the opportunity for victims of mental illness to process their feelings in a safe, engaging environment and the opportunity for others to experience simulations of symptoms. Video games are often viewed as pillars of escapism, but the larger beauty of interactive storytelling is that it offers opportunities for deeper empathic connections.

(Side note: Escapism is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and Coraline, believes that escapism helps solve real-world problems: “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with; and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour, real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.” And Bissell’s earlier quote reinforces Gaiman’s point. So if you need to escape from an unsafe reality for a while, do so.)

Unlike big-budget video games, indie video games are uniquely equipped to create targeted experiences that tackle multifaceted topics like depression, anxiety, and grief. Some big titles (like Mass Effect, The Last of Us, Life is Strange, and Gears of War) tactfully portray mental health issues as part of larger, more nuanced narratives, and other AAA games (like Portal, Batman: Arkham City, and Star Wars: Battlefront—not to mention older console games like Super Mario 64 and Jet Set Radio Future) offer enough immersive puzzles, riddles, and strategy-based gameplay to potentially dull the pains of mental distress. But the relative sovereignty of indie titles allows them to craft narratives that are more direct and more poignant. They are not handcuffed to audience or stakeholder expectations regarding high-concept ideas, visual excellence, and multiday gameplay length, and this freedom is handy when tackling topics like depression and anxiety.

And, holy shit, some indie games deliver. They pull it off. Case in point: Elude.

Elude is a simple platformer from Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab (a project-focused partnership between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and institutions in Singapore “with a core focus on identifying and solving research problems using a multi-disciplinary approach that can be applied by Singapore’s digital game industry”), and Elude illustrates what game designer and researcher Doris Carmen Rusch calls “the art of nailing pudding to the wall” (or the “process of basing games on abstract concepts”). Here is part of GAMBIT’s explanation of the game:

Modeling what depression feels like by contrasting it with other mood states (normal and happy), Elude portrays depression metaphorically. The various parts of the game-world represent emotional landscapes that correspond to different moods with the gameplay changing according to mood changes. The core gameplay (i.e. “normal mood”) happens in a forest filled with “passion” objects that resonate and act as power ups when one calls out to them. Only when infused with passion is it possible to overcome the obstacles on the way to the tree tops, where one reaches “happiness”.

The simplicity of Elude is part of the game’s appeal: mental illness is complex—and it is important that we acknowledge that complexity—but a game like Elude offers a clarifying experience. Those who suffer from depression are able to watch an approximation of themselves jump away from darkness. Elude streamlines the healing process and offers a sense of what life might feel like when things get better. And those who do not suffer from depression are able to experience, to some degree, the ebbs and flows of depressive episodes. All this in a game that can be completed in under ten minutes.

Many indie game developers use narratives less as an experience of mental illness and more as a thoughtful dissection of mental health issues. The former generally takes the form of allegorical gameplay like Elude or realistic role-playing gameplay like Zoe Quinn‘s Depression Quest. The latter, however, relies more on personified symptoms that the protagonist must overcome and, in some cases, physically overpower.

These fight-your-demons types of games remind me of the last moments of Cyrano de Bergerac, the play by Edmond Rostand. Cyrano, the protagonist, is nearing death and, in a state of indignation and delirium, draws his sword and begins to stab and swipe at his “old enemies”: compromise, prejudice, cowardice, and stupidity. “I know I can’t defeat you all, I know that in the end you’ll overwhelm me, but I’ll still fight you as long as there’s a breath in my body!” he says. There is something heavy and enlightened about the image of a character physically fighting his demons, even if no one else can see them.

Video games place you in a new world, give you control of a body, and dare you to think. Appreciating a game takes time, and video game analysis requires thoughtfulness. Once again, I return to the words of Tom Bissell:

Films favor a compressed type of storytelling and are able to do this because they have someone deciding where to point the camera. Games, on the other hand, contain more than most gamers can ever hope to see, and the person deciding where to point the camera is, in many cases, you—and you might never even see the “best part.” The best part of looking up at a night sky, after all, is not any one star but the infinite possibility of what is between stars. Games often provide an approximation of this feeling, with the difference that you can find out what is out there.

Regardless of a game’s quality, profound messages about mental illness in video games will fade unless gamers “find out what is out there,” as Tom Bissell said, and doing that requires thoughtfulness. Audiences can ignore the subtlety and figurative nature of video game narratives if they so desire, but doing so minimizes the value of the art. So resist the temptation to dismiss the poignancy of these games. Process them. Talk about them. Use them to help you (to the extent that they can).

In his playthrough of Florastamine’s Gone in November, Seán “Jacksepticeye” McLoughlin spends nearly fifteen minutes reacting to the harrowing story and discussing personal thoughts regarding mental health issues. It is not a perfect monologue, but it seems honest. And honesty is always a good place to start. Watch it here:

A Quick Note

If you are, for any reason, experiencing depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, know that you are not alone. Here are some resources that may help:

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
The Trevor Project—Saving Young LGBTQ Lives: 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678
National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
This Is My Brave, Inc. (stories about living with mental illness): click here
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s Find A Therapist Directory: click here

Some Indie Games Worth Thinking About

Keep in Mind
Developer: Little Moth Games
Play game here.

A description:

One night, [Jonas] awakens to a shadowy mirror world where beasts lurk and the stars don’t shine. Lost and scared, Jonas must face all those twisted beasts if he ever wishes to return home and learn the truth about his darkness. Keep in Mind is a psychological indie game that follows Jonas, a man struggling with mental illness, on a journey of reflection and emotional healing. This game was created for those who struggle with mental illness or those who find themselves lost in the dark. This game is meant to be a therapeutic experience, but because of its sensitive and controversial content, some audiences may want to be wary.

TIE – A game about depression
Developer: Tony Nowak
More about the game here.

TIE is a game that highlights the seemingly endless (yet somehow still sharp) monotony of depressive episodes. The game is a bit simplistic, but it seems to be designed to portray only a couple aspects of depression. So appreciate it to the extent that it helps.

Presentable Liberty
Developer: Wertpol
Play game here.

To my knowledge, Wertpol has not defined Presentable Liberty as an allegory for mental illness, but many fans have embraced the game’s poignant and startling elements as metaphors of depression. The story follows a linear path from relative optimism to extreme despair, and several commenters have noted the deep impact that the game has on gamers, as explained in this comment on Markiplier’s playthrough of the game:

if the game’s virus is truly depression, you can see mark slowly go into it through the playthrough. he’s getting stressed and worrying about the other characters. he is so confused and then there ends up being a savior for him, sal. yet, he has his doubts about sal for him. he worries about charlotte and his happy buddy, smiley. he still has the glimmer of hope but slowly is losing it as he goes on. in the end the virus has taken over.

In this way, Presentable Liberty is similar to Elude in that both games offer simulations of emotional experiences.

And even if Presentable Liberty is not specifically about depression, the game still offers a profound experience. As Tommy Miller of Capital High School says:

It’s tough to capture the emotion that this game invokes, leaving the player calling some distant friend to tell them that they love them. It leaves the player reeling, astounded by the effect that our everyday life can have on friends or simply total strangers. And maybe that isn’t such a bad thing for us to realize.


Emporium
Developer: Tom Kitchen
Play game here.

The game’s description on Steam: “Emporium is a short interactive vignette. Exploring notions of escapism, loss and a fragmented sense of self in the wake of a personal tragedy.”

A Steam review (from rjmacready):

Think of it as a 3D, isometric “walking simulator” with a limited number of locations, and a small number of “decisions” to make, and you’re getting much, much warmer. Some might even call it a tad pretentious, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree with them; but sometimes in order to make art you gotta stick your neck out a little. Being “safe” is one thing this game certainly can’t be accused of, in terms of subject matter OR execution.

As of the date of this article, the comments below Markiplier’s playthrough of Emporium are worth reading. Gaming fandom is a double-edged sword: it breeds hateful nonsense like Gamergate and gamer-bashing, but it can also be refreshingly supportive. This video’s comments are (hopefully still) the latter.

Actual Sunlight
Developer: WZO Games Inc.
Play game here.

According to the game’s website, Actual Sunlight is “widely considered to be one of the bleakest experiences in indie gaming” and “challenges you to confront the life of Evan Winter: An overweight, lonely and severely depressed young professional.”

Vice claims that it “might be the most painfully real video game you’ll ever play.”


MindLight
Developer: GainPlay Studio
Play game here.

A description:

MindLight is a 3D game that uses the mind as the game controller. Through neurofeedback mechanics, the game incorporates evidence-based relaxation techniques and attention bias modification methods to produce an immersive, “haunted” game world through which children learn to face and overcome their anxiety and fears.

Uplifted
Developer: Kanoti
Available on Android.

As the video below explains, “At the end of every zone, you get to go through a process that actively tries to remind you of the good things about yourself.”

Elude
Developer: GAMBIT Singapore – MIT GameLab
Play game here.

A playthrough of the game:


Ben Boruff is a co-founder of Big B and Mo’ Money, and he has reviewed comics for ComicBastards.com and ImpulseGamer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMagicAwesome. And read more at BenBoruff.com.

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