Gaming is an ever evolving medium, a forward thinking and progressive place where year on year improvements are measured in leaps rather than increments. It is unlike any other medium in this way, games of even 10 years ago are so inherently different and seemingly rudimentary to games of today. We as gamers pride ourselves on being at the forefront of technological advancement. We also look at the medium as the most creative, varied and unique of the arts. And we will defend games as being exactly that, art. But there are some ways in which games are still very much in their infancy, there is a noticeable lack of diversity in its playable characters, try to name 10 non-white main characters of the last ten years and you’d be hard pressed. To date, women have been largely misrepresented in video games and only in the last few years have the LGBTQ community been represented at all. The depiction of mental illness in video games is another area sorely mistreated, only really used in horror games to show a character going insane, or to use psychiatric hospitals as a creepy setting. There is however, an ever-growing list of games that present an accurate portrayal of mental illness. Here are some examples;
Actual Sunlight is a short interactive story, who’s only goal is to present a realistic, unrelenting, and honest look at depression. And it wholeheartedly succeeds, it is one of the only times I have seen mental illness portrayed correctly in a video game, and it’s importance cannot be overstated. The game opens with a warning; “PLEASE NOTE: Actual sunlight deals with extremely mature themes, including depression and thoughts of suicide. Player discretion is strongly advised.” And what follows is a tough game to play through, and that is exactly the point.
The life of a person suffering from depression is one defined by mundanity and hopelessness. It is not the glamorous, emotionally charged and spontaneous existence often portrayed in films or TV shows. So in this way, Actual Sunlight totally hits the nail on the head. In its 1 hour play through time, you follow Evan Winter, an overweight, lonely and severely depressed individual, through three periods of his life. You experience his internal musings via text heavy interludes, presented as talk show transcripts, therapy sessions and journal exerts. You follow him from his apartment, on his journey to work and back again, over and over, with Evan’s sardonic commentary to guide you.
Every now and then the game will urge you to take the elevator to the roof and jump, offering an insight into the way suicidal thoughts can invade the mind of the individual at random points of the day. The opening sequence shows Evan waking up in his bed, stepping out for a second, before climbing back in, defeated for the day. It’s these honest examples of a person living with depression where this game truly resonates. It would have been easy for the developers to trim sections like this, but the refreshing thing is that they always put the story first, regardless of whether the game is fun to play. The game is supposed to seem repetitive, it is supposed to feel clunky and bleak. The subject matter of depression is evident throughout, and is a key aspect in the way the game plays. The game doesn’t hold back in it’s final minutes and the ends with a reminder that many people are beaten by their mental illness.
Life is Strange
Life is Strange is an interactive story game by developer Don’t nod. Over the course of it’s 5 episodes it tackles subjects such as teenage angst, kidnapping, drug use and time travel. It’s a complex tale of mystery and friendship and does a lot of things right. The game features a scene in which the protagonist Max finds an empty box of antidepressants in her best friend Chloe’s room. It is an incredibly intimate and personal moment which gives the player an insight into why Chloe is the way she is. The interaction is treated with subtlety and respect, and highlights the fact that even people you now very well,could well be suffering from a mental illness.
One character, David is a veteran, and Chloe’s Step-Dad. Early on in the game he is shown to be stubborn, paranoid, and quick to anger. But as the game progresses he is revealed to be suffering from PTSD and his actions up to this point are seen in a new light. You feel real empathy for his situation, on one hand knowing that he has gone to far in spying on the students of the local high school, but on the other hand knowing that he is doing it all to protect the students. He is solving the problems around him the way a soldier would, the way he has been conditioned to. David is a deeply flawed character, a relatable character, whose mental illness gives much needed perspective to what would otherwise be a formulaic Step-parent stereotype.
As the story unfolds, Kate, one of the main character’s classmates heads up to the roof of the school and threatens to jump. Throughout the game you see Kate being bullied by her classmates and after a video of her partying is leaked online she hits breaking point. Up on the roof she brings up the fact that she tried to reach out multiple times to Max for help, or just for someone to talk to, emphasising how important this can be for people suffering from depression. After Max fails to talk her down, she jumps. What follows is a heartbreaking segment in which the school is in mourning. This storyline shines a light on how everyday bullying and isolation can lead to suicide. It forces the payer to look back on how they previously treated Kate. The issue of mental illness never takes center-stage in Life is Strange, instead the game incorporates it into many of it’s characters, ultimately normalising it in the process.
Best described as a choose your own adventure game, depression quest an be played for free in a web browser, but gives the player the option to donate money to the developers or to several mental health charities. It is mostly text-based, with a few pictures and a simple piano-driven score to provide atmosphere. The game is broken up into roughly 20 sections each presenting it’s own scenario for the player to navigate through. One such scenario has the player decide what to do with their time after getting home from work one evening; work on a personal project, watch TV or simply climb into bed to block out the world. The choices offered are all simple, realistic examples of what someone suffering from depression might have to make.
At the bottom of each page are three Status bars, telling the player to what extent they are depressed, whether or not they are undergoing therapy, and whether or not they are taking medication. Each scene has the possibility of changing each of these status bars, causing the character’s depression to change. With a higher level of depression comes fewer options, with healthier options crossed out and made unavailable to the player. What follows is an inevitable downward spiral as the number of rational and positive choices start to dwindle. The game perfectly simulates the desperation and quiet submission that many individuals face as their mental illness gets worse. It can be seen as an amalgamation of many different experiences that people with depression face and as a result it’s hard not to empathise with at least some of the game.
The game also deals with the side effects that come with many forms of antidepressants such as insomnia and a diminished sexual appetite. One of the most frustrating things about depression is the fact that it can be so difficult to describe to people not suffering from it, having to live with the inability to tell anyone about what your going through, even the person you love most. Depression Quest shines a light on all of these issues, it is a deep, informative cross section of the life of someone grappling with mental illness, and should be commended for dragging these issues into the foreground.