One of the beautiful aspects of video games is their ability to put players in someone else’s shoes and have them experience a virtual world from a novel perspective. While books and movies are also capable of doing this, video games offer a unique level of immersion through their use of multimedia and interactivity.
The player is, in most cases, not simply watching a story unfold, but instead takes control of the protagonist and makes decisions that determine the fate of the character.
The release of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in 2017 put the spotlight on the ability for video games to help gamers empathize with mental illness by replicating the experience within a narrative.
However, indie game developers have been attempting to do the same for years. This is seen with 2013’s Depression Quest which garnered itself a bit of a cult following for its depiction of depression, as well as 2019’s Rainswept which features themes of trauma and suicide. Here are four examples of video games that attempt to capture what various mental illnesses feel like.
Readers are warned that the article and games discussed contain sensitive topics such as suicide, depression and mental illness. A list of helplines and mental health crisis hotlines can be found here.
1. Neverending Nightmares
Neverending Nightmares was released in 2014 by Infinitap Games. It is crafted around lead designer Matt Gilgenbach’s own experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Players are given control of a protagonist named Thomas who is stuck in a nightmare that refuses to come to a close. The controls are simple: use the directional buttons to move, and use two additional designated buttons to run and to interact with environmental objects.
The art style is simplistic, with the characters and settings appearing to be taken out of someone’s sketchbook. Most of it is in black and white with certain key items colored red or brown, while usable doorknobs are gold. This helps give the game an eerie, otherworldly feel while easily communicating to players what you can and cannot interact with.
The game takes on the tone of psychological horror, dragging players through creepy settings such as a labyrinthine house and an insane asylum.
A feeling of anxiety and helplessness is kindled with every false awakening that leads into a new nightmare, and this is further fostered by Thomas’s slow movements and his exhaustion after running for too long.
The game often feels like a 2D scroller as you lead Thomas down dark hallways lit only by the little candle he holds. Escaping from the monsters in his nightmares is often a game of timing and strategy rather than mindless running (although that is necessary at times too).
Neverending Nightmares also features multiple endings which is a welcome motivation to replay the game, given how short it is. My first playthrough took roughly two hours.
To make the hairs on the back of your neck erect, the game features a spooky soundtrack composed of twinkling piano notes and ominous synthetic whines. The slow creak doors make when they open and the faint sound of monsters pounding on doors ensure that Neverending Nightmares is an experience that has players constantly on edge.
For me, the value of the game came from its ability to provide catharsis. While I, fortunately, do not suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, the feelings of anxiety, dread and helplessness which Neverending Nightmares engenders are certainly familiar. To tackle these feelings within the safe environment of a video game allowed for the release of these emotions in a manner that was controlled and made enjoyable by the satisfaction of completing a level and coming closer to unraveling the mysteries of Thomas’s neverending nightmares.
2. Actual Sunlight
Actual Sunlight is a 2013 video game created by WZO Games Inc and funded through Indiegogo. In addition to a few well-done still images, the game uses a pixel art style which would be cute if it was not for the subject matter.
Actual Sunlight is a portrait of a man named Evan Winter who has allowed depression and self-hatred to slowly consume him until he is nothing but a husk of a person. The objective of the game is bleak yet simple – keep Evan from killing himself.
Early on in the game, his suicidal desires can be allayed by something as simple as remembering future dinner plans with his mother but as the game progresses and Evan sinks into darker mental states, it becomes apparent that for a man like this, all roads lead to only one morbid conclusion.
Actual Sunlight mainly involves controlling Evan as he goes about his meaningless daily routines, interacting with objects and reading text… lots of text. If you are someone who hates reading, then this game is probably not for you.
The text brings to light Evan’s inner fantasies and thought processes which reveal the internal workings of a depressed and defeatist mind. From lamenting his weight to contemplating the ways a bad shave during his teen years still affects his self-esteem, much of Evan’s thinking patterns will be familiar to anyone who has suffered from depression.
Some text breaks the fourth wall and directs a message to players from game creator Will O’ Neill who, in reference to Evan Winter’s story, admits that its “pretty clear where all of this is headed” and gives the following warning to any young players who may relate to Evan: “Don’t you fucking dare.”
What makes Actual Sunlight special is the complexity which it introduces to Evan’s condition. He is not merely a victim of his own depression. Rather, it illustrates the many ways Evan self-sabotages his own life, ensuring he remains in a pit of misery.
For example, he contemplates pursuing writing and purchases a $300 e-reader to begin reading books on writing. However, that e-reader sits on his nightstand and collects dust for years. Rather than actually write, he spends his time fantasizing about being a famous writer. Furthermore, it also demonstrates how the capitalist system Evan functions in is a catalyst for his descent into darkness.
The protagonist finds himself in a job that provides him with no sense of meaning, resulting in him seeing himself as just another cog in a machine that offers no value to society and only exists to line the pockets of the already wealthy.
What Actual Sunlight provides is validation for certain dark emotions and thoughts that many may have but will be afraid to voice in a world that values the appearance of ‘keeping it together’. This is balanced with ample evidence that Evan’s story is not one that should be emulated but rather should be avoided at all costs. For those who do not relate to Evan, Actual Sunlight is a near-perfect, often uncomfortable, look into what life becomes when sadness is your master, consumerism fails to soothe you and all hope has been lost.
3. Fran Bow
Fran Bow blends a unique art style with puzzle-based gameplay to tell the story of a girl who suffers from trauma and is institutionalized after her parents die a gruesome death.
The game was developed by Killmonday Games and released in 2015. According to Natalia Figueroa, one of Fran Bow’s creators, the game is a reflection of her own childhood trauma and her experiences with being given different medicines for the mental illness she suffered from.
Much of Fran Bow has players exploring the environments of the different levels, using objects found and information gained from talking to characters to solve puzzles and help Fran Bow get home.
Themes of mental illness feature heavily in Fran Bow. The first chapter of the game has the titular protagonist living in Oswald Asylum where she is heavily medicated. Her medication gives her the ability to see things that others cannot see. This is used as a gameplay mechanic. Objects found after taking the pills can be used to solve puzzles in the sober world.
The settings in Fran Bow are fantastical and feel like they are products of a mind detached from reality. They turn the game into a psychedelic version of Alice in Wonderland.
The environments can be bright, colorful and detailed at times, and gruesomely bloody once Fran takes her medicine. The world of Fran Bow, though otherworldly, feels rich and fleshed out, and much of the fun of the game involves learning more about the lore.
Although Fran Bow can be depressing and glum, there are rays of light that shine through. The world of Ithersta which Fran finds herself in is one where roots can sing, grasshoppers dance and a mountaintop has a favorite hat. Ultimately, Fran Bow’s message is not one of pessimism. It is one of hope. Despite the darkness and challenges that Fran comes across, she never gives up. This lesson is one that can benefit all players whether they relate to Fran’s experiences or not.
4. The Static Speaks My Name
The Static Speaks My Name is likely the one game of the selected four that players are least likely to relate to. It is also the shortest and can be completed in about the time it takes to drink a cup of hot chocolate. Released in 2015 by a one-man team consisting of Jesse Barksdale, The Static Speaks My Name is a psychological horror game that attempts to delve into insanity, allowing players a first-person perspective of a single day in the life of a person with a twisted mind.
As Jesse explains in his developer’s commentary video, The Static Speaks My Name was birthed from a game jam project that eventually gave rise to this eccentric game. According to Jesse, the game took four months to construct and was made using Unity.
It begins as the protagonist, Jacob Ernholtz, rises from bed. Players are instructed to complete a set of tasks that would seem innocuous if it was not for the chilling soundtrack that almost seems to warn that something is amiss.
Players’ suspicions are confirmed as they explore the rest of the house and begin to discover little oddities that go beyond mere eccentricity. The protagonist clearly has an obsession with a certain painting of two palm trees standing on what looks like a sunny beach. From then on, things only get weirder before coming to a shocking end.
The Static Speaks My Name leaves a lot of room for interpretation with regards to the actions of the protagonist. Are they a simple victim of psychosis? Is the game a portrait of a madman desperately trying to make sense of reality? Or are players being given control of a psychopath?
While the shrimp-eating protagonist might be bizarre enough to psychologically distance players, tiny details, such as a handwritten letter begging his mom to not be angry with him for the actions he is about to commit or a desperate attempt to find understanding from someone online, ensure that identification with the protagonist is always possible.
While these four games may be disturbing at times, and could cut too close to the bone for some, it is precisely for those reasons that I consider them to be sterling examples of video games as art. Not only do they evoke emotion and tell compelling stories, but they are often also forms of self-expression from the creators.
Through the medium of video games, creators are able to communicate to the world their experiences with mental illness in a way that goes beyond mere documentation and instead allows players to immerse themselves in a world that is not theirs. In doing so, these games foster empathy for those suffering from mental illness and make their experiences less foreign and, consequently, less stigmatized. To those who may already be afflicted with various mental illnesses, such games have the potential to act as a lifebuoy by letting players know that they are not alone in their experiences.