Depression in Video Games, from Gris to Life is Strange

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As depression and mental health become topics that we talk more and more about, it is normal that arts try to find ways of depicting and dealing with them. Video games which could be seen as *the* medium of identification have allowed us to explore these themes and have presented us with coming-of-age stories especially targeted at us, young adults.

Of course, there are plenty of games on the subject, but I want to concentrate on five of them: Gris (Nomada Studio), Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall), Life is Strange (Dontnod), What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow) and Oxenfree (Night School Studio). All of those games are about depression but what makes them truly amazing is the way not only their story is about depression but their gameplay too.

One of the symptoms of depression is ‘having no motivation or interest in things’ (via www.nhs.uk’s Clinical Depression Symptoms web page), it is harder to get up and do things; both Gris and Night in the Woods represent this by slowing down the pace of the character. As the player will be used to being able to run around all the time and have freedom of movement in video games, this sudden change feels very restrictive and gives the impression of a loss of control over the character. It is due to this frustration that we feel freer when we can actually move. It also allows the player to bond with the character. Throughout Gris, we gain more and more abilities and we feel as though we are pulling ourselves out of this depression. In classical games, abilities that we learn are generally not taken away from us unless we made a mistake, it works as a reward system. However, in Gris, those abilities are threatened without us making a wrong move. This not only feels unfair but also like all the actions that we have accomplished throughout the game were useless, allowing us to feel just like the character.

credit to Robert What via Flickr

In another style, the cannery sequence in Edith Finch is especially memorable. In this sequence, we play as Lewis Finch whilst he works at a cannery. As we cut the fishes’ heads, we are more and more drawn into his reverie, since we must both control the boat-quest that he imagines and move his arm to cut the fish. If at first our attention is fully directed on the work, the daydream is more and more present. Controlling the fish-cutting hand becomes a repetitive player movement as our attention is focused on making choices for Lewis’s daydream. This allows the player to understand the repetition of the work that depresses the character.

Finally, all these games (except Gris) have something in common: they are point and clicks which ask us to different extents to make choices. The most interesting in this case in probably Life is Strange. In fact, one of the symptoms of depression is ‘finding it difficult to make choices’ (via www.nhs.uk’s Clinical Depression Symptoms web page). Life is Strange allows us to make choices that are inconsequential, we can always go back in time and change it if we don’t like the outcome. Until we can’t. As we go along the episodes, Max sometimes loses her ability to change the past and the game reminds us that our actions have consequences. The first time her power has interferences is when Kate attempts to commit suicide and Max is the only one who can save her. The choices you made to listen to Kate in the previous episode, and what you say to her at that moment, determine whether Kate will die or not, but there is no way of going back in time. Again, the game deprives us of something we believed was acquired to make us reflect.

credit to BagoGames via Flickr

Making decisions also makes the player feel guiltier, which is one of the consequences of depression (via www.nhs.uk’s Clinical Depression Symptoms web page). When Clarissa commits suicide in Oxenfree, is it because you made the wrong decisions because you did not succeed at the test laid down by the ghosts. Or would it have happened anyway? There is no way to know, so in future gameplay, you want to consider your choices for longer. However, the game does not let you as every answer is timed. If you hesitate too long, you just won’t say anything. Oxenfree is also original by the way it uses dialogue. Usually in such games, like TellTale Games, the dialogue will pause for a response, but here you are forced to talk over other characters. It, therefore, forces you to assert yourself even if it is frustrating.

These games also express depressive feelings through their genre or environment. Interestingly, both Night in the Woods and Oxenfree use the horror genre to tell their story. In Life is Strange, it uses magical realism with this giant storm that the heroes have to face. In any case, the player is presented with something to defeat that is massive and they feel overwhelmed. Often what they have to defeat is a personification of their fears. In Life is Strange, it is about decision making and letting go of the past, in Gris it is learning to love yourself, and in Night in the Woods, Mae learns to accept her issues, including her depersonalisation. However, this sense of fighting something massive and that sometimes can even control you as in Oxenfree, when the ghosts keep rebooting time and do not let you go forward. This all allows the player to understand what it is to fight against potentially overwhelming mental health issues.

The perception of the environment also changes according via the representation of depression. This is particularly visible in Gris, which starts in black and white and evolves as you find different colours. The final power you unlock is that of giving life to the shrivelled environment which is particularly symbolic. In Night in the Woods, it is the opposite, as near the end of the game, Mae cannot walk properly anymore, and walks slowly for a very long time in almost bare places, devoid of people and with only the sound of the wind and very loud footsteps. This attention to the environment surrounding the player shows in each game how the perception of reality can be altered by depression.

Video games help many people who suffer from depression both by giving them visibility and the chance to accompany them. Gris and Night in the Woods particularly resonated with me, but it could be any game. Some people say Dark Souls helped them with depression. I’d recommend watching the Tedx with Johnny Chiodini ‘Can a video game save a life’.

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