Why you should care
Because not all games are of the feel-good variety.
It began as lifesaving therapy. Sweden-based Michael Levall was finishing his bachelor’s degree and working nonstop on an e-sports game about trying to cover a skyscraper with fast-growing plants. Trouble was, he was burned out and depressed. So to turn things around, he did what he knew how to do: He made a game about it and called it Alone.
Last year, the Swedish gaming industry brought in about $346 million, and the country’s filled with developers, from juggernauts such as Battlefield game-maker DICE to small indie shops. But Levall’s work, and those of others like him, is even further below the radar. He’s one of a small but dedicated group of designers creating narrative games nearly single-handedly — games that are more personal than your average first-person shooter. Few designers, it turns out, have personal experience shooting aliens. And unlike previous games about depression, which were often more like helpful tutorials for sufferers, this new wave of video games aims to put any player in the shoes of someone suffering from depression.
I wanted to experiment with an everyday game, like life as a genre.
Alone is now called Please Knock on My Door, but the content remains the same: You are a nameless person in a small apartment, living with depression — and you just have to get through the day. It’s not a game about beating clinical depression exactly, but one that tries to show the monotony and blandness of actually living with it.
Simon Karlsson, 29, came up with a more fanciful approach. His game, A Song for Viggo, raised more than $21,000 on Kickstarter in 2014, in part due to its unusual artistic style: The point-and-click game is made of folded paper, which Karlsson creates himself. But for all the cool set pieces, the game’s about sadness. Karlsson was depressed and anxious when he came up with the storyline: a father who runs over his own son and must then live with the guilt and depression that engulf him and his wife. To prepare, Karlsson spoke to parents who had lost children, channeling his own grief and sorrow into the game. “I wanted to experiment with an everyday game, like life as a genre,” he says. At each step of the game, you can trigger invisible choices that make the going rougher in various ways later on.
For both Karlsson and Levall, creating these games means a struggle with ideas about what a game is and what it’s supposed to do. “Most games are about challenge,” Levall explains, in that “they present a challenge to you and then you have some action you can achieve.” But Please Knock on My Door is about exploration instead, trying to make small changes in life and seeing what happens. “You just follow the story and see where it leads,” says Karlsson.
But can that be entertaining? “I don’t know if this game is going to be fun,” Karlsson admits, noting how classical game metrics don’t really work with these games, as in, “if you do something, you get rewarded.” But he also hesitates to call it a game. Both projects are intensely personal, and the designers are working on small, self-driven teams — mostly themselves, alongside specialists who help with art and music. Karlsson had never made a game before, though he says Sweden’s supportive indie game community has really helped people like him get started. But Karlsson and Levall are hardly alone: In 2014, Ryan and Amy Green helped develop That Dragon, Cancer, which put the user inside their own experience of having a child with terminal cancer, while Amy Dentata designed 10 Seconds in Hell, which aims to replicate the experience of someone being abused by their partner.
To be sure, video games have tackled both depression and narrative before, though perhaps not so personally. While their interactivity and immersive characters have long been accused of being drivers of depression, anxiety and violent tendencies, Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, says it’s no more likely to make you depressed than watching a sad movie. “It’s not like a video game is going to send someone spiraling off into a major depressive episode,” he says, and while there’s some conflicting research in this area, he says studies don’t show a link between depression and video games. Value gained from these new types of games, he says, depends on whether people enjoy playing them.
Skepticism aside, with the rise of individual game developers, it’s inevitable that stories inspired by mental health issues will also emerge. But with those small, personal projects come perils: Both A Song for Viggo and Please Knock on My Door were supposed to hit the market this spring but have had their release dates postponed because the developers remain unsatisfied. Levall and Karlsson want to help users understand what it means to feel blue, but they don’t want to unleash their work until they feel good about it.