Games are growing up, and that doesn’t mean more sex, slurs and shooting — even if some gamers would rather it did. Video games are tackling more mature subject matter, and one new wave has taken on an issue that games have rarely touched before: depression.
These games aren’t therapeutic, or teaching tools; their developers aren’t turning depression into a problem to be solved. They’re simply trying to give players a glimpse into the worlds in which they spend every moment. They’re using video games the way creators have used art for millennia: to capture a snapshot of the human condition; to say to the future, “I existed, and this is what it was like.”
On some level, you can’t blame the players who feel like they’re being left behind, because games are definitely changing. But they’re changing for the better. Button-mashing can’t get you through the confused, raw emotion of Neverending Nightmares. Seeing a therapist in Depression Quest doesn’t level up a “sanity” stat. And all the tutorials in the world wouldn’t stop you from teetering on the edge of a rooftop in Actual Sunlight. These games aren’t about “solving” depression or completing a quest that will cure you of it, but rather the experiences and feelings that their developers have had — and that they desperately want to convey.
They’re swinging a righteous machete, hacking away at the thorny branches and brambles holding games back, clearing a path for new types of experiences that appeal to people who are tired of playing out the same old power fantasies over and over and over. These games aren’t about naive villagers who find the magic shards and save the world, or brooding anti-heroes who wear cool jackets and always get the girl, or square-jawed stubble factories who singlehandedly unseat despots as a hobby. Despite what games have been like for most of their existence, art sometimes does actually reflect reality, and for most people reality is a lot more depressing than that.
“I had started working on it, and then I fell into a slump because of depression, ironically,” says Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn. Over the summer she inadvertently attracted the ire of a pouty mob of online harassers, many of whom took issue with her game, which takes players over the course of several months in the head of a severely depressed person. Played in a web browser by clicking on links to make choices in this person’s life, Depression Quest casts players as its troubled protagonist, tasking “you” with juggling responsibilities and relationships while struggling just to get out of bed in the morning.
“I needed something to take the crappy shit in my head and put it somewhere else,” Quinn says. “I needed to do that for my own sanity.”
Whether or not Depression Quest is a “real game,” as some disgruntled players have tried to debate, is irrelevant. Quinn says interactivity is what makes games unique as a medium, and that interactivity can take any form a creator wants — not just easily quantified goals like “harvest 10 boar tusks” or “defeat evil and save the world.” “I’m very interested in games that aren’t there to make the player feel exceptional,” she says. “It’s been done to death.” And by harnessing games’ interactivity, but subverting that expectation, developers can make players identify with something that would otherwise be difficult to convey.
“It wouldn’t be a big deal to write an autobiography. It wouldn’t be a big deal to write a song about a serious, emotional, personal issue,” says Will O’Neil, whose game Actual Sunlight uses Super Nintendo-like graphics to portray a suicidal man’s internal conflicts. He wonders why anyone would recoil from exploring something equally personal in games, and he, too, felt compelled to do so.
“I didn’t feel like the kind of life that somebody like me lives was really well-represented accurately in popular culture,” he says. His protagonist, Evan Winters, fantasizes about seeing a therapist or being on a late-night talk show, but is increasingly overwhelmed by a crushing sense of insignificance. Winters’ inner monologue is expressed in-game through brief essays with titles like “Why kill yourself today when you could masturbate tomorrow?”
“The pop culture narrative of a guy like me would be that, like, one day I decide to turn it all around and start jogging and I meet a nice girl in a graveyard — that very kind of clichéd sort of comeback story,” O’Neill says. “And I wanted to show that sometimes life can take on an inertia and a motion of its own, and people don’t always come back.”
Other games expend great effort making players feel powerful and giving them seemingly endless choices, like what color armor to wear, which friends to fuck, or how best to decapitate this demon or that zombie. But taking away players’ agency — giving them fewer choices and minimizing their power to influence events — is a theme throughout these. Depression Quest often asks you to choose among several actions, like going to a party or staying home to watch TV, but the “best” options — the ones a healthy person would choose — are crossed out. And although you have some leeway early on in Actual Sunlight, ultimately you’re forced to ascend to the building’s roof to commit suicide. There is no “good ending.”
In Neverending Nightmares, Matt Gilgenbach explored his highly personal experiences with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The result is a haunting game in which players run helplessly through seemingly endless hallways rife with disturbing images of self-mutilation. And any time it feels like you’ve escaped, you wake up in bed to find the nightmare’s gotten worse.
“You feel so hopeless, you feel so directionless with depression, and I wanted to try and capture that,” says Gilgenbach. “I always felt like it was something that I need to communicate.” He tried to write a novel, but he found that he can only represent his experiences through games. ���I was born with asthma, and no one cares. But I was also born with OCD and depression, and you kind of get funny looks. I’d like to live in a world where people understood that better,” he said. “[With games] you can put them in a world — put them in a situation — and make them feel what you want them to feel.”
There are countless other games exploring these and similar themes. That Dragon, Cancer casts you as a father whose son is suffering from terminal cancer, based on the life of its developer, Ryan Green, whose five-year-old son Joel passed away in March. Transgender developer Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia is an autobiographical game about her hormone replacement therapy. Take Care, the most recent game by Merritt Kopas, is very simply about using magic to comfort someone across the world. Even mainstream games are changing; the latest iterations of Tomb Raider, a series whose fame originated with a pair of pointy, pixelated breasts, have cast Lara Croft as a more realistic person. The teaser trailer for the next sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, portrayed the heroine discussing the last game’s traumatic events with a therapist, apparently suffering from PTSD.
One thing that all these games seem to share is their developers’ desire to help other people who are suffering from depression or have struggled through similar troubles. “I think it’s important that we as a society get to the point where people accept that mental health issues are illnesses, and it’s not my fault,” Gilgenbach said.
O’Neill considers Actual Sunlight to be a work of art first and foremost. ”Actual Sunlight is about depression the same way that Pink Floyd’s The Wall is about depression, the way that Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is about depression,” he says. “They’re reflections of the things artistically, but they’re not mental health tools, and they’re not out in the world to try to help people or to get people to feel pity or sympathize, necessarily. My goal was just to take as raw and unvarnished a look at depression and ultimately of myself as I could.”
That aside, though, he isn’t naive to the good it can do. “Thirty or 40 years ago if you had gone through the kind of depression I’d gone through, you might be the only person you know who’s been through an experience like that,” O’Neill says. “But now you have the confidence of knowing that ‘Hey, I can reach out to the whole world, and I can find other people to share this experience with, and I know that if I put out something about this that’s really well done, it will find an audience and it will really resonate with people.’”
There are those who object — sometimes violently — to the path that video games are on. Quinn in particular has received plenty of grief for her efforts, much of which was sparked when a disgruntled ex-boyfriend’s online rant went viral over the summer. Accused of sleeping with a journalist to buy positive coverage for Depression Quest — a baseless allegation that was later proven false — Quinn was subjected to a vicious witch hunt courtesy of the online trolls who eventually formed a movement called “GamerGate.”
These tormenters orchestrated a life-ruining smear campaign against Quinn, cataloguing every facet of her private life, harassing her friends and family, distributing alleged stolen nude photos of her online, and bombarding her with frighteningly aggressive rape and death threats. The reasons behind this are complex, but for many involved it boils down to the fact that they don’t want video games to change.
Yet Quinn says it’s all worth it in the end. In addition to the threats and condemnations she also receives messages from people who have identified with Depression Quest, and one man even told her the game helped him reunite with his father. “I broke down in tears almost immediately,” she says. “If nothing else, if 1,000 [people] want to push back and yell at me and be dicks because they feel like games shouldn’t have things like that, one person like that is enough for me to keep fighting and to think it’s worth it.”
And if a few players decide to keep fighting, too, after playing Depression Question and its ilk, then there can be no doubt that video games are on the right track.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Games Editor, in charge of all things gaming but mostly concerned with maxing his Destiny characters. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.