The Invaluable Rise of the Talking Simulator
Charting the rise of one of gaming's most important genres.
This piece carries a content warning for suicide.
On May 12, 2008 my uncle committed suicide. Even now, almost nine years on, that's a difficult sentence to comprehend.
Difficult not just because the thought of someone taking their own life—a close relative in this instance—is shocking, but also because it's hard to believe the best part of a decade has since passed.
The traumatic nature of the event has meant I find it hard to remember parts of my life before then—before my uncle was no longer with us, before I was so hypersensitive to suicide as it's acknowledged in modern media and casual parlance ("I felt like killing myself," a particularly unhelpful yet surprisingly common turn of phrase), and before I faced my own ongoing battle with depression and anxiety.
If there's any sort of silver lining to be gleaned from the experience, it's that I'm now generally better able to talk about how I'm feeling. Like most British males, I'm relatively reserved when it comes to sharing my innermost thoughts. However, I've found writing about my experiences cathartic—to the point where it's made chatting about the most sensitive issues in person a lot easier.
For Will O'Neill, the creator of 2013's sobering narrative game Actual Sunlight, developing video games has had a similar effect. It's helped him articulate a very personal experience—one he considers autobiographical—while somewhat shielding him from addressing his mental state head on.
"To this day, I'm perfectly comfortable with the game and talking about it in relation to my experience," O'Neill tells me. "But I would be far less comfortable with somebody actually coming up to me, even someone that I know and care about, and saying, 'Hey, I want to really talk about you and what you're talking about in this game—is that for real?'"
O'Neill admits that this is arguably hypocritical, or at least contradictory, but suggests his ability to present the subject matter through a work of art facilitated a "certain layer of protection" from the subject matter itself.
In ideal circumstances, talking freely about depression and mental illness wouldn't be an issue. But realistically it is, and especially for men.
In ideal circumstances, talking freely about depression and mental illness wouldn't be an issue. But realistically it is, and especially for men. Suicide remains the UK's single biggest cause of death among males under the age of 45 (according to CALM, there were 4,623 male suicides in the UK in 2014, which equates to 12 deaths per day), and pressures levied by societal stigma unfortunately hinder universal discourse.
Video games can't and shouldn't replace seeking professional help in these circumstances—and Gareth Dutton's 'The Problem with Using Video Games as Panacea for Mental Health Issues' 2016 article for (a pre-Waypoint) VICE is a very interesting exploration of this point. But by increasingly exploring sensitive and interpersonal themes, the scope for promoting these conversations only serves to widen—for creators, critics, and, crucially, players.
Enter the Talking Simulator.
Elude is a short 2D narrative platforming game that was created by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab in the summer of 2010. Designed to mirror the day-to-day plight of depression sufferers, the game begins within a dark forest and tasks players with interacting with birds and climbing trees—the latter of which stand to represent the player's "ascent into happiness."
Failure results in falling to lower levels, and hazards such as sinkholes—which drop the player down the level further still—pose an ever-present threat. It's a simple, metaphorical and gamified exercise in understanding depression, and was the first of its kind to properly explore such personal themes within a video game.
"For people who have never experienced it before, depression is difficult to understand," so reads a description of Elude on the GAMBIT Game Lab website. "It is not simply sadness, as many may think; it is more akin to an all-encompassing hopelessness, a failure to connect to or derive meaning from the outside world. By tapping into the experiential aspects of the video game medium, Elude's metaphorical model for depression serves to bring awareness to the realities of depression by creating empathy with those who live with depression every day."
Since Elude's release, there has been a dramatic rise in video games that tackle similarly sensitive issues—to the point where the medium has become a profoundly effective tool in relaying people's personal stories. In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Hug Marine developer Christos Reid suggested we've now reached a convergence of events "where people are actually talking about mental health and likewise more and more people are playing video games." Reid also notes the advent of user-friendly development tools, such as GameMaker, has encouraged more people to design their own games, in turn broadening the variety of titles that exist today.
O'Neill's Actual Sunlight is one such GameMaker project and originally stood to reflect the causes that surround depression and suicide, as he best saw it, such as the monotony of the workday grind and lack of fulfilling relationships.
"Personally, I think the number one danger to mental health is a bad life, and Actual Sunlight was more about that than I think it was about depression in any kind of clinical sense," O'Neill tells me. Actual Sunlight, he says, was never supposed to be a tool for mental health, per se, but it did spark a lot of conversations in and around its subject matter after its release.
"I think one of the reasons it resonated quite so much with people was because it felt incredibly genuine and sincere and didn't hold back," adds O'Neill. "That wasn't any kind of artistic trick or act of skill on my part, it was because it was all literally true. It was all reflections on my own life. You don't realize how much other people are going through the same deeply personal things you are strictly because they're so deeply personal.
"These feelings are so precise that you can't imagine somebody else's experiences mirroring them exactly, and yet that seemed to be what happened. A lot of the early shock to it fed back to me like: 'Wow, what a portrait of my myopia, of a warped perception, and to me your own perceptions never seemed warped—to me Actual Sunlight was and is the way I see the world.'"
Players use video games to escape to safe places, to explore ideas, to witness and share a game creator's suffering, and to ultimately talk about their own circumstances after playing.
Another game that resonated with many players around the same time was Zoe Quinn's Depression Quest. Built using the Twine engine, the free interactive non-fiction game tells the story of a person struggling with depression whose life becomes increasingly dictated by their affliction, and was designed as an educational experience as much as it was a video game.
"The topic is too big, there's too many people who live with it, and too many moving pieces for anyone to do a definitive statement on what depression is like for everyone," Quinn told The New Yorker. "Depression Quest's goal was to be a basic introduction to the concept and to get the conversation started."
For this, Quinn faced a barrage of abuse and harassment from trolls. Yet the game has been played over a million times and has encouraged many players to speak out about their own similar experiences.
And the list goes on. Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia is another autobiographical game that relays the author's experience of gender dysphoria and hormone replacement therapy. Sym is an abstract side-scrolling platformer that follows a socially anxious protagonist—where alternating between light and dark worlds represent his inner, reclusive self against the external 'real' world.
DEEP is a wonderful in-development virtual reality game that helps combat anxiety attacks by virtue of deep breathing exercises, as an on-screen underwater avatar rises and falls with each breath. Christos Reid's Dear Mother is a touching and personal game about his relationship with his staunchly religious mother and the knock on effect this has had on his life; and his incoming OCDemons will center around obsessive compulsive disorder.
Matt Gilgenbach's Neverending Nightmares also explores OCD from a very personal perspective. After essentially bankrupting himself with the launch of the critically successful yet commercially disappointing Retro/Grade, Neverending Nightmares was Gilgenbach's last-ditch attempt at creating a video game.
"One of the things I really struggle with OCD is not so much the checking and hand-washing, but the intrusive thoughts," says Gilgenbach. Intrusive thoughts, Gilgenbach tells me, are when you mind conjures thoughts and ideas that make you unhappy. Those of you familiar with Neverending Nightmares will know these thoughts manifest in-game as visions of self harm which, even against its stylish cartoon-like aesthetic, can be quite unsettling. Implementing these ideas in video game form was cathartic for the creator—something that has, in turn, rung true with players.
"I got a lot of touching feedback both in person, at the likes of PAX, and through various things we did over email and YouTube comments and that sort of thing," he explains. "It is remarkable to me that what I created was specific to my own experience, and when you're going through these horrible battles with depression you feel completely alone, or at least I did. I thought no one could possibly understand how I felt, and so I think it's great in two aspects: one, people can understand how I feel; and two, I hope people who are playing the game and dealing with mental illness can understand and recognize I've been through a similar experience and I've gotten through it."
"Games give you that sort of first-person perspective, and I don't mean from a camera standpoint, but from a protagonist standpoint," Gilgenbach continues. "The amazing thing is when you watch a movie, you're watching a character on the screen, you're not that character, and you don't go through what they're experiencing. You only reflect on what they're experiencing. But with interactive entertainment you become that character."
Related, on Waypoint: The Unwilling Hardcore: How Video Games Helped Me Battle My OCD
And it's this idea that perfectly outlines the power of video games: where films elicit emotion from viewers by virtue of spectating, games invite players to experience their narratives alongside their creators—something O'Neill describes as "a sort-of mechanical empathy". The process facilitates a give-and-take interactivity, and in Actual Sunlight players discover this within a negative space of interaction—where the player is ultimately coerced into performing certain actions so as to underscore its central narrative. It's this invitation that opens players up to experiences they may be unfamiliar with, but, equally, has scope to expose them to relatable themes and ideas.
Personal healing is a natural evolution of this, whereby players use video games to escape to safe places, to explore ideas, to witness and share a game creator's suffering, to ultimately talk about their own circumstances after playing. Talking about mental health is hard—and partners, friends and acquaintances are often perplexed in the face of it. Instead of retreating into ourselves, can we use video games to help express the words and thoughts so often trapped inside our heads? I think so. And I think talking simulators, as it were, are a great place to begin doing so.