In the wake of the WHO listing gaming disorder as a genuine mental health concern and classifying it among the myriad mental disorders plaguing a growing number of people the world over, it is worth remembering video games can play a vital role in portraying and helping those suffering from mental health issues.
Doing so is not only a way to spread awareness, but also give the unafflicted a chance to experience what deep set depression or crippling anxiety can feel like. Furthermore, they can also perform a crucial role in helping sufferers feel less alone in their struggles and provide insight to family members who may not have a firm grasp on the seemingly bottomless chasm of mental health struggles.
In that spirit, here are five games that bravely deal with mental health issues with wonderful results.
Night In The Woods
A first glance, Night In The Woods has the usual veneer of a whimsical indie title. The narrative is about main character Mae Borowski’s shameful return to her hometown after dropping out of college. In many ways, Night In The Woods is just that. Dig a little deeper and the game is a realistic and humbling account about the weighty questions of existence, untapped potential, feeling rudderless and useless, and ultimately about anxiety and depression. Our twenties are often marked as a time of exuberant joy and boundless possibility, but for many are a saga of aimless and weighty struggle through inadequacy and guilt. Night In The Woods is about those emotions and how intense they can be, nightmares as they are shown in the game. It does wonders to normalize mental health problems with every character in Possum Springs weighed down by demons of some form and that is exactly the greatest feat of this honest, revealing gem.
Sym approaches social anxiety by recreating an imaginary world conjured up by playable character teenager Josh. Rather than throw players into the real world with all the difficulties of mental health to deal with, Sym explores to what length people will go to shield themselves from the pain of anxiety-related disorders. Littered with various puzzles and mind-bending platform mechanics, Sym is all about escaping anxiety’s tightening grip for a moment of insulated respite. Reality as it appears through the distorting prism of anxiety and the self-defense mechanism of a conjured world coexist in an odd balance. Though avoiding mental health problems when suffering does little to aid recovery, it forms an overwhelming part of the experience and Sym does well to drop us in the thick of it with compelling results.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade is the story of Senua, a woman who suffers from psychosis – which in-game is portrayed as a harrowing curse known as ‘the darkness’ – in a brutal mythical Viking setting. Through her eyes, players experience first hand what the condition feels like through vivid hallucinations, both auditory and visual. The game manages to blend the experience of psychosis into game play mechanics, narrative, and combat, with each feature acting to further immerse players into Senua’s mental struggles. Pattern recognition, a common symptom of psychosis, allows Senua to solve puzzles in ways unseen by others. Through a desire to portray the disorder as truthfully as possible, the game’s development was conducted in conjunction with esteemed neurologists and psychosis experts. In essence, Hellblade is a gritty metaphor for the very personal, intense, and agonizing battle taking place in Senua’s own mind.
Using a text-based narrative, Depression Quest is upfront about its subject matter as the title clearly indicates. Designed as an awareness spreading tool, players are thrown into the deep end and have to manage the symptoms caused by being clinically depressed as you juggle daily life from work through to relationships. With realism at its core, Depression Quest is about instilling players with a sense of the thought patterns, reactions, and what a depressive person goes through in what many see as mundane situations. By no means an exhaustive portrayal of the illness, Depression Quest is about educating through a snapshot and does so with aplomb and courage.
On the surface, Celeste appears as an atmospheric platformer where players control a cutesy lead named Madeline as she attempts to make her to the top of the eponymous Celeste Mountain. In reality, Celeste is a journey about facing one’s inner demons from the perspective of Madeline, who suffers from low confidence, self-doubt, and rampant insecurities, in other words depression and anxiety. The mountain is a metaphor for everything that plagues her mind. Through a set of challenging obstacles, which can at times feel insurmountable, very much like the subject matter, players are rewarded with small victories, take pride in incremental baby steps. At first the puzzles feel incredibly difficult, yet as the game progresses players learn how to navigate the games crisp mechanics and the obstacles appear less indomitable, there in lies Celeste’s genius. The recovery from anxiety and depression is one marked by seemingly inconsequential baby steps. These are, however, confidence building blocks, which when amalgamated represent a huge leap forward. Celeste is strewn with beautiful pixel art, but really shines with a clear message about the triumph of facing forward regardless of how unassailable getting better may seem.