BY ALEX WAKEFORD
Mental Health Day is an opportunity to highlight the education and awareness of something that remains greatly stigmatised, and the recently launched game-centric charity Safe In Our World seeks to remedy that.
This week, we look at three games which provide positive and emotionally profound narratives about mental illness.Over 2.2 billion people (almost one-third of the world’s population) play video games, and at any one time, 1/6th of the population will be experiencing a mental health problem.
Safe In Our World is a new gaming charity that seeks to drive forward initiatives to support causes and players across the world. We’re immensely proud to be supporting this initiative, our own CEO Vickie Peggs being one of the charity’s founding trustees.
It can be difficult to convince people that what you’re feeling and experiencing is real, and so destigmatising mental health in order to have those vital conversations and find support is incredibly important.
Art and storytelling are a means through which we can relate to our fellow human beings and see things through eyes that have different perspectives.
Walking a few miles in a fictional character’s virtual shoes can’t convey the full reality, of course, and everybody’s experience of mental illness is different, but art is one of the most powerful vehicles for empathy we have.
And so, these are three of our favourite titles that strongly and sensitively deal with mental illness.
CHILD OF LIGHT (2014)
“Aurora, what is love known by?”
“When it hurts to say goodbye.”
Child of Light is a masterpiece of this generation that just isn’t talked about enough!
This is a 2D RPG and platformer developed by Ubisoft Montréal, with a number of design inspirations from JRPGs.
You play as Aurora, a young girl from 1895 Austria whose mother has passed away; Aurora’s father has remarried and she falls into a cold sleep, leading her father – at the prospect of losing his daughter – to become bedridden with grief.
She awakens in the lost fairytale continent of Lemuria, her state a potent-yet-subtle metaphor for grief and depression.
According to The Children’s Society, 1 in 10 schoolchildren have a diagnosable mental health condition. Problems can only worsen if children between the ages of 5 and 16 don’t get the support that they desperately need, made all the more important by the fact that 75% of all mental health problems are established by the age of 18.
“It’s definitely a modern fairy tale. I think it’s relatable whether you’re male or female. There are common things that we all go through. Definitely, there are some things that Aurora goes through specifically that only some people will identify with, but it’s really about the struggle of growing up in general in the modern world.” [Jeffrey Yohalem, Rock Paper Shotgun – ‘Child Of Light Devs On Poetry, Female Characters’ (13/9/2013)]
Aurora’s depression is articulated through the lens of this fairytale narrative, where she must fight to restore order to a kingdom – making friends along the way, many of whom are also in need of a sort of emotional support network.
This aspect of the game is actually optional. You can choose to play through the game without having Aurora build those connections with other characters, but you’re going to have a much harder time making it in doing so…
In this fairytale world, Aurora learns to care for others, grow, and fight back against her grief. The storybook style, atmosphere, and tone is bolstered by Béatrice Martin’s (Cœur de pirate) utterly enchanting soundtrack.
It’s a gentler, more subtle take on mental illness as a theme. You begin the game at the lowest point and build upwards from there, making Child of Light an immensely cathartic emotional experience.
The mechanics of Child of Light are simple enough for anybody to jump in and easily get to grips with the game, yet still offers a great amount of depth, making it an experience that can be enjoyed by all ages.
HALO 4 (2012)
“Cortana. It’s not over. Not yet.”
Next year, Halo will hit a pretty huge milestone. Not only is it going on almost twenty years, but there’s a wealth of franchise media to look forward to – more novels, the arrival of the long-awaited TV show, and Halo Infinite will launch Microsoft’s next generation of Xbox.
Looking back, however, one particular game in the series stands out from the rest for its profoundly emotional exploration of mental illness.
Halo 4 saw the iconic heroes of the franchise, the Master Chief and Cortana, return after almost half-a-decade’s absence following Halo 3, the conclusion of Bungie’s original trilogy.
The Chief and Cortana have been stuck aboard the wreckage of the Forward Unto Dawn for years, drifting alone in space, and while the Chief has been in cryo sleep Cortana has been fully conscious for all that time and has had nothing to do but think.
In the Halo universe, ‘smart’ AIs like Cortana (who are based on a human donor’s brain) have an operational lifespan of seven years before they start developing ‘rampancy’ – a terminal condition in which the AI literally thinks itself to death.Halo 4 begins with Cortana suffering from the effects of this condition, as she is eight years old by the time the game begins…
The way this is articulated draws very clear parallels with dementia. While this parallel has been baked into the lore since 2001, it is taken to a whole new level in Halo 4 as Josh Holmes (Creative Director on Halo 4) has stated that his mother was suffering from dementia during the game’s development.
“I remember long talks with Chris Schlerf, who was the lead writer on Halo 4’s campaign – did a fantastic job, but early on, Chris was having a crisis of confidence. He was literally tearing his hair out because he didn’t know how to tell this story.
And there were times when he came to me and he said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do it, maybe we should just focus on the A-story and put this story aside because I don’t see how we’re going to be able to tell it.’
[…] For me, it was really important that we tell this story because this was the human heart of Halo 4’s campaign.
At the beginning of Halo 4, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, and over the course of the production of the game I watched her… deteriorate as a human being and become someone that I couldn’t even recognise. And that was really hard, but it was also an inspiration to me to want to tell Cortana’s story.” [Josh Holmes, Halo 4 Postmortem – GDC 2013 (13:05)]
There are times in Halo 4 where Cortana loses control. She gets overwhelmed, she forgets things, she lashes out – even at the Chief – which she regrets. She’s still jovial and sarcastic, dropping her usual quips, but it’s clear that she is struggling.
And, in the end, Cortana wins.
After fighting against her deteriorating condition throughout the game, she is the one who saves the day – defeating the Didact (the ancient alien warrior unleashed on the galaxy), and saving her best friend one last time before bowing out of the story on her own terms.
Reclaiming her agency, she defies what fate had prescribed for her.
It’s a bittersweet ending and a bold beginning for 343’s first Halo game, but one that transformed very real pain into passion for telling an intimately honest story that’s also aspirational and empowering.
HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE (2017)
“The hardest battles are fought in the mind.”
(You all probably saw this one coming!)
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a smash hit from Ninja Theory in 2017, previously known for the likes of Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and DmC: Devil May Cry.
Set in the 8th century, this is the story of a Pict warrior, Senua, whose Orkney homeland has been invaded by Vikings, who sacrificed her lover to the Norse gods. From there, Senua embarks on a quest to rescue the soul of her dead lover from Helheim.
The game has won numerous awards for its depiction of psychosis and is widely thought of as one of those landmark moments in video game storytelling, a truly unexpected experience that comes along and sweeps you away with something really quite special.
And this is a special game for us, too, because we worked on its localisation, translating it into twenty different languages – from Japanese, to Arabic, to Polish, and beyond.
Bringing this story – which has resonated so strongly with so many – to an international audience was an absolute privilege, and the response has been quite incredible.
“First and foremost, it was about creating a compelling, adult, fantasy game. But the deeper we’ve gone into development, the more we’ve seen that there’s also an opportunity to raise awareness of psychosis.
For my part, I’ve learnt that people can experience hallucinations and delusional beliefs without it being a problem – the illness comes when those experiences cause suffering. Often the recovery is not about curing yourself of hallucinations, but finding ways to live with them. That was a revelation to me.” [Tameem Antoniades, Science Focus – ‘How Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice deals with psychosis’ (13/4/2018)]
Hellblade confronts the story of somebody driven by the trauma of grief, somebody who hears voices in her head as Senua suffers from hallucinations…
These are things that gaming has not historically done well with. Madness and insane asylums have typically and insensitively been used for cheap horror gimmicks – they’re as rote for the genre as zombies.
It builds the idea that players should not empathise with characters affected by mental illness – it’s framed as the cause of evil, something to be feared.
Senua, however, is the hero of her own story, which is about how she (through our interaction with the game, seeing through her eyes) makes sense of her experiences.
Ninja Theory consulted with neuroscientists and Wellcome Trust to educate their team so that they could craft a portrayal of psychosis that is both sensitive and scientifically founded, capturing not simply the devastating mental effects of psychosis but also how Senua learns to cope with her condition as something that is part of her.
“Never forget what it is like to see the world as a child, Senua: where every autumn leaf is a work of art; every rolling cloud, a moving picture; every day a new story.
We too emerge from this magic, like a wave from the ocean, only to return back to the sea. Do not mourn the waves, the leaves and the clouds. Because even in darkness the wonder and beauty of the world never leaves.
It’s always there, just waiting to be seen again.”
Safe In Our World is an online destination where people can seek help, gain access to information and resources.
Discover stories from people sharing their real experiences and journeys with mental health and how games have positively affected them here.
Additionally, you can donate to Safe In Our World to support their mission of destigmatising the conversation around mental health and contribute towards making a difference to somebody struggling with mental illness here.
Looking ahead, Fractured Minds is due to release in November – winner of the BAFTA Young Game Designers Award, created by 17-year-old Emily Mitchell.
Embark on a journey through the human psyche and experience six atmospheric and thought-provoking chapters, each symbolising a different aspect or challenge associated with mental health issues from isolation to anxiety, with everyday situations being distorted beyond recognition. [Safe In Our World, Related Games – Fractured Minds (Nov 2019)]
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