Fractured Minds – Understanding Mental Illness through Game Design

BY ALEX WAKEFORD

“I created Fractured Minds to help those who suffer from anxiety and other mental health issues feel they’re not alone.”

These are the words of Emily Mitchell, who, at 17 years of age, found solace from anxiety in game development.

This week, Universally Speaking looks at how BAFTA award-winning puzzle game Fractured Minds is such a unique vehicle for promoting awareness of (and empathy for) mental health issues.fracturedmFractured Minds is a first-person artistic puzzle game, a journey through the mind, spread across six levels which are inspired by obstacles faced by people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

1 in 6 people in the UK aged 16+ are reported as having symptoms of a common mental disorder.

Generalised anxiety disorder is estimated to affect up to 5% of the UK’s population. That number may sound small, but the UK has a population of 66.44 million so that 5% accounts for over 3.3 million people (which isn’t even counting those who are unable or unwilling to report what they’re suffering with, or aren’t equipped to understand how they’re suffering at all).

Things aren’t improving either. NHS surveys dating back to the early 90s show a clear and consistent increase in cases of severe mental illness, something which is growing increasingly prevalent in women aged 16-24.

This really must change, and there is no ‘quick fix’ to issues that can follow people for life, but finding ways to normalise talking about it seems like a good place to start.18-11-2019_19-20-24-ye4e4n4vVideo games aren’t going to save the world from these problems, but they’re a powerful art form to explore these issues and raise awareness.

In their most obvious form, stories are a means of escape. They allow us to step outside of our day-to-day lives to solve issues in more ‘creative’ ways – often with a chainsaw…

But stories are also a learning tool which can be tremendously effective at helping to broaden our perspectives, particularly when those stories are told by people who experience things differently.

We can, to some degree, see things through the eyes of others, which makes the kind of interactive storytelling possible in games a powerful vehicle for understanding and empathy.

Over the last few months, we’ve looked at games like GRISThe Outer WorldsChild of LightHellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and Halo 4 for their unique approach to this, and now Emily Mitchell’s Fractured Minds seeks to further contribute to raising awareness and promoting discussion about mental health.emilyEmily’s story is a remarkable one that is exemplary of the kind of validation that gaming can offer those of us who need to cope.

You can read the full account of her story on Safe In Our World’s site.

Now that my game is releasing soon on so many platforms I’m so excited and it’s honestly more than I could have ever hoped for! I’m also so happy to be part of the Safe In Our World charity which I believe can make a real positive difference in the games industry.

In the end I just wanted to create an experience that I could share that hopefully resonates with a lot of people and can help create a better understanding of what it’s like to live with a mental illness. [Emily Mitchell, ‘Being Able to Escape Helped Me Cope’ – Safe In Our World (9/10/19)]

She has also written a featured piece on the official PlayStation blog!

Her mission with Fractured Minds is to increase awareness of mental health issues, something that’s essential in combating the stigma and lack of understanding around the topic.

And that is still one of the greatest barriers to progress, to tackling those systemic issues. Many people receive inadequate care, or none at all; waiting lists are growing longer; charities are underfunded… it enables a climate of “Just get on with it like everybody else” towards an invisible illness.

Fractured Minds seeks to make the invisible visible.18-11-2019_19-19-50-zjtubesoFractured Minds sets its tone right from its opening level, titled ‘The Mundane.’

Opening with a brief nightmare sequence in which a strange creature enters your room (a recurring presence throughout the game), you awaken in your bedroom and are faced with simply having to find a key to unlock the door.

This basic means of maintaining control – having your door locked, having command of your own space – is quickly turned against you…

There’s a key on the desk – easy! You pick it up. ‘Wrong key’ – the text appears on your screen and does not disappear. Not a big deal, but you’re thinking about it.

You find another key, this one’s on the windowsill. Wrong key. You’re reminded as the words appear on the screen alongside the last one.

Another is in one of the drawers. Wrong key. The cupboard? Wrong key.

“Is it really that hard?”

The text grows larger, more invasive–

WRONG KEY.

–you turn the room upside down to find it…

WRONG KEY.

18-11-2019_19-19-52-osayzqh4Suffering from anxiety means that the simplest tasks can become difficult and debilitating. I could choose not to suffer this death by a thousand cuts. Why bother leaving the room at all? I could go back to bed instead, the game could end here.

For many of us, it has.

Emily Mitchell’s design work here makes tremendously clever use of negative reinforcement, which is such a central mechanic to how each level works.

Another level has you at a birthday party where you’re reprimanded by the game for doing things in the ‘wrong’ order.

Part of how we expect games to function is… well, to put the ‘fun’ in ‘function.’ We expect to be rewarded, especially for more out-of-the-box thinking.

We want to interact with things in games, we often want to interact with every object in a room before moving on, and Fractured Minds weaponises those instincts against you.18-11-2019_19-19-56-or4mcsbtFractured Minds will only take up around thirty minutes of your time, but that brevity is one of the great strengths of the game.

Each level tells its own little story, providing a series of insights into the experiences of suffering from mental illness. Some of this intentionally left for players to interpret for themselves, to apply their own experiences to these levels rather than having each chapter named after a particular issue.

Instead, these are scenarios faced on a daily basis – the mundane, emptiness, isolation, comfort zones…

This means that even if a player doesn’t suffer from any of the mental health conditions referenced by the game, they are able to relate to those feelings – as they’re all things we feel throughout our lives.

There are certain games out there that I think people should experience, even if they don’t really play video games.

Fractured Minds can perhaps best be summed up as absolutely being one of those games.


fracturedmindsFractured Minds released November 14th 2019 and is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC (Steam).

Priced at £1.79/€1.99/$1.99, this is a purchase you really can’t go wrong with.

Additionally, 80% of the proceeds go to Emily Mitchell and Safe In Our World.

“Winner of the BAFTA Young Game Designers Award, Fractured Minds is a game created by Emily Mitchell, then 17-years-old, with the hope of aiding understanding and awareness of mental illness.

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.

Raw, emotive and earnest, Fractured Minds demonstrates that video games are capable of communicating vital messages in imaginative ways. It is a game that seeks to encourage empathy and champion support for the millions living with mental health issues.”


SIOW LogoSafe In Our World is a game-centric mental health charity and 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.

You can also 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.

We’re immensely proud to be supporting this initiative, our own CEO Vickie Peggs being one of the charity’s founding trustees.


Universally Speaking is the globally renowned, multi award winning Localisation, QA, Audio, and content creation provider to the gaming industry.

With over fifteen years of experience, Universally Speaking is one of the industry’s most experienced and trusted game service providers.

We are recommended by the industry, for the industry.

For more info, visit us here!

Contact us at info@usspeaking.com18-11-2019_19-20-42-oe5of0ui

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