The games that creators have made for Rami Ismail’s game-a-day calendar Meditations have so far acted like journal prompts. Yesterday: introversion (or being a “naturally outgoing introverted person”). Today: depression. It’s hardly surprising; video game development seems to attract both introverts and people with mental health problems.
Again, this game’s representation doesn’t match my personal experience, which is fine – maybe even good – because interactive media can engender empathy for people unlike ourselves. But in this case I found I related far less to the protagonist than to the force working upon them.
Here is the description for Lisa Brown’s game:
When you suffer from major depressive disorder, sometimes an intense, joyous occasion can crash down into despair with no negative stimuli or logical cause. Such is the case with my annual tradition of ringing in the New Year surrounded by happy friends. It happens every time - a few days of intense high and fun and playfulness, and then the depression strikes without warning. You know, logically, that you are surrounded by loved ones, they’re just in the other room. If you could get yourself to stand up and walk 10 feet into the next room, the depression would vanish. You know this. You could ask for a hug. You would feel warm and loved and validated just being among your friends. It’s just in the next room. It’s not so easy and sometimes you fail.
I don’t suffer from major depressive disorder. I was prescribed antidepressants as an adolescent, but I don’t remember ever taking them, and I definitely don’t have depression now. I do, however, have a lot of experience loving and living with people with depression, from family members to ex partners to housemates to close friends. You might think that all this experience would have left me with some idea of how to love or live with a person with depression, but you would be wrong. I am good at many things, but not this.
In some ways, then, Lisa’s game is a power fantasy for me. I suppose it’s meant to be about better understanding the person with depression, here represented as an inert rag doll sprawled across the floor of a blocky 2D game world. But for me, it is about the firefly. This glowing, sparkling pink winged insect is the player cursor, and if you use it to click on the grey rag doll you can drag at their limbs to slowly – clumsily – move them across the floor.
The firefly has more energy than the rag doll, but it isn’t limitless. It can only pull at the rag doll’s limbs for so long before the thread between the two thins and breaks. But you can always click again. And you must, if you want to get to the end.
As with yesterday’s game, I’m not sure how to feel about the win condition. Both Adriel and Lisa seem to have felt compelled to provide their game with endings that close the window and leave the player satisfied and able to move on with their day. And so, as you drag the rag doll to the right you begin to hear the murmur of voices (sidenote: how does one procure this kind of audio? Do you just take a microphone to the next party you attend, ask the permission of everyone there, wait for conversations to sound natural again, and then let each guest review the tape in case they said something incriminating?). Further on, a light at the end suggests the “next room” mentioned in the intro. Before the door, there is a pit. Enter either, and the game ends.
So, what: here are the two ways that a depressive episode can go? And why did I manage to get my rag doll through the door on a first attempt when the person beside me has failed four times and counting? Skill? Luck?
I’m sure plenty of people have already asked these questions. Should a game about depression have a win condition? Doesn’t that seem to suggest that depression itself ought to always be conquerable? It would be nice to believe that I could pull people out of a depressive state if I just put in enough effort, even if that would reflect badly on my inability to have done it so far. Or maybe the firefly isn’t supposed to represent an outside force at all but some kind of internal power, in which case are we putting the onus on the sufferer?
And should I, someone with very little personal experience with depression, even be writing about this at all?