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Mental Illness Sucks, But Games Can Help

Killmonday Games is an indie studio founded and comprised of “two Swedish game developers of madness” — their words, not mine — with Isak Martinsson handling the technical stuff (coding, design) while Natalia Figueroa takes care of the audio/visual bits, like art, music and animation. The extremely talented duo are the creators of last year’s memorable 2D horror game Fran Bow, which you absolutely need to play, if you haven’t already.

Fran Bow is a still-new entry in a subgenre I sometimes refer to as sad horror. I’ll admit that’s not a terribly catchy label for these uniquely personal stories of genuine psychological terror, but it feels appropriate as these games often revolve around well-meaning protagonists with debilitating mental illnesses.

Killmonday recently posted an hour-long making of video for their darkly quirky adventure game that covers three years of its development, from 2013-2016. If you’re a fan, I highly recommend you check it out.

In Fran Bow, the young girl who serves as its main character is described as struggling with “a mental disorder and an unfair destiny.” I’m sure many of us can sympathize.

Neverending Nightmares is a similarly themed game designed by Matt Gilgenbach, who’s been open about his own war against mental illness and how the game doubled as both a creative outlet and a sort of therapy. A more recent example would be The Town of Light, a non-traditional horror game set in 1938 Italy that released back in February. It’s about a 16 year-old Renée who’s forcefully committed to a mental institution because “she didn’t know what her place in the world was.”

Krillbite Studio’s indie hit Among the Sleep touches on similar themes with its portrayal of a deeply troubled family that’s been torn apart by addiction, and specifically the impact that can have on children. Their next project, Mosaic, isn’t a horror game, but it too covers a topic we can all relate to: the mundaneness of adulthood.

Seeing as the oppressive tedium and impossible expectations of fame, fortune, and physical perfection that come with modern adult life are often cited as significant contributors to the mental illness epidemic of anxiety, depression and low self-worth that continues to quietly devastate millions of people, I believe it fits.

I might even include Erin Reynolds’ experimental, biofeedback-driven horror game Nevermind in that group, though it’s less interested in telling a story, and more about helping those who currently struggle with stress and anxiety develop an awareness of these issues, as well as help develop the tools to combat them.

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We desperately need more games like these. Zombies, aliens, vampires, ghosts, demons, serial killers and animatronic abominations will always have a place in our favorite genre, but it’s so important that games developers don’t rely exclusively on these familiar foes when there are so many alternatives to choose from.

Mental illness is a different kind of scary. You might not understand it as intimately as someone who’s endured the slow death it brings, but you probably know someone who has. It’s still somewhat stigmatized in our society, and I think video games and the brilliant people who create them can help change that in a way that movies, books and television cannot.

Because if you haven’t felt the profound impact that depression or its myriad cousins can have on the mind, then it’s games like these that are in a unique position to help. And they’re scary, too. The psychological terror here is based in a reality that far too many of us know exceedingly well, and they’re not so easily vanquished.

Mental illness claims too many lives, and not just literally, but also in the passion for life it often drains from its unsuspecting host like an insatiable parasite. So please, you exceptionally gifted builders of the virtual worlds we love to explore, keep being brave. We need courageous storytellers like the devs I listed above, because this industry is broken in a way that keeps these stories from being told by more mainstream games.

What are your thoughts on this? Would you like to see more games like Fran Bow, Neverending Nightmares and The Town of Light, or not so much?

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COMMENTS

7 Comments
  • Creepshow

    I fully understand what these games and this article are trying to get across to people. But saying the road to becoming an adult “is often cited as a significant contributer to a mental illness epidemic to millions of people” ….is weak.
    If millions of people feel this way now, just think of the billions and billions of people that became adults before you.
    I guess everyone in the history of mankind that became an adult, can cry “poor me” as well.

    • It’s not the road to adulthood that’s the problem, it’s the “oppressive tedium and impossible expectations of fame, fortune, and physical perfection” that our society has deemed “valuable”, and it’s obviously different for everyone. But anxiety and depression are legit epidemics, particularly in the US and Britain. So many of us have been raised to prioritize superficial things (wealth, our appearance) over actual substance.

      I also don’t think it’s fair to immediately go to the “poor me” bit. These are mental illnesses we’re talking about, not someone’s desperate attempt to be pitied. And again, I’m not speaking for everyone. I’m not even referring to most people. But for many millions of people, the mundaneness, superficiality and responsibilities of modern adult life can get overwhelming sometimes.

      • Creepshow

        I get what your saying Adam, but it’s called “life”. And your examples of what leads to anxiety and depression in some people, are kind of laughable (lack of fame, fortune, and physical perfection). That sounds like 95% of the world to me. It seems like the US and Britain are the worldwide leaders in “pussification”. I know these are legit illnesses. But some people need a better excuse other than not having the riches, fame, and looks of Brad Pitt. I’m not downplaying the people with legitimate illnesses, but other people just need to stop being such babies nowadays. It would probably do alot of people some good to put down the video game controllers, and get out of fantasy land once in a while. You know, get out in the real world. Then maybe the responsibilities of modern adult life wouldn’t be so overwhelming.
        Good chatting with you bud.

        • LoveAnimation

          Sweden is the worldwide leader of pussification actually.

  • Emma Kitt

    I think another good game like this is The Cat Lady (one of my favorite games), because it handles depression in a unique way that also does a really good job of explaining it.

    I also just finished playing Downfall, which is in the same series and touches upon eating disorders a little bit, but it doesn’t really go as deep as the above games.

    • enemy

      You should check out the game limbo its not about mental health or any thing but it has the same vibe as these games and looks visually stunning.

  • brewers_rule

    Forgive me for being unarmed w/the details, but isn’t this the type of gaming development that led to the whole #gamergate thing? Albeit, from what I’ve read in the stories about that one, this approach seems to actually be a successful attempt at making a game out of a mental illness whereas, depending on what side you came down on, that one was either not a good game or a good game bashed by sexist haters.

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