I am not well. This is something that I've spent a long time coming to terms with and trying to keep in check. I am not well, I am not a well person. Another way of saying it is I'm mad, insane, mental, a completely and utterly batshit crazy headcase. And I'm okay with that. I take four different types of medication each day to keep me on the level. I also see a therapist, though not as often as I'd like. I've been in hospital two times for something I won't bother naming, but I'm sure you're smart enough to guess what I mean. These things help. And so do video games, more than you'd think.
I'm aware that this is mostly down to that old gem called escapism, but that's no bad thing in small doses - though escapism can be just as easily abused as any drug you can find if you're not careful. Video games help me in a way I can't quite describe. Usually my head, even on the meds, is a cacophany of bizarre, angry, paranoid and self-destructive thoughts. It isn't quite hearing voices, but that's the closest and most convenient comparison I have. Video games - along with a few creative outlets - silence those voices and provide a respite from them. Not only whilst I play either, but for hours at a time. You're commonly told not play video games before bed, but if I don't then usually it will be a sleepless night spent listening to my silly head.
Video games get a pretty bad rep for how they portray the crazies, but very few mediums do us justice - looking at you Silver Linings Playbook, you pile of bullshit. To be honest I don't really have a problem with some of the more over the top utilisations of mentally ill characters. I trust that most people are smart enough not to assume that I'm going to start beating the shit out of them based on what they've learned from entertainment, and if they aren't then I probably don't want to hang out with someone lacking that many brain cells and who is unable to practice independent thought.
It actually makes a lot of sense for your villain to hear voices or have a few extra personalities. Know why? Because it's good to have a sympathetic villain, and it's far easier to sympathise with someone when it's suggested they aren't fully in control of their actions, rather than someone who's just evil for the sake of it. It's also easier to set a horror game in an asylum. Know why? Because asylums are fucking horrifying. If you take a few minutes to read up on the history of asylums - a place I'd have ended up in if I hadn't lucked out and been born in this era - then you'll soon realise that it's not the inhabitants that make them terrifying but the atrocities that take place within their walls.
With all that in mind, I do enjoy it when I find a video game that really hits the nail on the head when it comes to the crazies. I like it when a game makes me simply think "Yes". I've yet to find a game that accurately portrays my own condition, or has a bipolar character at all come to think of it, so if any of you know of one then please hit me up. Anyhoo, without further adieu, here are a few games that have made me say "Yes":
Life is Strange
This one will be high up on a lot of people's lists, no doubt. I'm including Life is Strange because it actually takes one of the tropes I mentioned earlier and kind of flips it right the fuck on its head: the mentally ill villain.
Now, I'll get this out of the way. I suppose technically Jefferson (a.k.a. Coachella Patrick Bateman) does register as a mentally ill villain - people are quick to forget that sociopathy is an illness - but I wanted to talk about Nathan Prescott. Don't get me wrong, Nathan still did some awful things and...well, he was just a bit of a prick for the majority of the game. But he was the perfect red herring as well.
Max and Chloe, and by extension the audience, are convinced throughout the event of Life is Strange that Nathan is a psychotic, spoiled little asshole who - literally - gets away with murder. It isn't until episode five that everything falls into place and it becomes apparent that Nathan has been suffering the entire time. Friendless and victim of a father who is at best distant and at worst abusive, Nathan falls victim to something that many lonely, mentally ill young people do: being manipulated by an adult who they should have been able to trust.
Beyond Nathan, we also have the, particularly devastating, tale of Kate Marsh. This was the story that hit home pretty hard for me.
For those who are lucky enough not to have had any experience with depression then I'll give you a quick run down: depression is equivalent to emotional paralysis, it strips you of emotion and convinces you that no one cares about you. Worse than that, it convinces you that they are completely justified in not caring about you. Although it's always going to be impossible to get this feeling across, Dontnod get five stars for their attempt.
Episode two finds Kate at the end of the line and on top of a roof, considering the unthinkable. Because it seems like the only option that remains. Max, unable to use her abilites (because...plot...shut up), races to the roof to talk Kate down and convince her that she is, in fact, loved. But hold on. What was that highlighted bible verse? Did Kate have brothers or sisters in that photograph from earlier? If Max, if you, didn't take the time to learn about Kate, if you didn't take the time to care, well...that's it. What Kate believes is confirmed. The unthinkable happens.
It's clever. It's sad. It's powerful. It's real.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
I mentioned earlier that I've had a couple of hospital visits in the past due to my condition. Well, this July I had my third hospital visit because of it. However, it was for a different reason than my two previous visits. I won't go into detail, nobody wants to read about that on a video game website.
I don't know if you've ever had what is referred to as a psychotic break. They're not a huge amount of fun, if I'm honest. I feel very lucky because in the years that I've been diagnosed I've only had fleeting moments of psychosis. Usually this manifests itself in barely audible whispers or my surroundings altering in appearance. the best way to describe it would be that the world takes on an appearance similar to that of a Van Gogh painting or large splashes of colourful static.
At the beginning of Hellblade, a disclaimer pops up that serves two purposes: to tell you that the game is best played with headphones on for the most immersive experience possible, and to warn the player of the intense nature of the game and upsetting subject matter.
I took Ninja Theory up on the headphone recommendation. I lasted approximately fifteen minutes before unplugging the headphones and tossing them aside. The experience was just a bit too real for me. This is in no way a criticism, if anything it's a commendation. The way the whispering voices flit and pan from ear to ear shook me to the core. That may sound melodramatic and cliched, but I mean it. As soon as the game began I felt a similar fear and the same cold emptiness that I had felt periodically in the past.
If you want to understand what kind of terror psychosis can strike into you, then play this.
One thing that I'm certain of is that Actual Sunlight is stunning. One thing I'm less certain is whether to call it a game or not. I could call it an anti-game or a visual novel, but I'd rather not go into some douchey diatribe on postmodernism. So, for lack of a better term, let's just call it a game. Fuck, what a redundant paragraph.
The reason I feel uncomfortable calling Actual Sunlight a game is because, for the most part, it lacks traditional gameplay. Sure, there's a playable character. Sure, you navigate a world full of NPCs. But nothing really happens. All you do, for about an hour and a half, is inhabit the skin of a person who hates themselves.
This is important. Because if you've never hated yourself before - really, truly fucking hated and despised yourself - then it's important that you understand what it's like. That sounds more sadistic than I intended so I'll let my favourite part of Actual Sunlight speak for me.
There's a moment in Actual Sunlight, at about the halfway point, wherein our protagonist Evan is shopping for a video game. The voice in his head - a la BoJack Horseman from a particular season four episode - is berating him for a number of things, but the top offender is his buying another video game that will only result in him wasting more time he could be spending on something creative and productive. Something that will actually make him feel good.
"Fuck that then," I thought to myself. I decided that Evan wasn't going to buy the video game. Perhaps subconsciously I thought that if I couldn't take those steps in life to improve myself then, dammit, this collection of pixels was at least going to take those steps. I'd live vicariously through video games, as I always had done. I walked to the door and a message popped up at the bottom of the screen. This message caused me to sit in silence for ten minutes before continuing because, to this day, it encapsulates perfectly the experience of depression - and I don't just mean in a video game, I mean in any medium I've encountered.
I'm paraphrasing, but the message went something like this: "I know, that would be nice. But we all know how this story ends."
Yeah, I knew. I'd nearly achieved that ending myself in the past and I knew that Evan was on a one way path. This hit me like a ton of bricks because I realised this story could only be told through a video game. Depression strips you of all autonomy. It would be nice if you got up and exercised or didn't stay in bed all day or didn't sleep for fourteen hours or didn't eat pizza for the sixth day straight or didn't drink yourself into a stupor. But that isn't going to happen, because you aren't pulling the strings anymore. Someone in front of a screen may as well be jabbing at keys and making you walk.
Just so that I'm not being a total downer this whole time, Actual Sunlight's creator, Will O'Neill, includes another, far lengthier, message at one point. A sweet and hopeful one. This message doesn't so much break the fourth wall as shatter it, reaching out to players in the hope they won't go the route that Evan does:
“The fact that you are young means in and of itself that you still have a lot of time to change things. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get everything you want, but I promise that you can do a lot better than you will if you give yourself over to despair. Don't you fucking dare.”
You're not alone, I hope you know that.