The third part of an ongoing series about games/interactive experiences that deal with depression and mental illness.
“For people who have never experienced it before, depression is difficult to understand. It is not simply sadness, as many may think; it is more akin to an all-encompassing hopelessness, a failure to connect to or derive meaning from the outside world. By tapping into the experiential aspects of the video game medium, Elude’s metaphorical model for depression serves to bring awareness to the realities of depression by creating empathy with those who live with depression every day.”
Gaming mechanics as metaphor, whilst hardly subtle in this instance, is a fascinating idea. The games I’ve played so far in this series have dealt with depression almost entirely through language – Elude, a collaborative project created at the Singapore-MIT GameLab, comes at it from a different angle, attempting to give the player a sense of the tactile sensation of feeling depressed via platforming mechanics. It’s successes depend on something difficult to describe – the weight and presence of the gaming avatar and how that shapes our relationship with them.
Tim Rogers was one of the first games writers that I’m aware of to try and explain how the weight and physics of player character in games is perhaps the most important element of game design in his Kotaku article In Praise of Sticky Friction. Trying explain precisely how and when this is done well is like pinning down water – it’s the element in writing about videogames that feels most like discussing music to me. It can be a frustrating experience grasping at words to describe how when listening to one perfect chorus feels magical, as if the ringing chords are lifting you off your feet and holding you suspended in air, and how the unbearable lightness of being then somehow calcinates into the brilliant lightness of everything under the effortless weight of the song. Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. And similarly it’s almost impossible (without anything glaring errors or poor construction present to point out) to explain why another superficially similar chorus feels like vaguely pleasant but uninspiring noise by comparison. When discussing games I can’t quite explain why fighting as Ryu in Ninja Gaiden felt more satisfying to me than Dante in Devil May Cry. I liked both games but the blocking and rolling in Gaiden had a certain indefinable weight to it. Dante’s antics were spectacular, ridiculous and great fun. Ryu’s were less spectacular perhaps but his fights felt more grueling, more like a battle against the odds, even though there wasn’t much of a difference in their respective difficulty levels. Something about the physics just felt right.
Despite it’s reliance on gamefeel to get it’s points across Elude doesn’t eschew words altogether. The first thing you see when you start the game is a quote – “Remember Sadness is always temporary – this too shall pass.” It’s attributed to Chuck T Falcon (who wrote something called the Family Desk Reference to Psychology) but it’s something that’s been said in one way of another a number of times by many different people. Though I suppose only one of those people were called Chuck T. Falcon. With a name that spectacular you can get away with attributing any quote to yourself and getting away with it. After that you get a few notes on the controls and the odd bit of advice such as “renew your passions daily.” But aside from the odd word of encouragement you and your miserable half-jumps are left to figure things out for yourself.
Now, as much as utlising the weight and friction as metaphor for emotional turbulence is potentially a brilliant idea, it must be said that it doesn’t make for the most satisfying of platformers. Varying the jump height depending on mood makes sense thematically but it makes the actual platforming a little annoying. But then this is aiming to simulate depression, so anyone looking for happy-fun-platform times are in the wrong place. In Elude we quickly discover our task, such as it is, is to climb a tree, jumping from branch to branch to branch, until we reach the top. Our character, a moody looking young man (Elude does bear an uncanny resemblance to a full colour Limbo), gains the ability to jump higher by ‘resonating’ with his passions, which entails hitting space to unleash a wave and a ‘aahh’ sound and change the colours of the birds in the trees, who then sing back at you. If you get to the top in time you move onto a higher, sunnier plane where you can bounce higher and higher on falling leaves. If you take too long then the forest darkens and sinister black tendrils rise up to grab you, dragging you to a series of odd squishy caves below.
As metaphors go this three tiered forest isn’t too tricky to work out.
“Elude explores the complex landscape of mood by creating a metaphorical gaming experience. The goal is to raise awareness and understanding among the friends and family members of those who suffer from clinical depression.”
The middle level of the forest is obviously the everyday, baseline feeling – ‘normal’ if you want to call it that. You can jump but not all that high. When you resonate with the birds you get to jump higher – ‘renewing your passions‘ as it were, lifting your spirits and allowing you to achieve more height with each jump. The upper level is happiness of a sort – it almost feels like they’re describing bi-polar here as the dizzying, unsustainable high is not something every depressive might recognise. You bounce on the leaves getting higher and higher with nothing up in the air to strive for – in Elude you just bounce because it’s a game, and that’s what you do in games. It manipulates the instincts of the gamer into going through these motions with no real promise of anything at the end of them. You just figure out the mechanics and you work with them in the way that usually ends in some sort of success. However the leaves start disappearing after a time and you free fall back to the forest, the regular everyday. There’s no way of sustaining that happy feeling.
Then you find yourself back in the forest for a second time, only this time resonating becomes a little harder. Some birds take a few attempts to sing for you – some stubbornly refuse to. Getting back to the top becomes more difficult. I’m not sure if it’s possible to end on the higher plains or avoid the caverns below altogether: try as I might (and whilst I’m not the world’s greatest platformer I’m a veteran from the first Super Mario Bros right up to giving Super Meat Boy a kicking) I can’t avoid heading downwards. I suppose if there was a way to do so the game wouldn’t be very accurate in describing the depressive experience – the unhelpful message from such a game to those suffering from depression would unavoidably be, “try harder.” As it is, heading down into the black tar pits below is inevitable. You can guess what they represent.
“The game hopes to dispel the view that depression is simply “sadness”, but rather a more complex feeling of universal hopelessness and a failure to connect with the outside world.”
Here all colour is gone, as is your ability to jump. From watching people on youtube Let’s Play videos I’ve seen how gamers always expect there to be a right way to do things. Having a control taken from them without warning leads to panic and anger. An automatic fail state, in taking the agency away from the gamer, can be a powerful experience and one that has been used to great effect in mainstream games (Bioshock’s ‘would you kindly?’ moment being perhaps the most famous). However, reflecting on my own experience, I feel it could have been handled better here. I’ve often thought of what my councillor used to call my ‘treacle days’ as being a bit like Mario when he’s sinking in quicksand on Super Mario Bros 3 – each jump barely enough to make up the ground you lose between hops. You have to hammer the button to keep your little head above the sand and eventually break free of it. In Elude when you’re caught by the rising black tendrils and dragged into the squishy dark caverns below you’re forced to sink. You cannot resist. You fall through a series of screens with the black borders closing in and your black underground room getting smaller each time. Sometimes when I’ve fallen I’ve found a bird down there with me – I can resonate, jump, make it back out. But often you’re alone and there is nothing to be done.
The occasional bird saviour – ie a passion with which to resonate and arrest your emotional decline – is a wonderful touch. However in it’s absence the sinking feels too passive. There is no struggle. Sometimes when battling the big D there’s nothing to be done but sink, true, but like being in quicksand the urge to fight supersedes the knowledge that it will likely only make things worse. You cannot help but struggle even as you feel it pulling you down faster. Giving the player the option of jumping Mario-like against the quicksand of melancholy would be a more accurate way of demonstrating this feeling and further highlight that sense of hopelessness.
To be fair however this is becoming a common thing in the Black Dog Gaming series – l complained that Depression Quest didn’t quite reflect the experience accurately enough despite the game not really being aimed at me. Like Elude it was aimed at the outsider looking in. As an insider looking out it’s an interesting sensation to feel these moments portrayed by these games. But I already know what it feels like. I doubt someone looking for insight into depression needs, or would really understand, every nuance being present. It needs to be broader, whether in prose or in gaming mechanics, to be easily understood.
After a time you’re given the option to trawl your way back to the surface where the cycle begins over. After a few trips up and down you come to the end of the line – a black hill drawing you downwards towards what appears to be a flaming hellscape below. You have a choice to make – walk quickly down off a cliff into the flames (clearly death, probably suicide) or struggle slowly back up into the light. Visually this binary is a bit patronising and somewhat misleading – if, even in the mind of a mentally ill person, suicide was all evil flames and horrors no one would take their life. The troubling thing to accept is that people who kill themselves often see it as the best option, for others as well as themselves. The suffering is becomes too much to bear and the voice that wishes nothing but ill for them convinces them that people they love would be better off without them anyway. To capture this correctly you could argue that the flames and the bright heavenly light should be reversed – but how would you explain that in a game without words? It could be perceived as endorsing or even promoting that dramatic final act, which I imagine is the last thing it’s creators would ever want to do. Given that alternative I’d say they’ve made the best of a bad idea.
However you also have to consider what the light represents – in reality we must presume that in the world of Elude we’d be back in the forest, doomed to forever trudge endlessly through the same motions, up and down, forever. Whilst that’s probably an accurate portrayal of a depressive cycle, and might be illuminating to someone who’s never suffered, to me it’s a bit, well, depressing. It’s a clumsy ending but I’m not sure how else it could be done – perhaps with something to represent getting help, breaking the cycle, as an option other than those two extremes. Perhaps I am, again, asking too much of an experimental free game. But anyone wanting to take these nascent ideas and run with them would do well to consider what an endgame for the depressed represents.
Elude is ultimately Depression Quest from another angle – whereas Actual Sunlight was a raging, flailing, interactive treatise screamed from the heart of misery, these two seek to understand depression in more distanced, almost clinical tones. They’re two polar opposite approaches to a problem that both come with their own issues. Depression Quest did a decent job of explaining depression in words that could be understood by anyone. You’ll get more from Elude if you’re a gamer, current or lapsed – I’m not talking a hardcore 400 hours on CoD gamer, just one who’s played enough Mario to pick up the latest version and feel at home. If that’s you and want to understand depression Elude offers an occasionally impressive opportunity to try to learn the mechanics of it the way gamers do best – thumbs first, head second.