Mental health is an important topic that still goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by a large number of people. Whether a person’s struggle with their mental well-being is external or internal, we all need to strive to understand what they’re going through. It can be very difficult to relate to someone with mental illness when you have never had to deal with it. However, more and more creators are working to raise mental health awareness through art and media. As such, a number of games attempt to portray mental health struggles accurately while others focus on raising awareness. It is a huge challenge to portray such concepts with accuracy and sensitivity, but some titles accomplish that to a great degree.
Night in the Woods (Bipolar)
Night in the Woods was developed by Infinite Fall and released for various consoles in 2017. It’s a colorful 2D game with adventure, mystery, and thriller elements. The main character is Mae, a college dropout who has returned to her hometown of Possum Springs which is in serious decline. The game revolves around interacting with characters and one of the most prominent is Greg, Mae’s childhood best friend. He appears early on as a fun guy who enjoys goofing off and hanging out with friends. However, during the game are moments where Greg’s emotions intensify for seemingly no reason. This is an understandable portrayal of bipolar disorder, a biological condition that causes people to have intense mood swings during episodes. Greg has no control over these behaviors, but remains aware of them and relies a lot on his friends and boyfriend to understand and support him.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Psychosis)
Ninja Theory, the team behind DmC: Devil May Cry, took a huge risk when they developed and released Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice in 2017. It follows Senua, a Celtic warrior who embarks on a journey to retrieve her deceased lover’s soul from the Nordic interpretation of Hell. During her quest, she encounters various demonic creatures and apparitions while fighting her own demons. She suffers from severe psychosis that manifests as voices in her mind. These voices speak almost constantly and range from being supportive to toxic. She has had this condition for as long as she can remember and has come to believe that it is the source of all the horrors she has experienced. She is so determined to revive her lover because not only was he the only one who understood and accepted her, but she also blames herself for his death.
Psychosis is a very difficult condition to understand and explain so the game has received backlash on this front, but there are many who played it and finally gained some perspective this issue.
The power of loss has the strength to completely destroy us, and there are many who never recover from it. In 2018, Nomada Studio released this beautiful hand-drawn platformer. GRIS's story is almost entirely visual, with any text being there to offer guidance to the player. It follows the journey of a nameless woman traveling through a colorless world as she alters her form to navigate the surreal world. Through context, the player learns that the woman has suffered a tragic loss and has retreated to this world as a form of coping. This event has sent her spiraling into a serious depression, a condition that is severely draining on the mind and body while being subtle enough to affect surroundings. This is why the different worlds start as gray, but color returns to them as she grieves and makes efforts to lift herself up which culminates in acceptance.
Sym (Social Anxiety)
In 2015, the developer Atrax Games released Sym for PC. It’s a 2D hand-drawn platformer that follows a teenager named Josh. He loses himself in a world of his own creation and is struggling to escape. It’s made very clear that Josh is suffering from social anxiety, a condition where the person is averse to interacting with other people. People living with this prefer to spend time somewhere they feel is safe, such as their home or even a specific room. It’s also influenced by a fear of other people or that they're unable to live the life they want. Josh understands his world but also desires to escape so he can confront his fears and try to change.
God of War (PTSD)
The God of War series developed by Santa Monica studio is probably media that most people wouldn’t associate with mental health. However, going back to the very first game released in 2005, it has more connection to mental health than people realize. This hack-and-slash action game follows Kratos, a Spartan warrior who the gods task with eliminating the rogue god of war, Ares. Though on the surface Kratos is a powerful and vicious fighter, the story reveals that he suffers from nightmares that plague his mind. He is a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological condition resulting from a traumatic experience. It is most common in soldiers and very difficult to overcome.
In Kratos’s case, Ares sent him into a blind rage that resulted in him unintentionally slaughtering his family. Arguably, his entire journey has been a quest to seek forgiveness for these horrors. Even in the most recent game, Kratos is still trying to move on since PTSD can be inescapable.
Life is Strange (BPD)
This interactive narrative was released in 2015 by developers Dontnod Entertainment. Life is Strange follows a teenage girl Max, an aspiring photographer who has recently relocated to a small coastal town. Her adjustment to her new home becomes easier when she reconnects with an old friend, Chloe Price. Chloe initially appears as a free-spirited rebel who Max realizes has changed quite a lot since they were last together. However, over time we find out more about what Chloe has gone through since Max last saw her. Through gameplay, we learn that Chloe suffers from a borderline personality disorder, a condition that causes intense mood swings. However, unlike bipolar disorder, BPD is psychological as well as being biological which makes it harder to treat with medication.
Chloe’s condition was exacerbated when she lost her close friend Rachel, an important aspect of the game. She doesn’t have many people whom she trusts, which is why Max’s presence has such a positive impact on her.
Kind Words (Various)
Anonymity makes it far easier to share personal things about ourselves. This comes into play in Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to) by Popcannibal in 2019. It puts you in the role of a nameless person spending time in a small but cozy room. The main activity is to sit at the desk to write and read letters. The twist is that the letters you receive come from real people from around the world. Many of the letters are positive and hopeful while others reveal issues and struggles that people go through. As a writer, you’re able to respond to these letters with encouragement, support, and understanding. Struggling with mental health is a serious ordeal, and sometimes all someone needs is a person to listen and talk.
When developer Matt Makes Games released Celeste in 2018, people were blown away. It’s a colorful, challenging, and adventurous pixel platformer. The story follows a young woman named Madeline who arrives at Celeste Mountain with a goal to reach the peak. As she starts climbing, a dark reflection of herself appears and does nothing but insult and discourage her. This dark reflection represents anxiety, a very tricky condition that causes people to have scary thoughts or unreasonable concerns. Anxiety can be triggered by things such as time and the fear that certain things won’t happen in the future.
Madeline’s anxiety is influenced by the feeling that she hasn’t accomplished much professionally or socially. She believes that climbing this mountain will give her a sense of achievement. Although she initially struggles against her dark reflection, she eventually learns to accept it and herself.
Mental health awareness has never been more important than it is right now. With a global panic keeping us isolated, we may feel forced to deal with these struggles on our own. This is why games like these are so important: They help us understand and they help us connect.