Is Mental Illness an Over-Explored topic in Indie Games?
There’s a meme that’s been doing the rounds in online spaces for a little while now. A few memes, really, but they’re all variations on the same theme. The joke is that there are too many indie games that are actually an allegory for depression, and that everywhere you look are quirky indie rpgs (possibly also done in pixel art) that focus on the exact same topic: mental health. And it’s not always just a joke, but for some people a real concern and complaint. Some legitimately believe there are far too many indie games about depression.
There certainly are a number of popular indie games that explore the topic of mental health. But is the topic so well-done that it’s become over-explored, and worthy of such cynical memes and complaints? Are games on this topic just retreading the same old ground, or do they have new insight to give on such an important subject?
What parts of Mental Health are Explored: Stories
When it comes to these jokes, the games typically brought up are Celeste, OMORI, Yume Nikki, and Lisa the Painful. They are not the only ones mentioned in these jokes, but they are certainly the most common, and generally the most well-known and popular. And yes, each of these games do explore mental health. Celeste focuses on a girl with depression named Madeline, who climbs a mountain and comes face to face with the personification of her inner doubts and bad side. OMORI is about a teenage boy, who (after the death of his sister) becomes a recluse (a ‘hikikomori’, hence the title) and delves into fantasies instead of engaging with real life. Lisa the Painful involves a middle-aged man journeying across a post-apocalyptic wasteland to find his adopted daughter, while dealing with his past and a drug addiction. Yume Nikki (‘Dream Diary’ in Japanese) focuses on a young girl travelling through multiple surreal landscapes in her dreams.
These games do have some similarities in their portrayal and exploration of mental illness. Both Celeste and OMORI feature a ‘dark’ version of the main character, who represents some aspect of themselves or their depression. Both OMORI and Yume Nikki involve reclusive children in a dream world, and have themes of suicide. But there’s a lot of difference to be found in all the titles mentioned as well.
Even while they all explore the topic of mental health, and depression in particular, each of these games have slightly different takes on the topic and different focuses. Lisa the Painful is especially different from the others, as it focuses on drug addiction and withdrawal – something none of the others discuss.
But even with these similarities, each work is still very different. Celeste and OMORI both have ‘dark’ versions of their main character, but they are executed differently. In Celeste, ‘Badeline’ (the dark version of Madeline, the main character) initially fights against the player character, putting her down and telling her that she’s not good enough to climb the mountain. However, over the course of the story Madeline learns to work with this personification of her worries, comforting her instead of fighting against her. The story is about learning to love yourself, including and despite your flaws. In OMORI, meanwhile, the player character Sunny fights directly against this dark version of himself. Here, the character is separated into his ‘real’ self (‘Sunny’) and the unreal version of himself that is found in the dream world (‘Omori’). This fight involves a struggle to defeat his depression, to leave the dream world behind and for Sunny to live as himself rather than as this idealized ‘Omori’. While the narrative trope of a ‘dark self’ is present in both of these games, this different execution means that a viewer will have a very different experience, and draw different conclusions from them.
Similarly, both OMORI and Yume Nikki involve a reclusive child journeying in their dreams instead of interacting with the real world, but these ideas are explored in very different ways. In OMORI, this dream world is a beautiful one for the most part. The main character’s childhood friends and sister love and support him, and they all go on fun adventures and play together. However, Sunny is forced to interact with the real world once more when his former friends visit him. It can be seen how in the time that he has not left his house, these versions of his friends in the dream world have become inaccurate caricatures. We begin to see how false this dream world is. In some parts, it is idealized and saccharine, and in others it is nightmarish where Sunny’s fears and doubts seep in. The story is a call to leave this dream world and interact with the real world, as enticing as a dream may be. But in Yume Nikki, the dream world is very different. While some of the locations are nice to look at, they are all surreal, and many are rather unsettling or scary. In OMORI, the horror elements are scattered through the ‘nicer’ sections, and become more apparent over time. This difference gives the two games very different feelings. In addition, the ways that the two games’ stories end mean that their portrayal of mental illness, and their implications, are completely different. In OMORI, there are multiple different endings. It is possible for Sunny to stay forever in this dream world, or to leave it and reconcile with his old friends, to confront his internal issues instead of covering them over. This story indicates that it is possible to overcome elements of one’s mental health issue, to recover, but it is also possible to not recover. Meanwhile, Yume Nikki only has one ending, and it is the player character committing suicide by jumping from the balcony of her apartment. Its portrayal of mental health issues is, as such, much less hopeful.
To say that each of these games are the same simply because they all cover the same topic of mental health is inaccurate, and ignores the stories, nuances, and implications of each game. Outside of these four games mentioned, it seems to be much the same. While there are certainly games that overlap, the individuality of mental health issues and experiences mean that they are not identical.
How Mental Health is Explored: Gameplay
Another odd part of these complaints about the similarities of these games is that they tend to ignore the obvious differences in these games. But beyond the story similarities and the fact that pixel art is not uncommon there is a lot of variation – most importantly, in game play. Yes, all of these games discuss mental health, and the examples here are even all pixel art. But Celeste is a challenging platformer, while OMORI is a party RPG with puzzle elements. Lisa the Painful is also an RPG, but with very different mechanics – for example, in OMORI you play the entire game with the same four party members, but in Lisa there are many more potential members to choose from. Yume Nikki is an exploration game, with no combat or dialogue.
Even with the similarities in the topics and stories that these games explore, the mechanics mean that all of these games feel like completely different experiences to actually play. In addition, in each of these cases the mechanics feed into the game’s message about mental health.
Celeste, as mentioned, is an extremely difficult game. Platforming is precise and fast-paced, and each area introduces new gameplay elements to learn. Any new player is likely to die a lot playing this game. This separates Celeste from the other games on this list, as none of the other games are as physically difficult to play – to say that playing Celeste is identical to playing OMORI due to the subject matter of depression would be to ignore the very genre of Celeste. And this mechanical difference doesn’t just separate it on a physical level, but on a story and meaning level. Celeste is about Madeline’s struggles, both to climb the mountain and to deal with her mental health. By making the game a struggle to play, the player empathizes with her difficulties, and shares in both her failures and her successes. Having the game be so difficult means that the final triumph of reaching the mountain’s summit feels amazing, both on a story level (watching Madeline reconcile with Badeline and overcome her issues), and on a gameplay level (having all your platforming skills acknowledged and rewarded).
Similarly, the mechanics of each of the games mentioned here are different, making them all very different experiences to play. Their mechanical differences also add certain elements of nuance or meaning to the story or atmosphere in the game. In Lisa, the player can choose to have certain characters, including the protagonist, take a drug called ‘Joy’ to make them more powerful in battle. However, not using it can cause withdrawals that effect gameplay in a negative way. This mechanical use of drug taking invites the player to consider real-life drug use in a rather different light. While real-life drug addicts are unlikely to be in the scenarios shown in this game, these mechanics do serve to show how necessary drug-taking can feel to one addicted to them, especially when there are severe withdrawal symptoms. It invites sympathy for drug addicts. Meanwhile, in OMORI’s battle system, different emotions can cause different effects. They can make certain attacks stronger, or effect a battle’s rewards. Certain characters generally use one emotion in particular (as they have a particular move that responds well to a certain emotion), and this impression is emphasized by the in-game guide to using emotion mechanics. This means that each character is associated with that emotion, changing how the player views them. In Yume Nikki, some of the puzzles are strange, or the answer is not immediately logical, which adds to the impression of the dream worlds as surreal.
The mechanics used in a game can drastically change how a player views and absorbs the story and message of a game. While games focused on mental health may have similar stories and topics when viewed in isolation, differences in mechanics can mean that they, in practicality, feel very different to play.
The memes about indie games focusing on mental health all imply there are a huge influx of games about this topic. Some even take it a step further and imply the market is flooded with specifically pixel art indie RPGs which are about depression. But the truth is, there aren’t as many as they imply. As mentioned, the four games mentioned in this article (Celeste, OMORI, Lisa the Painful, and Yume Nikki) are generally the ones that crop up in these memes. The fact that all four of them are pixel art also serves to imply a similarity. Outside of them, however, it’s clear how few indie games about individual struggles mental health there really are, especially when it comes to the really popular indie games. Probing Google for recommendations on indie games about mental health generally shows the same 20 or so games repeating across lists from different gaming websites – apart from those four, it’s mostly Fran Bow, Night in the Woods, Depression Quest, and Actual Sunlight. None of these games, funnily enough, are pixel art. So that part of the meme is certainly wrong.
That’s not to say there aren’t any other indie games about mental health. There are a lot, and yes, some do tread similar ground or have similar gameplay. But the majority aren’t anywhere near as popular as something like Celeste is, which won a number of awards (including the ‘Best Independent Game’ award at the Game Awards 2018) and sold over a million copies by the end of 2019. That’s not something the vast majority of indie games can say, let alone specifically those about mental health. In addition, the games mentioned both in this article and in these memes are from very different times – the oldest (Yume Nikki) is from 2004, while the newest (OMORI) is from 2020. It’s not as though they were all released at once, flooding the market at the same time. As such, a fatigue from ‘too many’ indie games on the topic feels strange, unless you’re going out of your way to only play games about mental health. And it’s not as though mental health is the only popular topic in indie games, either. Trends and popular topics in indie games come and go, and having multiple games with similar topics isn’t particularly unusual. To be derisive about the volume of games about mental health is to ignore the fact that media is always building on what came before it, discussing and expanding on the same topics.
In addition, while sympathetic portrayals of mental illness may be more common in indie video games, they are not as common in more mainstream video games. One study monitoring the fifty highest-selling video games in each year from 2011-2013 found that 69% of mentally ill characters found in these games were homicidal maniacs, and the majority of mentally ill characters depicted in games were shown in a negative light. Similarly, another 2019 study focusing on games present on online gaming retailer Steam found that of games focusing or discussing mental health, 97% of those reviewed involved negative portrayals of mentally ill people and stereotypes. This included games where mentally ill people were violent and unpredictable, horror games where mental illness and supernatural elements were intertwined, and games where mental asylums are used as scary settings. While these studies are not completely comprehensive, they do illustrate a trend in media. While it may seem to some like there are a lot of indie games featuring allegories for depression or anxiety in sympathetic ways, there are far more that are much less sympathetic. Even if the memes were accurate, would having more games discussing mental health in a positive or realistic way really be such a bad thing?
In addition, there are many different types of mental health issues. While there may be a number of games that deal with, say, grief and depression, there are many mental health conditions that aren’t as well-explored. Also, each person’s experience with mental health issues is different and personal, and there are many stories we have yet to see in games. There’s still plenty of room for more stories exploring mental health.
While accurate and sympathetic representation of mental illness is on the rise, it’s still not where it could be, and many mentally ill people are still unsatisfied. As such, it’s not surprising that many people who have struggled with mental illness want to tell authentic stories – their stories – and help fight this stigma.
There are a number of indie games focusing on mental health, but in the wider medium of video games it’s not that many, and there’s a lot of nuance to be found in such a personal topic. In addition, the games that do focus on this topic cover a range of perspectives, stories, and mechanics, with more differences than similarities.
With so much progress and positive representations still to be made, and so many areas of mental health still largely unrepresented in indie games, mental health definitely isn’t an over-explored topic.
- Phillip. (2018). EarthBound-Inspired Indie Game About Depression. Know Your Meme. https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/earthbound-inspired-indie-game-about-depression
- Shapiro, S., Rotter, M. (2016). Graphic Depictions: Portrayals of Mental Illness in Video Games. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 61(6), 1592-1595. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1556-4029.13214
- Ferrari, M., McIlwaine, S., Jordan, G., Shah, J. L., Lal, S. (2019). Gaming With Stigma: Analysis of Messages About Mental Illnesses in Video Games. JMIR Mental Health, 6(5). https://www.proquest.com/docview/2511388077
- Wikipedia. Lisa: The Painful. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa:_The_Painful
- Wikipedia. Yume Nikki. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yume_Nikki
- Wikipedia. Omori. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omori_(video_game)
- Wikipedia. Celeste. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celeste_(video_game)
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