Video games & mental health

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Words || Lachlan Marnoch

Pathos is not generally considered a strength of the video game medium – but it should be. Games put you in control of a whole other person, and, if they do their job well, right in that person’s shoes. This can be a wonderful tool for evoking empathy. In general, though, most players don’t expect deep characterisation from their games.

Celeste (2018, Matt Makes Games) and Night in the Woods (2017, Infinite Falls) are two video games that deal in the headspace of their protagonists – Madeline and Mae, respectively. Both characters suffer from depression, and both are realistically and sensitively portrayed. Although drastically different in terms of gameplay, both titles find interesting ways to impress their internal and external struggles on the player.

Fair warning: spoilers lie ahead.

Superficially, there’s some similarity between these games. They’re both 2D, and they both involve jumping. But Night in the Woods is almost exclusively an interactive story. You could finish the main line without ever having touched a video game before.
Celeste, on the other hand, is a hard-as-nails masocore platformer in the Super Meat Boy vein. But it does include an assist mode, which basically lets you tune the difficulty however you want. Aside from being helpful, this actually plays into the themes of the game. Sometimes you just need a helping hand, a bit of support to get through a rough time. Celeste is happy to give it to you. This ends up making the story a lot more accessible, which I’m glad of – because it’s deeply interesting.

What really makes the narratives of Celeste and Night stand out is their characterisation. Mae and Madeline are both female, which is nice to see in the traditionally representation-light video game world. But what’s even more unusual is that they both suffer from depression. Mae, the playable character of Night in the Woods, also has anger issues, and, as the story later reveals, suffers from a dissociative disorder – all of which she was instructed by her shitty small-town GP to repress. The game doesn’t just tell you this – it shows you, with wonderfully evocative dialogue that unfolds gradually with the story.

Possum Springs, the game’s setting and Mae’s hometown, is both a source of comfort and distress for Mae. She takes refuge there from a traumatic experience which caused her to drop out of college but constantly remarks on how much has changed. You can also feel the judgment, whether real or perceived, of all the people around her. Nobody believes Mae about the supernatural mystery element of the game. This reflects the lack of belief that mentally healthy people often have for how real the symptoms of depression can be – a disbelief which Mae also experiences quite literally.

Madeline, the playable character of Celeste, has acute anxiety. This also comes through very well. One moment in particular jumps to mind, in which Madeline starts having a panic attack. Theo, another character, tells you a trick for bringing your breathing under control – and then you actually have to enact it.
He tells you to picture a feather. A feather appears on the screen. He tells you to imagine that your breathing is what’s keeping the feather afloat. You blow on it by pressing ‘A’ to push it upwards. Then a box appears, rising and falling. You have to keep the feather in the box, until Madeline’s breathing has gone back to normal. It’s a wonderfully-presented and very unexpected moment.

It isn’t just the lead protagonists who are explored, either. Every character in Night in the Woods is deeply believable, even the villains of the mystery plot that underlines the whole game. It does this by simply presenting these characters to you. You’re given freedom to explore the town, eavesdrop on conversations and talk to randoms. It’s filled with little storylines – short, charming interactions that progress each day, alongside the deeper explorations of the four main characters.
Each of these has their own backstories, traumas and complex relationships. You explore these by spending one-on-one time with them, almost incidentally rooting out their difficulties and insecurities. Games often make you feel like you’re the most important, or even the only, person in the world. Night avoids this by making it clear that everyone has their own shit going on. It also emphasises how important support is. Mae’s best friends eventually come together to help her through the game’s final confrontation – and, in doing so, finally understand the true horror of what she’s been enduring.

Celeste doesn’t have the same breadth or depth when it comes to exploring character – it has to make room for all the platforming somehow. We don’t get a huge chunk of Madeline’s backstory, nor do we talk to a wide array of characters. But those that are there give you just enough insight.
Celeste’s structural approach to story is the typical video game one – between levels there are cutscenes, and occasionally there’s some dialogue within a level. This means Celeste doesn’t get to dump a buttload of characterisation on you, but what is there is very effective. In particular, there’s Mr Oshiro – a ghostly hotel owner who clearly suffers from denial of loss. Madeline wants to help him, and she starts taking him under her wing. This quickly becomes a metaphor for taking responsibility for someone else’s mental health, which any psychologist will tell you is a bad idea. Madeline is forced to leave when their friendship becomes toxic.

Then there’s the game’s main antagonist – Other Madeline. An iteration of the Dark Protagonist trope of many fantasy games, Other Madeline plagues you every step of the way. Defying this archetype, she’s really an external personification of that voice in your head – the one constantly telling you that you’re not good enough, that it’s all your fault. At one point, just as Madeline is finally about to her accomplish her goal (climbing to the top of Celeste mountain), the Other Madeline drags her all the way back to the start – a good analogy for the regression of mental health, something I think most people suffering from depression are deeply familiar with. But then, Madeline doesn’t overcome her obstacles by destroying the Other Madeline – instead, she has to learn to live with her.

Neither of the games pretends that, by beating them, you’ve solved the protagonist’s problems. Usually, in a video game, it’s the same old power fantasy – you beat the final boss, you save the characters or the world or the universe. Both of these games acknowledge that life – and mental health – is much, much more complicated than that. Sure, you’ve helped Mae and Madeline face some shit, but that doesn’t mean they’re cured. Mae is still deeply fucked up. Madeline still has panic attacks. But they have learnt something about how to live with their problems, and how to move forward. Both endings manage to satisfy with their character development, but without pretending that all problems are solved.

By the end of Night in the Woods, you feel like you know Mae, like you’re a close friend. That also applies to Madeline in Celeste. The games force you to recognise them as valid people, and that their issues are just as valid. That’s not to say that either game caters exclusively to ignorants like me. In some ways, they provide a different kind of fantasy, one catering to a different kind of craving. Not every depressed person has friends that they can confide in, or even that they can rely on. For someone going through rough times, maybe it’s nice to experience that support in a game, just like it’s fun to be a rad super-soldier sometimes.

Both of these games are outstanding. They scratch completely different itches – one appealed to the same part of my brain that loves a good long book, while the other lured the corner of my mind that enjoys bursts of difficult trial-and-error. But they converge in surprising ways, and in ways that are increasingly important, and unusual for video games.

I’m not necessarily the right person to write about mental health. I’m an unqualified, privileged white boy who’s never suffered directly from depression. I can’t really offer much in the way of specific insight into what made either of these games so special. However, I do have friends with depression and anxiety. I think every single one of us knows someone, whether we know it or not. Although I make no claim to truly understanding what it’s like, I’ve seen in my friends, to some small degree, the constant struggle that people with mental health problems are forced to undertake. Which is why, to me, these games felt legitimate and honest. They seem like good faith, and often successful, attempts to show me, the average gamer who doesn’t really get why some people are so sad all the time, what a burden unstable mental health really is – and also, to destigmatise that which is oh-so-common and yet oh-so taboo in modern society.