We recently observed Mental Illness Awareness Week in the first week of October, a time to recognize the wide array of mental illnesses that so many millions suffer from every single day. The objective is to spread awareness, validation, and support at a time when the conversation surrounding mental health is finally losing its negative stigma.
Representation of mental illness in media, especially video games, is nothing new. However, the legitimacy and even accuracy of such representation is often called into question. Games like those in the Call of Duty franchise will often (if inadvertently) glorify and dramatize the trauma of war for shock value, without really providing a lens into the magnitude of suffering that is born of it. Part of the responsibility of changing how we view mental illness is in how we choose to represent it in our media, whether that is books, movies, music, or video games. These mediums exist as a form of entertainment, but a mental illness is anything but, and should therefore not be portrayed in a way that makes it so.
All that said, there are definitely a number of games that are made with a great level of care in how they choose to depict various mental illnesses, and it’s through that effort that we can build the habit and practice of true, honest, and fair representation. Not just for those that depend on fair representation, but also for ourselves as we commit to growth, understanding, and most importantly, the willingness to listen. As such, here are a handful of games that represent various mental illnesses in a unique and accurate way, and that help bridge the gap that leads to greater awareness of their impact.
Spec Ops: The Line
This one will probably be the most controversial on the list, but it bears being shared. Back in 2012, Yager released Spec Ops: The Line rather quietly, with extremely limited marketing. At first glance of the title card, the game just looks like any run of the mill military shooter game, games that were unbelievably prominent and oversaturating the market at the time. As it turned out, the game was anything but.
The story is set in an alternate universe where Dubai is beset by cataclysmic sandstorms that decimate the city. The US Army sends in troops to provide support and rescue, but one of their famed battalions, known as “The Damned 33rd,” defies orders to abandon the city. In response, the military send in an elite three-man recon team led by Captain Martin Walker, tasked with reporting on any survivors and then immediately radioing for extraction. As you can probably guess, nothing goes as planned.
The game depicts a series of horrors that I’ll refrain from describing here, and all the while the player is forced to bear witness to Captain Walker’s increasingly volatile mental state. While it could be argued that the game crosses more than a few lines with its gratuitous violence, the game’s ultimate twist is the real horror, both in the terrible lens of truth the player must grapple with, and the reflection on how easy it is to lose yourself in the grips of extreme duress. And while the game is not for everyone, if you’re willing to wade through some pretty intense content, it’s a worthwhile foray into the horrors of war and its effects on the psyche.
Taking a massive pivot, Nomada Studio’s Gris was released in 2018 to widespread critical and player acclaim. With its hand drawn animation and gorgeous watercolor landscapes and design, Gris is a visual marvel that utilizes the power of its design to depict a truly beautiful and deeply relatable story.
The unnamed player character is a young woman who is grieving the loss of an important woman in her life who is never identified but strongly hinted at as being her mother. Throughout the game, the player navigates the stages of grief symbolized as various settings of varying volatility. The game also strongly utilizes color and its depiction to emphasize these concepts and provide a visual experience for a particular aspect of grief. One of the early levels is a stormy desert painted in a deep blood red that provides a lens into grief induced anger. And as the game progresses, the use of color expands and adapts to the character’s journey, providing a rich experience that honestly just needs to be played rather than described.
Along with the haunting and heart rending soundtrack, the color dominated hand drawn design of Gris is a beautiful, albeit at times painful lens into the reality of grief and depression. If you have 4-5 hours of free time on your hands, this is a game that absolutely deserves your attention and care.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
A game that depicts psychosis so accurately that it might in fact be better to avoid if you or anyone you know has ever experienced it. Hellblade stormed onto the scene in 2017 and wasted no time immersing players in the dark, terrifying underbelly of grief amplified by psychotic delusions. While I recommend the game as a truly respectful representation of this particular type of mental illness, I would definitely urge caution, especially if this type of dark and violent content could be triggering in any way.
Hellblade tells the story of Senua, a Celtic warrior who descends into Viking Hell to bargain for the soul of her dead lover Dillion. The journey is fraught with challenges, from fighting truly terrifying incarnations of Viking raiders, to the low growls and rumbles of Norse gods taunting Senua every step of the way, to the very voices in Senua’s head that torment her (and the player) endlessly.
Ninja Theory, developer of the game, spared no effort in ensuring that the game depicted Senua’s audial and visual hallucinations in an accurate manner. They consulted with certified mental health professionals, including psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as people who have actually suffered from psychosis, to ensure the depiction is accurate and honors the true nature of what it means to endure the condition. It pays off in spades, and upon finishing the game, I was awed not just by everything I had seen and experienced, but I came away with a true sense of awareness and empathy for people who endure similar battles with their own mind on a daily basis. It’s not an easy game to play by any means, but it is absolutely worthwhile.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Unlike the rest of the entries thus far, Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch is not an outright tale or depiction of mental health or an associated illness. Instead, it is the story of a family fractured by their history and the belief in a curse that may or may not actually be real.
In this relatively short but packed little game, players take on the role of 17-year-old Edith Finch, the last surviving member of her family as she returns to the family home following her mother’s death. As she explores the home, we learn about the lives of the various members of the Finch family, including their ultimate early demise. The stories are vibrant, earnest, often humorous, and always tragic. Their stories are told with reverence and often in their own voices.
The most impactful of these stories however, has to be that of Edith’s older brother Luis. Told from the perspective of Luis’ psychiatrist, his story of navigating intense clinical depression and the ensuing dissociative effects is heartbreaking and often very relatable. I won’t spoil it, but Luis’ story was the one that left me in tears, both because I deeply empathized with his pain and because I understood far too well exactly the experience he was describing. Even with bright and vibrant images and music, Luis’ story is anything but, and the contrasting themes at play in that story make it work surprisingly well.
Night in the Woods
A game that’s appeared on a few of my lists lately, and for good reason. Night in the Woods provides an accurate lens into the psyche of an under-supported 20 year old female suffering from an undiagnosed dissociative disorder in a small town stuck in its ways. And that’s just the surface level problem.
Released in 2017 by now defunct Infinite Fall, players take control of Mae Borowski, a college dropout who has just moved back home to Possum Springs and is doing everything imaginable to avoid having to confront the circumstances of leaving school. One of the defining characteristics of someone suffering a mental health crisis is avoidance, and what we see in Mae as she spends day after day sleeping in till the afternoon, running around with her friends, committing acts of vandalism and theft, is an inability to cope. By the time Mae is willing to come to terms with what is happening, her struggle to articulate her dissociative experiences and the way they have made her feel, is so relatable for anyone that has experienced it, and eye opening for anyone that hasn’t.
Mae isn’t the most likable character, and she does and says a lot of things that are infuriating as a player. But the game shines in its ability to depict the true depths of her disorder and allow for a greater level of empathy in the end, which is essential for driving awareness and change.