Video games are an increasingly powerful form of media when it comes to conveying big messages and starting important conversations.
After all, what better way is there to understand a certain perspective than to fully immerse yourself in an experience specifically designed to help you, the player, see the world in ways that you just might not in real life?
The fact is, if you’ve never struggled with anxiety or depression, you can’t ever know exactly how it feels to do battle with the demons in your own mind. Not that that should ever be grounds for complaint, of course.
Thankfully, in the past decade alone, video games have done an increasingly stellar job of representing mental health, showing people’s everyday struggles in a variety of thoughtful, moving, and powerful ways.
On the face of it, the brightly coloured pixel perfect platforming of indie darling Celeste doesn’t exactly look like a game that’s set on tackling issues like crippling anxiety, but appearances can be deceiving.
The true genius of Celeste is that its central message is baked into the actual gameplay itself. That message, at least to me, is that the only thing holding you back from overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle is your own self doubt.
Madeline, the game’s hero, decides it’d be a fine idea to climb a mountain. Something we’re told she’s never done before. The story is woven into a series of ultra punishing platforming challenges, and as Madeline ascends ever higher, her anxieties and panic attacks begin to manifest themselves in increasingly terrifying ways,
She eventually realises the way to overcome the voices in her head that tell her she can’t do something isn’t to try and suppress them outright, but to reason with them, acknowledge that they’re a part of her, and succeed in spite of them. It’s a genuinely inspiring message, conveyed with love and care.
Gris is a gorgeous platform adventure with a jaw dropping painterly aesthetic that combines swirling watercolours and hand drawn architecture. Beyond its immediate beauty, it’s a game that deals predominately with trauma, loss, and the many stages of grief.
After falling from the sky, from a safe and familiar form of reality, you’re forced to explore an initially drab and lifeless world that’s literally crumbling around you.
As you desperately attempt to restore colour and meaning to your surroundings, a terrifyingly large black mass – which first appears as a huge bird and later some kind of twisted eel – constantly threatens to pull you further into the darkness you’re so keen to avoid.
Gris’ predominately melancholic atmosphere is still punctuated by moments of beauty and wonder throughout though. Proof, I think, that even in the darkest of times, there’s light to be found.
HELLBLADE: SENUA’S SACRIFICE
When Ninja Theory set out to make Hellblade, they were keen to portray the terrifying realities of psychosis in the most accurate way possible. Where many AAA video games throw out half baked “hallucination” segments as standard these days, this indie game has a dark, genuine edge to it.
This is no doubt helped by the fact that Ninja Theory worked closely with neuroscientists and psychosis experts throughout development, and this commitment to respectfully portraying mental health shines throughout Hellblade.
You’ll play as Senua, a traumatised Celtic warrior on a quest to retrieve her love from the underworld. Constantly haunted by hallucinations and delusions, you begin to question what’s real, what’s not, and what was ever real in the first place. It’s a startlingly visceral examination of psychosis that’s sure to leave you speechless.
NIGHT IN THE WOODS
Unlike the other games we’ve just talked about, games that deal with fantastical scenarios and strange new worlds, Night In The Woods is a title that treats depression as a part of everyday life. A refreshing change of pace, not just for video games, but for all media.
Set in a world very similar to reality (apart from the fact it’s inhabited by talking animals and not humans) Night In The Woods follows Mae, a 20 year old cat who returns to her hometown after her mental health pushed her into dropping out of college.
Meanwhile, Mae’s friends are coping with abusive pasts, family relationships, and bipolar disorder. Night In The Woods never hits us over the head with its depiction of mental health.
Much of the adventure could have happened whether or not Mae struggled with depression. The fact is that she does, and we’re subtly shown how it can affect relationships, day to day life, and even the ability to get out of bed and start your day.
SPEC OPS: THE LINE
Spec Ops The Line isn’t your typical military shooter. Where pretty much every other game in the genre is content to throw you into an action packed storm of bullets with soldiers that can apparently take down the enemy single handed, Spec Ops The Line is a game that deals with the traumas of war – both those you’ve suffered yourself, and those you’ve inflicted on others.
This is a game that dares to get you to stick around after the bombs have fallen. One level famously plays out as an homage to Modern Warfare’s “Death from Above” level, before forcing you to walk through the hell you’ve just created.
It was at the time, and still is, a divisive game – but it’s one that dared to do something different in a genre that never before really thought to show just how much taking lives can damage a person’s mental health, regardless of whether it was self defence, or just following orders.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58, and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.